Sunday, 21 December 2008

'Where do you get your...protein?'

'Where do you get your protein?' must be the question most commonly asked of those on a raw vegan/vegetarian diet (closely followed by 'Where do you get your calcium?' and 'Isn't it boring?').

I know many of you will know the answers to this one, but, for those new to raw, and equally, for those of you who have been raw for so long that you have little interest now in discussing where you get your protein because it's obvious you're getting it from somewhere but still find yourself having to field these questions occasionally, here's a reasonably potted explanation that might help with your Christmas visiting this year. The article finishes with some shorter answers for those of you who don't want to read the whole of the article and/or just want something that will (hopefully) deflect further enquiry and allow you to talk about something other than food when socialising!

Please note the discussion here is somewhat simplified, firstly because I'm not a boff, and secondly because it could be counter-productive to attempt to dazzle your friends with the names of the 22 amino-acids or the complexities of the chemistry. I know I tend to switch off when I see words like 'leucine, methionine and phenylalanine' - your friends probably will to. And, remember, they will be low on energy over the Christmas period from colds, coughs and the general taxing of their bodies from excesses of alcohol, high-fat foods, refined sugar, digestively incompatible foods etc, so...go easy on them.

Background info first:

What is protein?

Our bodies make it to

  • build
  • repair

(Protein will only be used for energy if carbohydrate intake is insufficient. So, as long as sufficient carbohydrates are consumed in the form of fruit, pulses, grains etc, protein is not needed for energy.)

What do we make protein from? From amino-acids, which are present within proteins in the foods we consume. But these cannot be absorbed directly because they're joined together in chains called 'peptide linkages'. A single protein will contain hundreds of such linkages. Our bodies use digestive enzymes to break down the proteins into peptides and amino-acids, and then rebuild them into proteins we can use.

Chains of plant proteins are shorter than those of animal proteins and some claim this means the body will use less energy in breaking them down. Also, certain plant foods, such as fruit, have a proportion of amino acids in 'free' form (these increase during ripening). And plant proteins are easier on the digestion than animal proteins - for example, the body needs to make less acid, and certainly raw plant proteins are a lot easier to break down into their aminos than cooked animal proteins (more on this later).

There are 22 amino acids (or, rather, 22 that scientists have discovered to date). 14 of these the body can (normally) make itself. Eight of them (or nine, or ten, depending on your source) we must ingest through our food, and these eight we call the 'essential amino-acids.' (Although, for a critique of the study that led to these conclusions, see here.)

In which foods can we find the amino-acids that our bodies use to make protein?

All foods contain amino-acids from which our bodies can make protein.

And we can obtain our amino-acids from the same places that strong animals such as the horse, elephant, ox and gorilla get them - from plant foods.

Which plant foods contain all eight 'essential' amino-acids'?

Lots! Examples: dates, bananas, carrots, greens, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes (to name but a few). And certain plant foods are particularly high in proteins that contain the eight essential amino-acids; these are known as 'concentrated protein' foods. Examples: nuts, seeds, pulses, grains.

However, we really don't need to worry whether a food contains the full set of eight, because of the way our bodies deal with the amino-acids.

When we eat a food, our bodies break down the protein it contains into its constituent amino-acids, however many there are. Amino-acids not needed immediately go into our amino-acid 'pool'. The body dips into this as required, the pool being fed both by the food we eat and also protein that the body has recycled (we recycle 75% of protein).

Harvey Diamond ('Fit for Life'): 'From the digestion of foods in the diet and from the recycling of proteinaceous waste, the body has all the different amino-acids circulating in the blood and lymph systems. When the body needs amino acids, they are appropriated from the blood or lymph. This continuous circulating available supply of amino acids is known as the amino acid pool. The amino acid pool is like a bank that is open 24 hours. The liver and cells are continually making deposits and withdrawals of amino-acids, depending upon the concentration of amino-acids in the blood.'

As long as we eat a variety of foods over time, we'll be fine. This is because foods vary in the amino-acids they contain, and the amount of them. And this happens even within one food group. Victoria Boutenko ('Green for Life'): 'I have looked at the nutritional content of dozens of green vegetables and was pleased to see that the aminos that were low in one plant were high in another. In other words, if we maintain a variety of greens in our diet we will get all the essential amino acids.'

And do we need to fuss about having 'a variety of foods' in a meal, within a day, or even in a week? No. If we eat different foods over a season, or even over a year, we should receive the amino-acids our bodies need.

BUT the full complement of those amino-acids will only be available to our bodies if the food is consumed RAW.

Cooking, even for just a few minutes at a relatively low temperature, damages amino-acids. They are 'denatured', and they 'fuse together', meaning that our bodies can't break them apart to make protein for our own needs.

Is meat the 'best' source of protein?

Certain cuts of meat may contain a set of essential amino-acids, in proportions closer to the proteins our bodies make than any single plant food, and that of course is because those mammals have constructed proteins for themselves from the plant foods they have eaten. BUT, our bodies will deconstruct that protein into its constituent amino-acids, so whether they were in a set in the first place is immaterial - the separate amino-acids will simply go into the pool as would those from plant foods. And, of course, as the meat will have been cooked, the body will have problems deconstructing the proteins and will therefore not be able to assimilate all the amino-acids anyway.

I'm not going to dwell on meat here, as not many of you will need me to list the hundreds of reasons why we shouldn't be eating meat, but suffice to say that raw plant sources are a far healthier and easier way for our bodies to obtain, and, most importantly, assimilate, amino-acids for making proteins.

How much protein do we need?

No one knows how much protein you, as an individual, need to consume at this precise point in your life. What scientists have come up with over the years is figures based on what they believe the average person needs.

And what's interesting is that the recommended daily protein figure has been revised downwards several times since it was first set.

'Learning materials' on protein were first distributed in the 1930s and were provided by...the meat, dairy and egg industries. Our grandparents were indoctrinated in the idea that we must eat animal products to obtain sufficient protein and at one stage the US Govt RDA was 118 grams!

In the 80s the RDA fell to 46-56g and many now feel 20-30g a day is adequate (or about 1 gram per five pounds of body weight). (In fact, even in the 60s some were recommending 20-30g, eg Hegsted DM Minimum Protein requirements of adults American Journal Clinical Nutrition May 68). In the UK, the figure is still around 50g and is much higher than the World Health Organisation recommendation of 30g.

So - what the 'experts' said 80 years ago regarding protein wasn't actually correct. Small comfort for those brought up to eat T-bone steaks for 'strength' suffering from bowel cancer now. Or for those with clogged arteries due to high intake of meat fat, dairy and eggs. In fact, more illnesses are due to an excess of (animal) protein in the form of meat and dairy than to any 'shortfall'.
So, from 118g a day, we're now down to...20-30g? And bear in mind these recommendations are for the average person.

Do athletes need high amounts of protein?

For strength? Not according to the Journal of American Medical Association's Dept of Foods and Nutrition (1978): 'The ingestion of protein supplements by athletes who eat an otherwise well-balanced diet is of no use in body-building programs. Athletes need the same amount of protein foods as non-athletes. Protein does not increase strength. Indeed, it often takes greater energy to digest and metabolise the excess of protein. In addition, excess protein in the athlete can induce dehydration, loss of appetite and diarrhoea.'

For energy? Not according to Harvey Diamond ('Fit for Life'): 'If more physical activity is anticipated, it is necessary only to increase your carbohydrate intake to ensure more fuel. Proteins are disastrous in fuel efficiency and do not aid directly or efficiently in muscular activity. Protein does not produce energy, it uses it! A lion, which eats exclusively flesh, sleeps 20 hours a day. An orangutan, which eats exclusively plants, sleeps six.'

(There are plenty of athletes who are living testimonies to the raw plant food diet. For example, visit to see photo's of the bodybuilder Storm, who has not eaten animal products of any kind in over 30 years and only consumes raw plant foods. Or visit the website of Dr Doug Graham (, who coaches athletes, and advocates a 100% raw diet comprising mostly fruit and leaves.)

And, for anyone reading (or anyone you know) who nevertheless still has a fear that they might become puny and weak on a raw plant foods diet, check out these videos:

Kung Fu Training here. (Raw vegetarian - mostly plant food).

Body Building here. (Chris Califano - Raw vegan)

Feats of Physical Fitness here. 'Richard Blackman - Raw vegan, fruit only).

Do raw fooders need as much protein as the average person?

Even if around 30g a day (or less) is now the fashionable figure for daily requirement, do those on a diet of raw plant foods need even that much?

Remember, protein is for building and repair. That 'average' person will be consuming all sorts of harmful things (eg alcohol, caffeine, other drugs), not to mention foods where amino-acids will be damaged by cooking, vitamins damaged/destroyed, toxins created etc. Someone who is poisoning their body daily will certainly need to make lots of protein for 'repair'.
Raw fooders are not average, generally ingesting far fewer harmful substances than the average (if any), which would logically mean less repair needed, thus less need for protein.

Also, a gram of protein from raw food will be more easily assimilated by the body than a gram of denatured protein from cooked food so, again, the actual requirement for a raw fooder should be less than that for a cooked-food eater.

And many raw foodists claim that raw food, with its enzymes intact, reduces demands on the body's own digestive enzymes, thus reducing the need for protein.

So, that 30g a day requirement should, logically, be significantly reduced for a healthy raw fooder, and if some nutritionists are saying '20-30g' a day then surely the raw fooder's needs must be at the lower end of that scale.

And when we consider that just one piece of fruit contains 1-2g of protein, just three walnuts contains 4g, a cup of greens 3-4g, just one quarter-cup of sunflower seeds 6g, let alone a cup of nuts at 15g, or a cup of (sprouted) pulses at 30g+, we can see that a day's food can easily supply protein requirements and that there is no need to concern ourselves with whether we're 'getting enough'.

Have raw fooders, or even cooked-food vegans, been found to be protein-deficient?

Have you ever heard of anyone in the well-fed Western world suffering from 'protein deficiency'? I haven't. And Harvey Diamond ('Fit for Life') hadn't in 15 years of practice either. Vegetarians, and vegans have not in general been found to be 'protein-deficient'.

As John Robbins asks in 'Diet for a New America', 'Could it be that the whole issue of 'getting enough protein' is actually just a figment of our collective imagination, with nothing behind it except for the propaganda of the meat, dairy and egg industries?'


Some raw fooders are told by their doctors that they are 'low' on protein. It's worth finding out exactly what the tests are measuring and then discussing them with other raw fooders and raw-vegan-friendly nutritionists.

For example, some tests measure albumin (a protein) in the urine. Now, those who consume a lot of protein (which is far too much protein) will have lots of albumin in their urine, as the body will desperately be trying to eliminate it. So we might expect someone who is having just the right amount of protein for their body's needs to have a much lower reading than the average for albumin. Similarly, urea is waste produced when the body metabolises protein. And, sure, raw vegans could be expected to have a lower reading than the average for this.

Natural Hygienist Nora Lenz: 'Wouldn't you expect people who eat according to doctors' recommendations [conventional cooked omnivorous diet] to have lots of indigestible substances, including perhaps the proteins your doctor says you're 'deficient' in, floating around in their blood? Do you really think the absence of these in your bloodstream is cause for alarm? If you do, then you'll have to eat steak for dinner tonight. If not, you'll have to face the fact that your doctor is incorrect in her assessments.'


'Where do you get your protein?' - A selection of short answers

So, with your salad, Alissa Cohen calzone, or pile of persimmons in front of you whilst the rest of the table tuck into the Christmas Dinner corpse, what do you say when asked that question? If you don't want to discuss the subject at length, you could try one of these replies:

'All the food I eat contains amino-acids which my body uses to make protein. Luckily, the amino-acids in my raw food haven't been damaged by heat, so my body can make use of them.'

'I eat plenty of foods that contain the eight essential amino-acids, such as tomatoes, bananas and green leaves. I also eat foods that contain particularly high concentrations of them, such as nuts, seeds and pulses. So I don't go short on protein!'

'I get my protein from the same places that the ox, the gorilla, the horse and the elephant get them from - plant foods.'

'Protein is for growth and repair. Although I do get plenty of protein, the great news is that, as a raw fooder living a healthy lifestyle, my body needs to repair less, so I need less protein than the average person.'

'Scientists now say we need a fraction of the protein that they were telling our grandparents they needed. When so much illness nowadays is caused by an excess of protein (namely animal protein) I'm happy to keep mine to to a safe level, and have it from plant foods.'

If all else fails, ask them if you look as if you're suffering from protein deficiency (and I'll leave you to cope with the answers to that one...).


lusmila.mccoll said...

goodness, deb....i cannot tell you hOW many times people say to me "but you NEED to have Protein! you NEED to eat SOME kind of meat!"
and i would NEVER know what to say. I usually just say "i am fine with the way i eat. my body is healthy".
love some of your suggested phrases.
THANKS for this...and if you do not blog for the holiday....hAPPY CHRISTMAS to you!

Debbie Took said...

Well, I must admit that part of the motivation for writing the article was to prepare myself for the inevitable questions...they do get tiring after a while, don't they? So it's good to have some 'quick answers'! And, at least with one of those, we can plant a seed, ie perhaps get people thinking...