A notification in my inbox alerted me to the fact that online discussion was underway. The topic – and I couldn’t make this up if I tried – was: Are Vegans More Evolved?

I added a short reply to the online discussion but felt a need to cover the topic in slightly more detail. That’s when I recruited the help of my colleague, Shawn Bevington. We wrote this together.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Shawn and I do understand the global need to move away from animal protein for planetary sustainability. We’re also aware that many people have reversed common health problems by switching to a plant-based diet. And we certainly understand the cruelty and animal welfare issues that arise with farm-raised animals for consumption.

So we’re not advocating that you eat meat or other animal products necessarily. We’re talking about protein, and the need for it in our diets.

Why People Think Protein Is Not Necessary

When it comes to protein, mainstream thinking seems to be that those who are not body builders – and will therefore not be packing on many pounds of muscle – need less protein, especially traditional forms of it. Traditional forms would include fish, chicken, beef, shellfish and the like.

But it turns out protein is a bigger deal in some ways than some people may realize. When people call protein “over-rated,” they may not recognize the many reasons we need protein. Below are some of them.

What Protein Can Do for Your Body

• Eating protein can help you maintain a healthy weight. If you do increase muscle mass, the addition of that highly metabolic tissue can help with weight management.

You don’t have to eat meat for that to be true. Tofu can help, and so can protein powders from plant sources: vegetables, hemp or brown rice, for example.

• Protein is made of amino acids. The amino acids create enzymes to break down any protein you eat.

• Protein is used for production of blood cells, which transport virtually every substance in the body.

• Protein reinforces muscle structure and is used for protective structuring in skin, white blood cells, red blood cells, and more.

• Protein is used to repair and replace muscle, tendons and other cells, particularly after training, as well as in mucus production.

• Muscle protein can be used as a fuel source. It is in fact the second largest source of stored fuel in the body.

• Protein is used to produce hormones.

• Protein is used to produce neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals.

• Protein plays a major role in the immune system, which couldn’t function without it.

The All-Important Immune System

We in turn couldn’t function without the immune system. It guards against, and aids in recovery from, bacteria, infection and disease. The immune system also manages recovery from injury, wounds, burns, and surgery.

Another significant aspect of immune function is recovery from workouts.

The immune system is far too complex to cover in a short article on general uses of protein. One cool fact, however, involves the adaptive immune system (AIS). The AIS is made of protein cells called B-lymphocytes, produced in bone marrow and released as “scanner proteins.” B-lymphocytes scan the body looking for invading bodies. Once they identify the right “lock and key”, they dispose of that invading body.

Protein also supplies the fuel that the immune system runs on: L-glutamine. Glutamine is an amino acid and found primarily in protein foods. It is also found in plant foods in lower quantities.

Glutamine’s other beneficial functions include muscle mass maintenance, digestive and intestinal health, glutathione (antioxidant) production, pH balance, and blood vessel health.

Foods containing L-glutamine include sea food, fish (saltwater fish have more glutamine than freshwater), mussel, shrimp, crab, grass-fed beef, chicken, lamb, bone broth. Milk and milk products (yogurt, ricotta cheese) supply glutamine, as well. Other animal proteins with high glutamine content are eggs and organ meats, especially liver.

Plant sources of glutamine include raw red cabbage, chickpeas, lentils, beans, asparagus, nuts, parsley, spinach, collard greens, kale, cilantro, radish greens, and a variety of fruits.

Don’t miss great info on protein, hormones and appetite in Part 2!