It is the ubiquitous vegan question… where do you get your protein? And, even if you’ve been vegan for years and have been comfortable (as you should) with your protein intake on a whole-foods vegan diet, once you have children the stakes are different.
Now, you are making the decision for another human being that as an infant is completely vulnerable and dependent. No matter how much you may have rolled your eyes at folks asking that question, now you are asking it yourself – but for your ‘wee-gan’. Can babies, toddlers, and growing children get sufficient and quality protein on a plant-powered diet?
The short answer is “yes”. But, let’s start with why protein seems such an issue. We have been trained from the very beginning that we need meat (and even dairy) for protein. Only in recent years have we begun to break ground with larger awareness that not only is a whole-foods vegan diet safe… but that it very well might be the healthiest diet you can choose. Still, those “hanker for a hunk of cheese“, and other “real men eat meat” messages can be hard to dismiss. And, even harder when raising a family and meeting with doctors and pediatricians that have very little nutritional training yet will question your well-planned and researched dietary choices.
Some of our belief systems surrounding protein and children include “the best source of protein is meat”, “growing children need a lot of protein”, “the more protein the better”, that “meeting protein needs Is difficult because you have to combine proteins at meals”, and “there isn’t enough protein in plant foods”. Let’s address those ideas:
The Best Source of Protein is Meat
My friend Julieanna Hever once posted on facebook “protein is a macronutrient, not a food group“. In other words, protein is obtained through a variety of foods, no different than carbohydrates and fats. When you eat a variety of plant-powered foods, you easily obtain your protein needs from those different foods. Have a look at this chart. You can see that we can draw on protein from different plant sources. It’s not like we have to “figure out” which foods we must eat regularly to get protein. Sure, there are some higher protein foods like beans and greens, but if you are tapping in the variety of plant foods, this macronutrient finds its way to YOU.
Our culture has come to define protein as a food group, which has been detrimental to our collective health, as animal proteins are linked to a host of chronic and degenerative health conditions. Read more about the problems with animal protein in this PCRM article.
Growing Children Need More Protein
Growing children need protein, yes. But they also need fibre, quality carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants! Here are the protein requirements by age group for children (excerpted from The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Plant-Based Nutrition):
Ages 1 to 3 years: 1.05 g/kg/day
Ages 4 to 13 years: .95 g/kg/day
Ages 14 to 18 years: .85 g/kg/day
If you’re like me, you look at that bewildered. How does that translate into practical everyday protein consumption for our children? Well, another way of stating it is that (generally) babies need about 10g per day, toddlers need about 13g per day, young school age kids need about 19-34g per day, and teens need about 34-50g per day.
The More Protein The Better
No. More protein is not always better. In fact, excess animal protein is quite dangerous. As many of us know, most people eat 2-3x’s the protein than they need. With protein, more is not always better. Particularly where animal protein is concerned, as it is directly related to chronic diseases. (If you haven’t read The China Study, please do so.) As Julieanna explained in this article:
“…just because something is critical doesn’t mean that more is better. In fact, when it comes to protein, consuming an excess of what we need may promote disease. … Excess protein taxes the kidneys, contributes to gout, and is associated with an increased risk for many chronic diseases.”
Remember that your plant-based proteins come packaged with fibre, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals – whereas animal proteins are packaged with saturated fats, cholesterol, and contaminants. Jack Norris, R.D. talks about protein (and other vegan nutritional issues) in this interview on Healthy Eating Starts Here. He says “it is possible not to get enough protein, but it’s very unlikely… I mean you kind of have to go out of your way to do it…”
Meeting Protein Needs Is Difficult Because You Have To Combine Proteins At Meals
Ah, the old “protein-combining trick” (I just channelled Maxwell Smart, how I loved that show.) As many of us vegans know, the theory of protein combining has been dispelled, and is widely recognized as outdated and unnecessary. As Julieanna explains in the same VegNews article:
“When you consume any protein, it is broken down via digestion into its separate amino acid constituents and is pooled in the blood for further use. When the body needs to construct a protein for an enzyme or to repair muscles tissue, it collects the necessary amino acids and strings them back together in the sequence appropriate for what it is currently creating. This occurs regardless whether you consume animal or plant protein. If you eat a variety of whole plants, you will easily attain all of the essential amino acids necessary to sustain proper metabolism and to thrive.”
There Isn’t Enough Protein in Plants
Well, that’s just an excuse. Why do we find it hard to believe that we can get enough protein from the abundance of plant-foods available to us in modern society (ex: hemp seeds, beans, lentils, kale, quinoa, nut butters, avocados, and more) when non-human herbivores do just fine getting protein from probably one or two plant sources? We are spoiled in many ways, we have it easy – our plant protein choices are abundant! Here is a chart to show you just how spoiled we are:
At first glance you may be confused because the amounts are in percentages rather than grams. As Julieanna explains in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant Based Nutrition: “According to the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein in 10 to 35% of total calories. However, if you look at the data from The China Studay and The World Health Organization’s Food and Agricultural Organizations, we actually need only 5 or 6 percent of our total calories from protein to replace what we lose every day. … it’s best to maintain protein consumption at approximately 10 percent of calories.”
You don’t need to dissect this chart, calculating your total protein percentage intake per day, or the grams consumed in a given day (though I know many parents will want to, and I’ll get to that). But, as Julieanna explains in her book… “Following a whole-food plant-based diet automatically gives you perfect amounts of protein, carbs, and fat. As long as you consume a variety of foods, you don’t need to worry about calculating, weighing, measuring, or counting.”
*Thank heavens*! There is the beauty of a whole foods vegan diet. We are eating a large proportion of unprocessed and minimally processed foods. Nature has it figured out for us in many ways. The protein is abundant in whole foods – and in the amounts that are optimal for our bodies.
So, getting back to calculating. Because I know it is not sufficient to tell you that you don’t need to calculate – many of you parents will want to see examples of a typical day of meals and snacks for a vegan kiddos and how the protein adds up.
I’ll use our (almost) eight-year old as an example. Here is what she might eat in a day:
Breakfast: Whole-grain waffle (2-4 g protein) with 1 tbsp of nut butter (roughly 2g protein) and mandarin orange
Snack: Whole-grain muffin (3-4 g protein, variable)
Lunch: 1/2 cup of hummus (she usually eats more!) (5-7 grams protein) and two slices whole-grain bread (8-12 grams protein). Sliced zucchini, carrot sticks, 2-3 dates.
Snack: banana (1.5g protein) with 1/2 tbsp peanut butter (1.5g protein); a slice watermelon or 1 pear
Dinner: 1 cup cooked whole-grain pasta (4-8g protein), with 2 tbsp ‘cheesy sprinkle’ (8+ grams protein), 1 avocado, mashed (4g protein), side veggies (broiled green beans, spinach, cukes).
Even without accounting for the fruits and veggies, the protein count here is 39 – 53 grams. (And, even factoring for any minor miscalculations or variations in brands/recipes, this is still easily within the RDA of 19-34g.) Each day is different, so some days our daughters might have more fruits and veg, and less bread but more beans. I haven’t even included non-dairy milks (as our older girls don’t drink them much, but our toddler does). And, our girls regularly eat foods like oatmeal, brown rice, bean soups, bean dips, chia pudding, potatoes, and larabars (3-6g protein) or homemade snacks including hemp seeds, whole oats, seed butters, etc. Even potatoes have protein – and they love their spuds!
Notice I haven’t even mentioned tofu, tempeh, or soy milks here? Of course, people think vegans eat soy products all the time to meet protein needs! We don’t, but they do offer a good amount of protein, as you can see here:
And, if your children are eating their veg and dark greens, they are getting good sources of protein. Have a look at this:
Have I eased your concerns at all about protein? I hope so. And, if you need some another meal-plant reference, here are some sample meals and menu plans from PCRM. I also recommend that you pick up copies of Becoming Vegan and The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Plant-Based Nutrition.
Finally, how about some ‘higher-protein’ kid-friendly snack recipes? Here are just a few!
Cheesy Sprinkle (try on popcorn, pasta, salads, veggies, grains, in wraps, on top of pizzas, on-a-spoon!)
Nori Seed Crackers (just omit cayenne for kiddos)
So, next time you are asked “but where will your children (or you) get protein”… you are armed with answers!
Please add to my protein and nutrient-rich snack recipes. Include a link to any snack recipes that are hits with your plant-powered kiddos! And, has this information helped you feel more comfortable about protein for you and your vegan children?