The Miracle of Life: A look at protein.

Ten years ago, when I decided to end my relationship with meat, concerned loved ones bombarded me on my protein sources. That first year, I decided to avoid all animal products as I adjusted to the new diet. I managed this quite successfully — except clamato juice, turns out it's made of clams. Not sure what I thought it was but you can imagine my dismay upon finding out mid-caesar.

I had sub-clauses & escape routes in place that first year such as, turkey dinner at Christmas would forever be permitted. Two bites in & I knew poultry wouldn't be missed. I've never looked back. 

Back to the concerned citizens. Vegetarianism wasn't unheard of at the time but it wasn't particularly common & I really didn't know what I was doing. Like many first-timers & newcomers, I didn't always try very hard & had a tendency to eat a lot of refined carbs. This resulted in me occasionally getting drunk & devouring a rare steak. It happens. 

I recognized my body's needs & would never deprive myself so, if 3:00 am rolled around & I wanted to eat a steak, then by-golly, I'm clearly lacking iron & perhaps protein, so I'm going to eat it. My early-20s-self didn't know any better & that's ok. It was part of a long-term, sustainable journey. There weren't a ton of resources at the time & I wasn't super clear on where to look. Not to age myself, but while the internet existed, it wasn't at all what it is now. For example, Facebook didn't exist yet.

So, here I am today, 100% vegetarian, all the time, without so much as a curiosity towards meat & certainly no cravings. As an almost-vegan, I still have 'accidents' but I'm trying really hard. Again, I know this is part of that same long-term, sustainable journey. 

*this photo is not mine

*this photo is not mine

Back to protein. When someone quits animal products they still, to this day, have concerned members of society inquiring about their protein intake. To be perfectly clear, protein deficiency in the Western World is almost unheard of. We first started looking at animal products as a viable protein supply at the turn of the century when malnutrition was rampant & childhood underdevelopment was precedent. In today's climate, this is not the case. We are at far greater risk of being deficient in essential vitamins like the Bs or minerals like magnesium than we are of being short on protein. 

So what is protein? Well, it's life. It's the stuff we're made of. There are many different types all made up of these tiny miracles called amino acids. Amino acids have existed almost as long as the Earth. They're composed of a combination of methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide gases (the contents of our atmosphere) & just the right sparks doing just the right things. Each is different & serves its own purpose. To quote Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything, 

Proteins are what you get when you string amino acids together, and we need a lot of them. No one really knows, but there may be as many as a million types of protein in the human body, and each one is a little miracle. By all laws of probability proteins shouldn't exist. To make a protein you need to assemble amino acids (which I obliged by long tradition to refer to here as 'the building blocks of life') in a particular order, in much the same way that you assemble letters in a particular order to spell a word. The problem is that words in the amino acid alphabet are often exceedingly long. To spell collagen, the name of a common type of protein, you need to arrange eight letters in the right order. But to make collagen, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. But—and here's an obvious but crucial point—you don't make it. It makes itself, spontaneously, without direction, and this is where the unlikelihoods come in.

In other words, life is a total miracle.

"Though protein is the stuff of life, the body does not have stores of it as it does of carbohydrate or fat.", Rudolph Ballentine, M.D, Diet & Nutrition: A Holistic Approach (a great read!), which is why we need to restore our stores through food sources. Clearly it's important. Where people start to get confused & maybe a little obsessed, is when we introduce the concepts of complete & incomplete proteins. 

As discussed above, proteins are composed of various amino acids & there are many, many types. Some of these are considered essential to the human body. It was discovered that certain proteins, specifically that of legumes & grains, were missing some of these aminos while meat products generally had them all. Thus, the terms complete & incomplete proteins arose. This resulted in the idea that one was superior & would provide more fuel or better quality building blocks than the other & from here, meat madness stems. 

What's lost in all this is the beauty of combining plant sources to create complete proteins. Food pairing it's called. I remember until very recently feeling very intimidated by this idea. Until recently I really just went for it & hoped for the best, so when I finally grasped an understanding of how to pairing works, I was pretty astounded by how simple it really is.

*this image is not mine

*this image is not mine

Let's take a look.

Grains & legumes are both great protein sources but neither are considered 'complete'. Most of us actually consume far more protein than required. Even as a high performance athlete, you can meet your daily needs easily through plant sources alone.

The average person does well on about 50 grams of protein per day, or 1 gram of protein per 40 calories consumed—which on a 2000 calorie per day diet works out to 50 grams of protein. There are variations to these needs depending on lifestyle & life stage such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, & infancy but they are still easily attainable through plant sources. 

The beauty of grains & legumes is that both contain different sets of amino acids & we tend to eat them together. "Their amino acids are said to be complementary since what each lacks, the other supplies.", Ballentine. This is why cultures that consume little or no meat, such as Indian or Japanese, don't experience protein deficiencies. For example, rice & dhaal (lentil soup) or wheat & peas. 

Protein sourced in this way, gram for gram, burns very efficiently & quite clean since they are also low in fat. Combining these in the correct proportion is relatively easy. You can get technical with specific combinations but a good rule of thumb is 2:1 grain to legume. This ratio has shown to be very successful. To spell it out, you could eat half a cup of rice to a quarter cup of lentils & get the necessary amino acids to produce a complete protein.

Pretty simple & likely what you're already doing intuitively.