Vegan Health ArticlesProtein in the Vegan Diet
What about combining or complementing protein?
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From Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.

What about combining or complementing protein? Doesn't that make the protein issue much more complex? Let's look at a little background on the myth of complementing proteins. Protein is made up of amino acids, often described as its building blocks. We actually have a biological requirement for amino acids, not for protein. Humans cannot make nine of the twenty common amino acids, so these amino acids are considered to be essential. In other words, we must get these amino acids from our diets. We need all nine of these amino acids for our body to make protein.

Eggs, cow's milk, meat, and fish have been designated as high quality protein (1). This means that they have large amounts of all the essential amino acids. Soybeans, quinoa (a grain), and spinach also are considered high quality protein. Other protein sources of non-animal origin usually have all of the essential amino acids, but the amounts of one or two of these amino acids may be low. For example, grains are lower in lysine (an essential amino acid) and legumes are lower in methionine (another essential amino acid) than those protein sources designated as high quality protein.

Frances Moore Lappe, in her book Diet for a Small Planet (7) advocated the combining of a food low in one amino acid with another food containing large amounts of that amino acid. This got to be a very complicated process, with each meal having specific amounts of certain foods in order to be certain of getting a favorable amino acid mix. Many people got discouraged with the complexity of this approach. Actually, Lappe was being overly conservative to avoid criticism from the "Nutrition Establishment." She has since repudiated strict protein combining, saying "In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually it is much easier than I thought" (8).

We recommend eating a variety of unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, so that if one food is low in a particular essential amino acid, another food will make up this deficit (9,10).

Even if you ate only one food and not the variety of foods typical of a vegan diet, you would probably get enough protein and essential amino acids (11). Remember, almost all protein sources of non-animal origin contain all of the essential amino acids. You would have to eat a lot of the protein source (if there was only one source of protein in your diet) to meet essential amino acid needs. Table 4 (page 147) shows the amounts of various foods an adult male would have to eat if he relied on a single food source for his protein needs. Females would need about 20 percent less of each food due to the lower protein recommendation for women.

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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.