The Protein Question

The Vegan Files

One of my coworkers, the most friendly, helpful guy you could hope to know (and a computer whiz, to boot), recently mentioned that he is on insulin but is still having difficulty keeping his Type 2 diabetes under control.  I was a bit surprised, as he is tall, exercises (not only goes to the gym but also has a job that keeps him running around our building like a banshee all day) and is not morbidly obese like me.  I related that I’ve had reasonable success at controlling my blood sugar since I went vegan a little more than two years ago.

He seemed busy, but I spent a minute or two explaining about the vegan diet before he had to run off to put out the next fire at work.  Funny thing is that there is no one “vegan diet.”  Every vegan eats differently.  The baseline that most of us have common is that we do not eat animal products.  This includes a ban on meat, fish and seafood, dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.), eggs or honey.

As most Type 2 diabetics know, the finest foods in life are starches.  I knew that even in my carnivore days.  When you have to watch your carbs, it is easy to dream about bread, potatoes, bread, pasta, bread, cereal, bread, bagels, croissants and tortillas.  Did I mention bread?

Most of these beloved starches are vegan (although you always have to watch the ingredients on the labels of commercially prepared products).  But those of us who are both vegan and diabetic are faced with a double challenge.  It is easy for vegans who eat on the run to overdo it on the starches, a disaster if you’re a Type 2 diabetic.

So I’m not surprised that among the most common questions that I’m asked about my vegan diet is how I get my protein.  “You don’t even eat eggs?” my coworker asked me.  I know where he’s coming from.  As I’ve been blessed with naturally low cholesterol, I used to eat a lot of eggs.  If I had a boiled egg (or two) for a snack, at least I didn’t have to add it to the carbohydrate tally for the day on my diabetic diet.  A single egg gives you 6 grams of protein, so egg lovers who go vegan will likely need to search for a replacement source of protein.

Then again, maybe not.

Don’t ask me how much protein you should consume each day.  I have no idea.  For one thing, it’s an individualized thing in that it supposedly depends on your body weight and how much you exercise.  For another, there appears to be little consensus among the medical community regarding how much protein we need.  Lots of folks out there wag their fingers at meat-loving Americans, warning that we’re getting too much protein and that this can cause us to gain unhealthy amounts of weight and even result in kidney disease.  Then there are others who believe that we don’t get enough protein and would, in fact, do better to indulge in more as a replacement for a lot of the refined sugars and starches that Americans are so enamored with.  All in all, however, I believe we’re probably better off dumping the excess carbs and replacing them with vegetables (both the green and orange varieties).

Starch does have its place, however, even for vegan Type 2s.  It’s a matter of achieving balance, which I grant is not the easiest thing when you spend your life running hither and yon.  I am definitely not a good role model in the area of balance, as I seem to have developed a potato fetish on a scale that would be funny if it weren’t so sad.  As far as I’m concerned, a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine.  If I don’t have my baked potato, I get positively grumpy.  But you know what?  A baked potato (if it’s not a giant one) tends to have about 90 to 110 calories.  You could do worse.  And starches do fill you up, which can leave you less hungry for the junk food that is forever calling my name.

So I let my coworker know that, while carnivores may have concerns about eating too much protein, vegans (particularly diabetics) have to be concerned about eating too much starch.  Making a point to eat protein at one meal each day is quite sufficient for many of us.  I ticked off a list of some common vegan protein sources:

  • tofu
  • seitan
  • beans and legumes (including hummus)
  • nuts
  • soy milk
  • commercially prepared vegan products

In this last category I include items such as vegan burger patties (Boca burgers, for example) and veggie dogs, vegan “lunch meat” (my favorites are Yves “bologna” and Tofurky’s “oven roasted turkey”) and vegan frozen items (my favorites are Gardein’s “fish,“ “chicken” and “meatballs” and Amy’s bean burritos).  These convenience foods are probably not as healthful as whole foods such as beans and legumes, but they taste great and I never have to worry about a quick protein source to throw in my bag.  A few minutes in the microwave at work and lunch is served!

Of course, protein choices have to be modified to personal preferences.  For example, I happen to detest seitan (sprouted soy), which, at least to me, tastes like dirt.  I rarely drink soy milk, as I prefer almond milk, which has very little protein (but is wonderful in a cup of hot Earl Grey).  I do, however, enjoy tofu and beans, particularly chick peas (which here in California are popularly known as garbanzos).  Everyone has to come up with the mix that works for them.  It’s particularly tough for those transitioning from a meat-eating lifestyle, because many of these products may be totally foreign to them.

It’s also worthwhile to bear in mind that many foods that you already eat contain protein that you might not be aware of.  A packet of instant oatmeal, for example, which I always think of as a starch, typically contains 3 grams of protein.  If you throw two of those in a bowl with some hot water in the morning, you have the same amount of protein as there is in an egg.

The bottom line is that protein is not at all difficult for vegans to come by, particularly with all the commercial products available on supermarket shelves these days.

I just hope that my coworker decides to give it a try.

 

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