A vegan or vegetarian diet can keep you healthy – just don’t forget the amino acids

Apr 19, 2018

As a member of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, I’m privileged to have as colleagues some of the most accomplished Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs).

Our guest columnist this week is an expert dietitian/nutritionist who is… “on a mission to serve the breast cancer community through education and inspiration to “Bite back” with nutrition, “Move back” with fitness, and “Strike back” with health-supportive lifestyle strategies – especially at the time of diagnosis.”

Cathy Leman, MS, RD, LD

Cathy Leman is a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist, certified personal trainer, blogger, speaker, and founder of “DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer,” ™ a nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle resource for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer who want to build physical resilience to better tolerate treatment. Visit the website here.

Cathy earned her bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and holds a master’s degree in health psychology from National Louis University. Cathy is also certified as a personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Everybody Into the (Amino Acid) Pool! 

By Cathy Leman

I recently had a conversation with a gentleman who shared that his son eats a 100% vegan diet. That’s 100% to the tune of avoiding even honey.

Dad commented that his son has been eating this way for four years, and as far as dad can tell, “He looks alright, like he’s getting enough protein. I think he has to combine, right?”

I’m not sure what dad is expecting to see as an indicator of “not getting enough protein” (the old nutrition dogma that simply refuses to die); sunken cheeks, off-color pallor, muscle atrophy?

Yet I also understand his concern. How one could possibly get enough protein when eating nothing but plants has been the subject of debate, the butt of jokes, and a myth that refuses to be busted for years, largely due to a lack of understanding about how the body uses protein from non-animal-based sources.

And who could expect the average person to understand? In our western culture and dietary practices, meat still reigns supreme – irrespective of the fact that plant-based eating is gaining a mainstream foothold.

So, given that plant-based diets are becoming more common (you may even live with or know a plants-only-eater), and having migrated to a (mostly) vegan diet myself just under two years ago, I’m writing this post in support of putting more plants on your plate, and putting your mind at ease.

Here’s vegan/vegetarian protein guidance distilled down to two main points. Even if you know nothing else about avoiding meat, but you want to give it a try – these will help clear things up.

What’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian?

Vegetarian – Diet may include dairy and/or eggs. Vegetarian diets that include these animal-based choices provide adequate protein and all essential amino acids.

Lacto-vegetarians exclude meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, yet include dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, butter).

Ovo-vegetarians exclude meat, fish, poultry, and dairy, yet include eggs.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude meat, fish, and poultry, yet include  dairy and eggs.

Vegan – Diet contains no animal products (i.e. dairy, meat, fish, pork, poultry, or eggs). Vegan diets require attention to balance, variety, and portions (to ensure adequate protein intake).

How do I get adequate protein intake?

Proteins in food and the human body are composed of 20 amino acids. Humans can “build” eleven of these as long as we get sufficient nitrogen from our diets (nitrogen is a component of every amino acid).

The other nine (the “essential” amino acids – EAA) have to come from our food because we can’t make them. Our need for protein is actually a need for these nine essential amino acids, plus enough nitrogen to build the other eleven.

All plant proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids – they aren’t missing any – yet they are always a little low in one or two. This results in a less precise match to human protein needs, which is how the practice of “protein combining” or eating “complementary proteins” at the same meal came about, ala Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 vegetarian classic, “Diet for a Small Planet”. (FYI, the photo is my own copy of “Diet for a Small Planet” purchased for $5.72 in 1995 at Crown Books – remember that bookstore?!)

For example, grains and beans have complementary strengths and weaknesses in their EAA patterns; eating them together produces a complete amino acid pattern that mimics patterns found in human body proteins. I’m pretty sure you’ve eaten beans and rice, hummus and pita, or bean soup and bread; common, delicious dishes that all happen to be vegan, as well as being exceptional examples of effortless protein combining.

Even without eating these foods at the same meal, your body essentially does its own “complementing”, thanks to the fact that it maintains a reserve pool of amino acids to draw from when necessary. It’s this ability to use proteins consumed at different meals and snacks throughout the day that renders protein combining an outdated idea.

The best way to get enough plant-based protein? Eat a varied and balanced diet, adequate in volume for your specific needs, while avoiding the vegan/vegetarian “junk food diet” of veggie pizza, vegan cookies, and French fries.

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