There is no doubt that a Vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of life. This is the position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
There is a lot of information around what is required around macronutrients for the human body. A lot of programmes advise that you need to find what is right for you. This can be very confusing as well as hard to work out. Since every human being’s digestive system is the same it is safe to say that our macronutrient ratio requirements are also the same. In fact, world-renowned nutritional scientist T. Colin Campbell PhD (Author of The China Study) agrees with this concept. He states that the ideal macronutrient ratio for humans is 80% carbohydrate, 10% protein and 10% fat.
Protein is the most publicised and least understood of the 3 macronutrients. Protein is required for rebuilding, but not to the extent that most people think. If I use the metaphor of a house, once the house is built, do we continue to pour in all the building materials or just make repairs as needed? The same is true of the human body; once the body is built we only require enough protein to make the necessary repairs. If we have too much it will overload our body and make us sick.
The minimum protein requirements for humans are 20-30 grams per day. This is because the body is able to recycle up to 400 grams of protein via its metabolic processes. Most governments and health organisations have doubled this minimum amount to between 40-60 grams a day to build in a buffer over the minimum requirements. In fact, if you were to only eat rice or potatoes, you would get all of the 8 essential amino acids the human body requires.
The body uses fat primarily for energy storage when no food or other immediate energy source is available. Plant foods contain adequate amounts of fat and only plants make the essential fatty acids your body needs to function. Plant foods also contain no cholesterol; the best way to lower your cholesterol levels is to not eat it.
Animal foods provide too much fat, especially the most harmful kind (saturated fat), which damages the arteries and causes heart disease and stroke. Beef derives 60% – 80% of its calories from fat; pork, 80% – 95%; chicken, 30% – 50%; and fish, 5% – 60%.
What about oils?
Even poly and monounsaturated fats – found in large amounts in vegetable oils and fish – have been shown to depress the immune system, increase bleeding and promote cancers, especially those of the colon, prostate and breast. Because all fats are easily stored by the body, too much dietary fat makes people overweight and lays the foundation for a host of other problems like heart disease, cancer, and adult-onset diabetes.
Ah Carbs, the most feared macronutrient of them all. Well here is a bombshell; carbs do not make you fat. Unless you load them with fats such as cheese, oil, butter etc. If fact they are actually a fat loss food. A recent study in Cell Metabolism showed that even when controlling for calories, reducing dietary fat results in 67% more body fat loss than reducing dietary carbs. The real truth is that the fat you eat is the fat you wear.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel, as they convert into glycogen. Every movement you make is based on the use of glycogen stored in your muscles. This is especially important for athletic performance, as the greater your stores of glycogen the longer you are able to train for. Once you run out of your glycogen stores, your body goes into ketosis. This is not a good thing as the body goes into an emergency mode of using fat for energy, commonly known in athletic circles as ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’.
If something is in excess that doesn’t mean it is good for us! Lets talk about iron absorption with red meat compared to plant foods. Funny how people think just because something is more absorbable it should therefore be better for us. Heme iron and non-heme iron. There is a big difference. Heme iron is obviously from dead flesh (blood) and non heme from plant foods!
Because the human body has no mechanism to rid itself of excess iron we have evolved to regulate this. Iron is absorbed through our intestines and if iron stores get too low the intestines know when to boost the absorption, if iron stores are too high then the intestines block the absorption to maintain us in the sweet spot! This also only works with the primary source of iron in the human diet from plant foods (non-heme).
Heme iron from dead flesh however cannot be regulated by the body and therefore absorbs straight through the intestinal wall even if there is excess iron in the body. This is when the body gets into an iron overload and creates all sorts of problems and sets the body up with a higher risk of dis-ease.
So the body has no control over iron absorption when eating animal flesh. This is why Vegetarians and Vegans tend to be lower in iron when it comes to blood tests because the 'normal' range is elevated due to all those people eating flesh which in turn boosts there level of iron in the body without knowing it is much more harmful for them.
In terms of how much the body can absorb we believe that it is very hard to get an exact number from the foods we eat because you can't really say that this plant food has this much iron in it so my body will absorb all of it. Iron absorption also depends on how many other nutrients that plant food has because all of the nutrients from that plant food work together to get absorbed. If you eat a variety of WHOLE foods (Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains and Legumes) you will get the exact amount of iron the body needs so that you can be in that sweet spot :)
Every single food you eat has protein in it so in terms of getting enough on a vegan diet you will get plenty. (Have you ever heard of anyone with protein deficiency?) If you are eating a wide variety of fruits and veggies you are getting all eight essential amino acids required by the body for all its protein needs (even for exercise or sport). Fruits & Veggies are premium, sufficient sources of amino acids, the building blocks of protein which our cells (primarily those of the liver) use to synthesize ALL of its protein. The body in fact recycles 80% of the protein it makes! If you are looking for higher protein foods, beans, legumes, lentils all have a great amount of protein.
Here is an excerpt from the book 80/10/10 by Dr Douglas Graham:
Whole Food Nutrition or Fragmented Nutrition?
Empty calorie foods, or “junk foods,” are defined as calorie sources sans full nutrient content. Refined calorie sources, whether they are protein, fat, or carbo- hydrates, supply empty calories. We generally think of sugar and empty calories as being synonymous. Refined starches (e.g., flour products) also qualify as empty calories, even though the general public may think of them as “healthy carbs.” Refined oils, too, must be recognised as empty calorie foods, since they are neither whole foods nor do they provide the full complement of nutrients found in the original source. Of course, protein powders of all types also qualify as empty calories as they fit the definition perfectly. It is sometimes difficult to accept that our beloved supplements are no more than junk foods. Nevertheless, flax or any other oil, hemp or any other protein powder, white flour and refined sugar all fall into the same category: empty calories. When you add any of them to your fruits and vegetables, you turn health food into junk food.
Rather than ask, “Where do you get your protein?”, consumers of such refined, isolated empty calories should be asking, “Where do you get your nutrients?” Protein from a can is no more nutritious than sugar from a bag or oil from a bottle; all of these items qualify as junk when compared to whole foods.
Protein Does Not Build Muscle!
Some may argue that we need to eat great volumes of protein in order to build muscle mass. In fact, if we wish to be able to exercise with sufficient intensity to spur growth in our muscles and related structures, we need to consume sufficient carbo- hydrates to meet our fuel needs—preferably from fruit.
Since protein is one of the three caloronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fats), protein fuel demands rise only when one’s diet is deficient in carbohydrates (as the body is forced to convert the protein into carbohydrates—a very inefficient, energy-draining process).
Eating protein does not build muscle. Muscular growth results from placing a strength overload upon the muscles and then supplying adequate conditions for recovery. Repeatedly using this overload and recovery strategy results in steady and reliable muscular growth and development. The quality of tissue developed will be determined by the foods eaten, and the highest quality tissues will develop as a result of eating fruits and vegetables.
Protein, per se, is not actually used by the body to build new tissue. When foods are eaten, their constituent proteins are broken down during the digestive processes into ever smaller particles: proteoles, polypeptides, dipeptides, and, eventually, amino acids. The amino acids travel to the liver where they are recombined and constructed into the specific proteins needed at any given time. Not only is it a fallacy that protein will result in muscle growth, but the concept that the body needs specific proteins, from fish, meat, eggs, etc. is also fallacious. The body breaks down all proteins to their component amino acids before recombining them. Eating the muscles from animals will not result in our developing bigger muscles. As an analogy, eating animals’ eyes will not improve our vision, nor will eating their brains increase our intellect.