Here are some fre­quent­ly asked ques­tions about pro­tein and veg­an nutri­tion.

What is protein?

Pro­teins are big mol­e­cules that are made up of chains of small­er mol­e­cules called amino acids. When you digest a pro­tein, you break it down into the indi­vid­ual amino acids. When your cells make new pro­tein, they put those amino acids back togeth­er, in a new order.

Which plant-based foods contain protein?

All liv­ing cells con­tain pro­tein. As a result, all unre­fined plant foods con­tain pro­tein. Some refined foods of plant ori­gin con­tain lit­tle or no pro­tein. Exam­ples include sug­ar and olive oil.

Do I need to worry about getting enough protein?

Human beings grow remark­ably slow­ly. For that rea­son, our pro­tein needs are remark­ably small. Any prac­ti­cal diet based on ordi­nary plant-based foods would pro­vide enough pro­tein to meet nor­mal human pro­tein require­ments, as long as the per­son is eat­ing enough food to get enough calo­ries. As Sir William Mad­dock Bayliss put it, if you take care of the calo­ries, the pro­tein takes care of itself.

Do I need to combine beans with grains to get a complete protein?

No. There is no need to com­bine dif­fer­ent kinds of food in order the com­ple­ment the pro­teins. We have known since the 1950s that ordi­nary sta­ple foods, such as pota­toes and rice, con­tain more than enough pro­tein to meet human nutri­tion­al needs. This idea that you need to com­bine dif­fer­ent kinds of food to get a bal­anced pro­tein source came from stud­ies of rats and pigs. Rats and pigs grow so fast that some feeds, such as corn, might not pro­vide enough of all of the amino acids to allow them to grow as fast as pos­si­ble. Since human beings grow much more slow­ly, the bal­ance of amino acids in our food does not lim­it our growth.

Are vegans at risk for nutrient deficiencies?

Plants con­tain all but two of the nutri­ents that are essen­tial in human nutri­tion. The two excep­tions are vit­a­min D (the sun­shine vit­a­min) and vit­a­min B12 (which is made by bac­te­ria). A vit­a­min B12 sup­ple­ment is the only sup­ple­ment that is rou­tine­ly rec­om­mend­ed for peo­ple who eat a pure­ly plant-based diet. Of course, some peo­ple, such as peo­ple with cys­tic fibro­sis, have prob­lems with absorb­ing nutri­ents from their food. If you have a diges­tive or meta­bol­ic dis­or­der, you should ask a reg­is­tered dietit­ian for dietary advice.

Are vegan babies at risk of malnutrition?

Babies that are being neglect­ed are at risk for mal­nu­tri­tion. Babies thrive on breast milk from a healthy, well-fed veg­an moth­er. Women who are preg­nant or nurs­ing should ask a reg­is­tered dietit­ian for dietary advice.
Pho­to by Skley