The simple answer is ‘PLANTS’ however it’s important to understand Protein 101 for Vegans to ensure good health (and to be able to explain in more detail if someone has a lot of questions for you).
Recently I spoke with Hillary Monroe, MS RD LDN, Registered Dietitian to discuss in more detail from a nutritional profile of plant-based proteins. She breaks down the nagging nutrition myth and public misconception that if you don’t eat meat that must mean your diet isn’t nutritionally sound. This is a great 101 guide to help you live a healthy plant-based life! Enjoy -Kelly xx
Protein, one of the three macronutrients (fat and carbohydrate are the others), is essential to our diet. Proteins in our body aren’t just for muscles but are used for so many things from speeding up reactions as enzymes to making our outward appearance shine with healthy hair, smooth skin and nails. Protein is also a backup source of energy for us especially when our carbohydrate intake is low.
When we eat food, the proteins are broken down into the components, or amino acids, which are then used. Our bodies are able to make some of these amino acids, if needed, but can’t make all and those are deemed essential. This is why eating enough protein each day is important so our bodies get all the amino acids needed to function.
The general recommendation is to eat 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight – and for the average person translates to about 45-55 grams per day. To put that into perspective, a cup of chickpeas supplies us with about 10 grams.
One of the biggest protein myths is that you have to eat more protein to build muscle. It is true that proteins are the building blocks for muscles but eating more protein doesn’t automatically mean more muscle. Build and tone muscles by incorporating strength training and weight lifting into your weekly workouts. Aim to lift weights or practice resistance training 2 or more days a week.
As I said, protein is one of the three macronutrients and that means that almost all foods – except alcohol, sugar and fat alone — provide some protein. There is no shortage of proteins from plant sources. So, the myth that vegans cannot get adequate protein from plant products has no basis. In fact, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and peanut butter, just to name a few, are all great sources of protein.
Quinoa: This is the only grain that is a complete, containing all the essential amino acids. Swap this out for rice or pasta or better yet use it as the base for a veggie burger.
Beans: Of all varieties are great sources of protein for vegans. These can be blended into spreads, added to soups and vegan chilis, or baked like baked beans.
Tempeh: Another form of soy protein, but fermented unlike tofu. Tempeh can be grilled on its own or made into vegan meatballs to go over pasta.
Seitan: A substitute for soy products for those trying to reduce soy intake their diets. This is excellent in a stir fry or stew and used as a chicken, beef and fish.
Spirulina: A blue-green algae that is packed with protein. Spirulina can easily be added into juices or smoothie recipes to give you the protein punch your body needs.
Dietitians previously recommended that vegans and vegetarians make sure and eat complementary proteins for proper nutrition – so beans and rice or oatmeal with almonds – but now we know you don’t have to combine foods to get enough protein in a vegetarian diet. You just need to make sure to eat a variety of foods to cover your bases.
For any diet, variety is key, especially for vegans. This is your insurance to get those essential amino acids and keep a diet nutritionally sound. Make sure you have a well-rounded plate with fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Also, as long as long as your calorie intake is adequate, you will have no trouble getting your daily allotment of protein. Using a Calorie Counter is one of the simplest ways to ensure you’re body is getting the calories it needs. Make sure you get enough energy to meet your needs and in doing so your diet will be whole.
Oh and one more thing – animal proteins are no better for you than plant proteins. The difference is that they are more complete, meaning they have all essential amino acids. But if you eat a variety of plant proteins, you take in all the essential amino acids anyway. Case closed.
By: Hillary Monroe, MS RD LDN, Registered Dietitian and writer for Everyday Health Calorie Counter.