The “incomplete truth” about vegan protein

Proteins play a key role for human health, but a debate about which source is better always comes up: vegan or animal protein. Many people believe that only animal products contain all essential amino acids and they devalue plant proteins. They also argue that vegan is an incomplete protein. However, their thoughts may be far from reality. They consider the animal source superior to the plant protein too. But again, the facts may tell a different story.

Why does the vegan protein receive such bad press? Many factors contribute to undermine the plant protein, but where does the misleading exactly start? Plant foods usually lack one or more of essential amino acids or they are extremely low in some of them. And for that reason, this source of protein goes under the incomplete protein category. It seemed as enough evidence for the myth against the vegan protein to be born! However, it shouldn’t deprive anyone of getting enough of essential amino acids from a vegan source. The key to avoid any shortage: include a great variety of plant foods in the diet. Does it make a bit more sense now? Probably yes.

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A meal providing animal and vegan protein. Image by RitaE from pixabay

On the other side, the animal protein is referred as high quality/complete protein just because it provides a decent amount of all essential amino acids. In other words, just a serving of chicken breast is enough to meet your daily protein needs, as it contains all essential amino acids. Thus, cucumbers fall in a different league because they lack some of these essential amino acids.

So, in order to enrich a plant base diet with all essential amino acids, it is necessary to bring to the plate two or three vegan foods. For example, some lettuce, cucumbers, grains and some nuts. The myth is over! It may require a few more minutes to prepare a “complete vegan meal”, but at least it would include all essentials. For this reason, vegetarians and vegans need to be aware of this “possible deficiency”.


Protein powders and amino acids

A similar story repeats with protein powders. Most people believe that whey protein contains a higher profile than vegan options due to the lack of amino acids. However, in most cases, vegan proteins are just slightly lower on some of them. The following comparison between whey and vegan proteins shows that both options seem not to be far apart, they are not so different. On the right, amino acids profile for whey protein per 100g from a well-known brand MaxiMuscle. On the left, vegan protein profile per 100g from a Nuzest brand. Pictures focus only on typical BCAA value, most popular amino acids ( leucine, isoleucine and valine) for people into sport and fitness.

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BCAA comparison between vegan (left) and whey (right) protein

Bricks = amino acids

Most people have heard that protein is made up of amino acids like a wall is built with bricks. The human body needs 20 different amino acids to perform its daily tasks and to build protein in the body. There are two ways to get them: the body makes them or it receives them from food. If the body can manufacture their own amino acids, those are considered non-essential. However, if it comes from a diet, they are classified as essentials. Unfortunately, humans can’t produce all of them, exactly 9 which are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. The rest, non-essential, are: alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

Another conflicting point about protein is about where there is more of it. From vegan or animal sources? Which one has more protein, oatmeal, ham or tomato? According to Dr. Joel Huhrman, M.D in his book Eat to Live, “the answer is that they all have about the same amount of protein per calorie. The difference is, the tomato and the oatmeal are packaged with fibre and many antioxidants nutrients, and the ham is packaged with cholesterol and saturated fat”.

Either way, if you consider yourself a meat eater, vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, pro vegan protein or pro animal protein, among others, you know now that a healthy diet shouldn’t lack any of essentials amino acids. As the last note, consider that there aren’t incomplete proteins, it is just about the incomplete unhealthy diets.

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