Barbells and Beakers

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Incomplete vs. Complete Proteins and the Daily Diet

So, previously we talked about protein. What it is, what it does, how it’s made up of amino acids. I kind of left you guys hanging on the whole amino acid thing. I pointed out that protein is made up of many different types of amino acids, and that each amino acid has its own daily requirements for intake. This leads me to a qualifying name for protein sources that has generated a lot of debate between meat eaters and non meat eaters.

Complete vs. incomplete protein sources

A complete source of protein has ALL of the 8 essential amino acids. An incomplete source of protein does not have all of the 8 essential amino acids in it. Makes sense, if you’re eating food for protein purposes you’re going to want to eat something that has all the essential amino acids in it, right? The debate comes from the following fact: animal products are the only products with all 8 essential amino acids. Meat eaters use this as proof that you should eat meat, because only animal products (eggs, chicken, milk, etc.) has all 8 essential amino acids in it. Non-meat eaters aren’t helped out by the fact that their major food stuff is labeled as “incomplete.” So let me delve back into some scenarios that will make this little part of the article a little easier to understand for everyone.

Animal product meal day!

So, we said yesterday that protein intake should depend on your activity level. Let’s have a scenario. Let’s say I’m an 130 lb high school girl that lives a sedentary life style. I spend most of my time in class, after class I go home and watch TV, and occasionally my friends and I are semi-active. 130 x .4 = 52. I should have 52 grams of protein a day. So let’s go through my daily food choices, based off what I personally used to eat in high school.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets with sauce, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 383 calories, 28.9 g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Steak with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 562 calories, 36.8 g of protein

Calorie total: 1,430 calories

Protein total: 81.3g protein

So, for 1,430 calories she received about 1.5x her needed protein intake for the day. Protein that isn’t broken down is turned to fats and sugars. Now, in no way am I saying every girl eats like this, they don’t. I totally ate like this in high school. I am using myself as an example, so if you’re going to hate, hate on my unhealthy life style. What if an athlete ate like this? They would be receiving adequate protein for a high activity level, correct? Moral of the story is that this girl received more protein in a day than was required.

A day in the life of a non-meat eater – for this sake, she’s a vegetarian. I’m going to make her diet the same, but replace Girl #1’s meat with vegetarian options.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: A large salad with ranch and cheese, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 371 calories, 7.9g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Tofu with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 226 calories, 24g of protein

Calorie total: 1,082 calories

Protein total: 47.5g protein

See where the argument becomes blurred? There’s the “meat eaters eat too much protein!” clashing with the “vegetarians don’t get enough!” It’s a constant battle. Let me introduce something much, much more important than either of these: using your brain.

What I eat on days that I lift weight.

I am a 140 lb 22 year old female. On days that I lift weights, this is what my meals look like.

Breakfast: Two pieces of toast with almond butter, 2 eggs: 477 calories, 25g of protein

Lunch: Protein smoothie of almond milk, spinach and bananas, a bagel thin with almond butter: 317 calories, 10g of protein

Dinner: Zaxby’s Chicken Fingers: 323 calories, 35g protein

Snacks: Mountain Dew and almonds – 450 calories, 6g protein

Calories: 1,567 calories

Protein: 76g protein

I consider this a “bad food day” because I ate a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have. But this is on a day that I lift. On days I don’t lift?

Breakfast: Bagel thin with sugar free jelly and 2 scrambled egg whites: 142 calories, 9g protein

Lunch: Quinoa “surprise” (quinoa, onions, yellow squash, zucchini, lentils) – 163 calories, 10g protein

Dinner: Boneless, skinless chicken breast, Quaker life cinnamon cereal with almond milk – 240 calories, 31g protein

Snacks: Pistachios – 170 calories, 6g protein

Total calories: 715 calories

Protein: 56g protein

This is fairly typical for me on lazy days where I don’t do anything. Replace the chicken with tofu and you have a 100% vegetarian diet that gets adequate protein with less than adequate calories for daily life. I should be eating 1,200 calories a day MINIMUM, but on this day I literally laid in bed all day and watched movies. I required like no energy.

I’m sick of your stupid meal plans. Teach me something!

It’s possible to get adequate protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to get too much protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to do this as a meat eater too. This is a long winded approach to what I’d like to call my “take home message of complete vs. incomplete nutrition” – Use your fucking brain. That’s all!

That was rude and useless.

I know, but let’s think of other scenarios where this argument is valid.

“I am allergic to honey. How can I get my daily sugar intake?” Eat other foods with sugar.

“I am allergic to dairy, how can I get my calcium?” Eat other foods with calcium, or take supplements.

There’s nothing wrong with taking supplements. It doesn’t invalidate your life style choice, nor your diet choice. I personally hate certain types of food that are high in vitamin C, so I take vitamin C supplements. Does that mean my taste buds are wrong and I should force vitamin C laden food down my throat? No, it means I should make smart choices. I should use my fucking brain.

Applying this logic to vegetarian and vegan diets using the “incomplete protein source” idea.

Here’s a list of some vegetarian foods that are high in protein –

Tempeh – 1 cup has 41g protein

Seitan – 3 ounces has 31g protein

Soybeans – 1 cup has 29g of protein

Lentils – 1 cup has 18g protein

Black beans – 1 cup has 15g protein

Almonds – 1/4c. has 8g protein

Spinach – 1 cup has 5g protein

So, if you’re getting adequate protein numerically, you should just figure out which amino acid is typically lacking in vegetarian diets. Do you know how to find this? Google. Or  you can refer to my previous post and see that I starred two amino acids – Lysine and Tryptophan.

High in Lysine – vegetarian:

-Yogurt (706 mg/ounce)

High in Lysine – vegan:

-Avocado (186 mg/ounce)

-Potato (190mg/ounce)

-Dried peach (150mg/ounce)

-Corn (210mg/ounce)

-Asparagus (190mg/ounce)

While the non-animal products have lower levels of lysine than the animal products do, the non-animal products are lower calorie. This is where the common vegan saying, “It’s hard to be protein deficit without being calorie deficit.” This just means that people who already eat a mostly plant based diet will have to eat…more plants. Add avocados to your smoothies, or eat some more corn.

Foods high in tryptophan:

-Oat bran (285mg/ounce)

-Seaweed (736mg/ounce)

-Spinach (594mg/ounce)

-Mushrooms (415mg/ounce)

I’m sick of making lists. But this is the same as the one before – eat more plants. Now, if you’re a non-meat eater and you hate vegetables, I’d suggest supplements. Otherwise? Eat more plants.

So…use your fucking brain?

Yes! Just because animal protein is a complete source of protein doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY option! In fact, Part 4 will be all about the pros and cons of different types of protein. That is, which proteins give you the most bang for your buck (most protein per calories). I hope that meat eaters have learned that vegans and vegetarians do, indeed, get adequate protein and that it’s possible to get too much protein on a no animal product diet. Likewise, I hope vegans and vegetarians learned some of the limitations their diet imposes on them, so they need to make smart choices to complement that. Just like not active animal product eaters need to make smart choices about their protein intake.