How To Get Protein on Vegan/Vegetarian Diets

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Dr. Nick Delgado is predominantly vegan in his diet. He also stresses the importance of getting the right kinds of protein. But how to you get enough and the right kind of protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet? He explains that it's not always the amount, but the type of protein your body can absorb better that's most important.


Interviewer: Doctor, you've mentioned that you're a vegan. Right?

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: I'm not an ethical vegan . . . 

Interviewer: Okay.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: . . . which an ethical vegan would say, "Well there's some broth that has a little bit of chicken base to it."

Interviewer: Sure.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: I do it for health's sake. 

Interviewer: Okay.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: So I would say that 98%, I'm vegan for 35 years. I do it for health's sake. If I'm occasionally at a buffet and someone says there's a little sliver of chicken or whatever, I'll occasionally eat it. But I don't order it. I don't buy it. I don't go out of my use-to use it as a protein base because I know that I get all the protein I need from sweet potatoes and whole natural foods. So long as I meet my caloric needs, I'm not too low in body weight because that can be as problematic as being too overweight. I like to maintain that lean body mass. That strong lean mass somewhere for me at my weight and body weight, at about under 10% body fat. So that keeps me in good fighting shape.

Interviewer: Well, you're very fit, and I think if people see pictures they'll understand that. You're big into protein. So where does protein come from? You touched on it a little bit. If you're eating that kind of diet, can you get enough of that kind of protein?

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: Yeah. Not only enough, you get more than enough. I think a lot of the references were based on trying to get enough grams of protein based on an inferior source of protein. And this may sound strange to you, but the protein base were based on what's called PER, protein efficiency ratio. And the original nutrition textbooks by Osborne and Mendel took a group of rats literally, and they fed one cage of rats potatoes only, another group of rats in another cage eggs only, another group meat only, and another rice only, and so forth. And then they measured their growth rate, protein efficiency ratio. They wanted to see how big the rats grew based on the consumption of how many grams of protein in calories. Well, that didn't prove anything other than rats are carnivores and that they respond very well to eggs as the standard protein, which is what was determined that they grew best on eggs . . . 

Interviewer: Mm-hmm.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: . . . followed by meat and cheese and so forth, and less so on rice. And they went on to make this statement that somehow rice, for example, or sweet potatoes, were an incomplete protein. When in reality, if you analyze human breast milk, and you give it to rats, this has been done, the rats don't grow very well. So I have a problem with that connection, because obviously human breast milk, my little four year old is at the 97th percentile growth rate compared to children in the nation. So he's tall, he's lean, he's fit, he's in great shape. None of my children suffer from being breast-fed. But a rat, if you fed a rat the breast milk, they would have suffered in terms of size and growth rate. So my definition then, is where do we get the right amount of protein, to answer your question, you have to look at the protein and amino acid analysis. And all eight of the essential amino acids are found in the rice, the sweet potatoes, the vegetables.

It's just important that you get enough calories to meet that amino acid need. So if you're getting somewhere between, say 45 and 75 grams of protein, that's a generous amount. The World Health Organization states 35 grams of protein is more than enough to meet the bodily needs of 155 pound individual. A 200 pound individual might need, let's say 60 grams of protein. I probably routinely take in around 60 to 65, 70 grams of protein. I don't overdo it, and my plant base of protein's come from whole super foods, not from meat, cheese, eggs, fish, chicken, turkey or eggs. I don't use any of those foods.

Interviewer: Mm-hmm.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: As I mentioned occasionally they slip into my diet if I'm at a buffet or something. If it's a salad and they threw in a little something and I'm like, "Oh, okay. Why are you using that?" As I said, I prefer not. But, okay. It's in the food, so I eat it.

Interviewer: Mm-hmm.

Nick Delgado, Phd, CHT: But the point is your protein needs are adequately met and in a superior fashion because the protein absorption is superior. So where, let's say I took 35 grams of protein from sweet potato. There's a protein spearing effect from the complex carbohydrates in the sweet potato, meaning the energy needs of the body are met first, then that 35 grams of protein, because it's very similar amino acids to what's in human breast milk would be highly absorbed effectively and efficiently for the organ needs, the muscle needs and the bodily needs. So that's where 35 to 65 grams of protein is more than sufficient. It's when you get up to animal products you need double the amount of protein to meet the amino acid requirements, because it's not an amino acid powder that the human body understands.

And that's where Doctor Lee showed in his study, with giving people rice only, and these were college students, age 20 to 22, and they fed their protein nitrogen needs on a rice-only diet compared to rice and chicken. Well, everyone thought the chicken and rice diet would clearly give them the most amoung of protein absorption, and they were shocked to find that they absorbed 20% more nitrogen protein retention on the rice-only than the chicken and rice. Something about chicken and animal proteins and eggs is inefficiently absorbed in the human body and inappropriate for the human body. So contrary to popular belief, I would tell people to abstain from, particularly if they're worried about kidney diseases. Kidney dialysis is out of control in this country. The number of people having to submit to, from so much protein due to overload of protein. Acidic conditions damage the kidneys in athletes. We see a lot of former athletics with kidney damage.

We also know that osteoporosis, the Sally Field disease, is not persay only salt, but the drug. I think it you back stepped a little bit and looked in Hong Kong, where they eat a lot of rice, a good source of protein, very frail people, but good bone density. So you rarely have hip fractures and bone fractures because their bone density is so good and because they're getting their calcium, magnesium, zinc, met without excess protein that cause an acidic condition and loss of protein, so the loss of bone density, that is. So I think that when we go full-circle. The public needs to be aware that we get a superior source of protein from rice, hemp, sweet potatoes, vegetables, asparagus is like over 35 percent protein. So you get a lot of natural protein in whole super foods.

Interviewer: Mm-hmm.

Wondering About a Vegan Diet? - An infographic by the team at PETA