This is a very common question I get. Sometimes it's presented in it's alternate form of, "What do you eat for protein?" As if, the only reason we eat animals is for their protein?? Please! Let's be honest; Most of us eat animals' flesh because it tastes good. For those of us who don't particularly like the taste of meat (or, chicken, turkey, fish, etc...) we often eat it in spite of our distaste for it because a) it's conveniently available and everywhere and b) because we're habituated to eating it. Let's get to the protein issue right away so we can put this "myth" that the idea source of protein is the flesh of animals. Before going vegetarian and then vegan, I did not know these basic facts about plant-derived sources of protein;
* Tofu, ½ cup= 20 grams protein
* Soy milk, 1 cup = 6-10 grams (depends on manufacturer)
* Most beans (black, pinto, lentils, etc) ~ 7-10 g protein per 1/2 C cooked beans
* Soy beans, ½ cup cooked = 14 grams protein
* Split peas, ½ cup cooked = 8 grams
* Peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons - 8 grams protein
* Almonds, ¼ cup = 8 grams
* Peanuts, ¼ cup = 9 grams
* Cashews, ¼ cup = 5 grams
* Pecans, ¼ cup = 2.5 grams
* Sunflower seeds, ¼ cup = 6 grams
* Pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup = 8 grams
* Flax seeds ¼ cup = 8 grams
As you can see, between the nuts, Tofu, Tempeh, Seitan, and beans, I'm getting plenty of protein in my diet. I've actually been keeping a written record of it and I'm getting more protein now than I did when I ate meat.
Some people complain that these nutrient rich plant-based sources of protein come with a decent fat content. They do. So does meat. Here's the rub; Unlike meats (even the so-called "lean-meats") the fats that come with nuts, seeds, beans and the most plant-derived sources of food are the "good fats". We need these in our diet for our bodies to function properly. The healthy omegas-/ long-chain fatty acids are essential to human body function (hence they're called "Essential Fatty Acids" or, EFA's.) EFA's are not present in meat (with the exception of certain fish) and can only be derived from plant proteins. In addition to the "bad fat" vs. "good fat" advantage, a plant-based diet comes without the dangerous cholesterol that meat and animal-derived fats bring. Since a human omnivore's source for dietary cholesterol is animal fats, if you cut out the flesh, butter, milk, eggs, etc... there is no significant dietary intake of cholesterol. I am a living example of this, as I will share:
AS AN OMNIVORE: I weighed 210 lbs and my Total Cholesterol was a very high 215 mg/dL and my HDL (low cholesterol) was too low at 25 mg/dL. Most concerning, my ratio was over 8:1 which is very dangerous. [A word about the Cholesterol Ratio: Cholesterol ratio has been useful as a predictor of heart disease risk. You can calculate your cholesterol ratio by dividing your high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good") cholesterol into your total cholesterol. For example, if your total cholesterol is 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and your HDL cholesterol is 50 mg/dL, your cholesterol ratio is 4-to-1. The goal is to keep your cholesterol ratio below 5-to-1. A higher ratio indicates a higher risk of heart disease; a lower ratio indicates a lower risk.]
So, after trying Niacin my numbers didn't budge. I started Liptor, which (after 6 months) took my total cholesterol down to a much better 165 mg/dL and bumped my HDL up to 35. Not bad... so my ratio went to a much better 4:1.
AS A VEGETARIAN: I stopped taking my Liptor under advice of my family physician. After just three months of a strict vegetarian diet (note: NOT Vegan; there were still eggs and dairy in there) my Total Cholesterol went to 135 mg/dL, my HDL went up to 42 giving me a ratio of 3:1. That's right; My ratio went lower than it was when I was on Lipitor! And after years of diet, meds, exercise, I finally got my HDL up over 40. (I am due for routine bloodwork in the next few weeks and I'll share the results with you when I get them)
My point is simple. Some of this is just genetic. I have a family history of heart disease and hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol). The way my body metabolizes cholesterol is certainly under the influence of some genetic predispositions but I can keep myself cardiac-safe and heart-smart by simply not ingesting cholesterol. By not eating animals and products derived from them, I can achieve this without the need for medication.
Many vegan abolitionists take issue with vegans like I who advocate a vegan diet for the health benefits it confers. They do so because they feel that this detracts from what should be the overriding issue at hand; The immorality of the taking of a life of a sentient, feeling, emotional, conscious being for our own pleasure. Indeed, I agree that is the overriding principle at the heart of Veganism and Ahimsa. Orthodox Judaism teaches a concept that people can begin an undertaking for misguided reasons but that with enough time and repetition the adherence is eventually perpetuated for the right reasons." As a physician, I feel strongly that principle of Ahimsa extends to one's ability to help others become less violent towards themselves. Ingesting animal flesh can be very toxic to our bodies. The fats and cholesterols are irrefutably the leading dietary source for epidemics of heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. So in pointing out the health advantages of switching to a plant-based diet achieves the end of Ahimsa, even if the enticement/ motivation used is somewhat self-serving. And I believe that even if one undertakes a vegan diet for health considerations, their adherance to it will eventually come to include the important central concept of Ahimsa- towards the sparing of animal torture/cruelty, and sparing the violence to their own bodies.