Q&A: Can Vegans Get Enough Protein or Calcium?

Question:

Is it possible to get enough protein and calcium in a vegan diet? I know all whole plant food contains protein, but the question is are the quantities you’re eating enough to make a difference?

Answer:

As a vegan, I drink soy milk or almond milk rather than dairy milk. The soy milk that I drink has 37% of your RDI in calcium in one glass (see Vitasoy Original Soy Milk). This is roughly the same RDI as one glass of full fat dairy milk (30%). Almond milk also typically contains the same amount of calcium. The calcium in almond milk or soy milk typically comes from mineral salts such as calcium carbonate or calcium phosphate.

As for protein, according to the chart in the study below, vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores all get roughly the same amount of protein in their diets. In fact, omnivores get more protein from plants than from animal sources. This shows that there are no issues with getting protein from plant sources. Many people on many different diets already get enough protein. The Australian Government recommends 64 grams of protein per day for a man under 70.

dietary mean protein intakes by dietary pattern

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4081456/figure/F1/

A vegan can easily get enough protein in a day by eating beans. Dried beans are also cheaper than meat, which ensures you not only get enough protein but also helps you make more money.

Protein deficiency is very rare in developed countries. Protein is just one nutrient out of many more. It is strange that so many people are obsessive about protein when the human body needs more than protein. There are so many other vitamins and minerals we need. For example, we should not be too concerned about protein deficiency when 97% of Americans are deficient in potassium.

Dealing with Vegan Stigma

Having been a vegan for about a year, I’ve found that the diet itself is simple. There is a huge abundance of vegan products on the market nowadays. Not only is there vegan meat but also vegan cheese, vegan milk, vegan protein shakes, and even vegan yoghurt. To be a vegan, all you need to do is do exactly the same thing you are doing currently but veganize everything gradually. For example, replace all meat with vegan meat, replace dairy milk with almond milk or soy milk, replace dairy yoghurt with coconut yoghurt, replace dairy cheese with coconut cheese (e.g. Bio cheese is now available in Australian supermarkets), replace whey protein with pea protein, and replace multivitamins with vegan multivitamins.

Many people assume that vegans do not get any protein in their diet or that being vegan makes you nutrient deficient. In reality, if you simply eat whatever you normally eat but replace it with vegan substitutes, your nutrient intake will be roughly the same as what it was when you ate an omnivore diet. This is because vegan substitutes are usually designed to have the same nutrition profile as the animal product they replace. For example, most brands of soy milk have the same amount of calcium and protein as dairy milk. Of course, some vegan food will have more of some nutrients (e.g. coconut yoghurt has more saturated fat than dairy yoghurt) and some vegan food will have less of some nutrients (e.g. almond milk has less sugar, protein, fat, and calories compared to dairy milk and soy milk). Regardless, if you eat a wide variety of food, it should all balance out, and if you are very paranoid, you can simply take a vegan multivitamin (e.g. Deva Multivitamin and Mineral Supplement from iHerb).

Social stigma

The biggest difficulty with being vegan is the social stigma and discrimination from other people. This is something I have grappled with for a long time. If you tell people you are vegan, all of a sudden they come up with assumptions about you. They will assume you’re not getting enough protein or that you lack iron. Over time, I have discovered a way to deal with this. I simply don’t tell people that I am vegan or vegetarian. I simply tell people that I am an omnivore who doesn’t eat much meat because I don’t like the taste whereas I like the taste of meat replacements such as tofu and beans. Even though I tell people I don’t eat much meat, in reality I don’t eat any meat at all, so that makes me a liar.

I don’t eat out too much. It’s easy to eat vegan at home. I make my own vegan sandwich that I take to work. However, if I am eating out with others, I always order the vegetarian or vegan option, and when people see this they usually ask me if I am vegetarian. I simply say no. They will usually just be confused but then change the subject. This happens most of the time. However, some people will say something like, “If you’re not vegetarian, why are you eating the vegetarian dish?” The assumption behind this question is that omnivores must eat meat all the time. Obviously this is false. You can be an omnivore and eat meat, say, during dinner only. Technically, you can eat meat once every five years and still be an omnivore. You’d be 99.7% vegan, which still technically makes you an omnivore.

So how do I respond if someone asks me, “If you’re not vegetarian, why are you eating the vegetarian dish?” I just look at what is in the food, e.g. tofu or beans, and say something like, “I am eating this because I like tofu. I like the texture and the taste.” The bottom line is to be specific about the food, e.g. “I really enjoy this fried tofu. It is delicious. It is also healthy.”

When you choose to eat something because you like the taste, there’s no argument against it. If you eat tofu because you like tofu, there is no argument against that. If someone doesn’t like the taste of tofu, that is their subjective view.

A particular conversation will not necessarily be the same as the example above, but the bottom line is to not use labels. Be a vegan, order vegan food, but just don’t use labels. By doing this, people cannot use their preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, and it messes with their simplistic views of the world, which can annoy some people. It forces them to talk about the specifics and the detail, and you can use this as an opportunity to educate others on the scientific and factual basis behind the vegan diet.

Most people think in extremes. It’s black or it’s white. There are no grays. You are either vegan or not. The trick then is to act as if you are 99% vegan (and therefore not really a vegan but a flexitarian) but actually be 100% vegan. Practically speaking, being 99% vegan (and therefore an omnivore) versus 100% vegan makes no difference, but socially it means a lot.

Too often we apply labels to ourselves and to others and this often makes complex matters simplistic. When you’re out and about and socializing, it is different to being on the internet or if you are among good friends or family members who really understand you. On the internet, you can focus on one topic in depth and there is time to think, but when you’re out and about with people you don’t know that well (e.g. work colleagues), discussions are meant to be superficial and light. Conversations also tend to wander around. The topic changes all the time. Because these conversations are superficial, they are based on stereotypes and prejudice, and most people recognize that you’re not supposed to take these conversations seriously. Rather than fight it, go along with it, but stay vegan.

Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World

I’m spending less time with my dad nowadays. He seems to want to catch up with me every Saturday and Sunday, but if I see him every day on the weekends, I will never have time to do what I want to do. I have a dream of becoming a digital nomad one day, so I need to spend time over the weekend teaching myself new skills, such as how to code. (I am currently using a site called Codecademy to learn how to code.)

There is a lot of work that I need to do, so I have tried to cut down how much time I spend with my father. Over the last two weeks, my dad has invited me for lunch four times, and I have rejected two times, usually on a Saturday.

I had lunch with my father today. It’s tough being vegan in a non-vegan world. When you see animal slaughter videos, you realize how much hell the animals must go through, and I feel like I need to do everything I can to help these animals. The problem begins with people buying animal products. If people stop buying animal products, the animal exploitation industry would be starved of funds, and they would not have enough money to cause more harm to animals. However, most people just don’t care. I told my dad that there is no need to eat meat, but he just made excuses that vegan meat is too expensive, and if instead of eating meat he eats beans, it wouldn’t taste good. This disturbed me because the suffering of animals clearly doesn’t matter to him. Something as trivial as the taste of food can influence whether he decides to slaughter a cow. It bothered me so much.

Everyone is different, I suppose. People have different values. I can’t really blame my father. That’s just what he thinks. I remember meeting up with a vegan friend a few weeks ago who told me that it’s important that vegans do not isolate themselves from the world. Veganism needs to go mainstream if it is to be successful. But I find it so difficult to be around meat eaters. I have always been different to others. Now that I am vegan, I am even more different.

I’m not too sure what I should do in the future, but I see two options. One option involves retiring early, buying a place in the country, and retreating into the wilderness where I can be left in peace. I will be like a modern-day hermit. The other option is the opposite. Rather than retire early, I can continue to be integrated into society. I will continue to work, continue to be a consumer, and continue to try to make a difference to society from within. You cannot change the system if you are outside the system.

Nudie Coconut Yoghurt

I purchased coconut yoghurt (spelled “yogurt” in the US) from Woolworths a few days ago. At first, I didn’t like the taste but over time I started to like it. It definitely has a coconut taste. The ingredient list also claims that it contains “cultures” so you’d be eating good bacteria as you would with dairy yoghurt.

It’s winter here in Australia, so eating coconut yoghurt is not ideal. I prefer to eat baked beans, but I haven’t seen vegan coconut yoghurt in the supermarket before, so I felt I had to give it a try.

Given it is made of coconut, it is low carb, low protein, and high in fat, and the fat in the coconut yoghurt is mostly saturated fat, so if you care about heart disease then you may want to eat this in moderation. Mainstream dairy yoghurt such as Yoplait contains less than 2% fat whereas this coconut yoghurt has 14% fat. However, mainstream diary yoghurt is higher in carbs and higher in protein.

According to government guidelines, you should be eating about 20% of your calories from fat anyway. A diet high in vegetables and fruit (rather than nuts and seeds) would naturally be low in fat, so throwing in fatty vegan food can help increase your fat intake. Other good sources of vegan fat are avocados, peanut butter, as well as other nuts and seeds.

There is a popular misconception that a vegan diet is low in fat and high in carbs, and many people who criticize the vegan diet criticize it for its low fat levels (that is, not reaching the 20% fat recommended by health authorities). A vegan diet can be low in fat, but it all depends on what you eat. An omnivore diet filled with low-fat milk, lean meat, and low-fat yoghurt can have lower fat than a vegan diet filled with avocados, peanut butter, macadamia nuts, coconut yoghurt, etc.