I’ve been trying to write this What’s the Word? Wednesday post for months now. Ever since I started the series I have known what P was going to stand for. How did I know? Well, almost every time you tell someone you are a vegetarian (or vegan) you eventually come to this question in the conversation:
But how do you get enough protein?
With this installment of What’s the Word? Wednesday, P is for Protein!
(Heads up seven up!: my regular form of question and answer is going to be altered for this post as there is too much to be said to divide it out the way I normally do.)
I can say without hesitation that for the majority of my vegetarian life, protein has not been a factor. What most people don’t realize is that there are proteins in vegetables and your body makes a good deal of the protein you need, provided you are eating well. Another thing no one seems to consider is that most of the animals meat-eaters consume, are vegetarian. They may eat meat for a multitude of reasons but ask anyone of them what are the health benefits and you are going to hear…’protein’. Where do animals get their protein? From their diets of course, which is primarily or wholly vegetation!
About a month ago I starting tracking my food and activity (I used MyFitnessPal) to see the bigger picture of what I was eating. After the first week of analysis I thought I was lacking in protein. When I saw my numbers in a pie chart across the screen of my phone, I believed it should be taking up more of my diet, This is most likely due to the fitness trend of pushing too much protein, which (double) unfortunately people interpret as ‘eat more meat’. After loads of research, I’ve found the average person should consume about 15% of their daily calories from protein sources. Most sources recommend between 10%-30% with 30% being very-active men. I was getting an average of about 12% without any diet alterations when I started. After continuous monitoring and studying my own trends, as well as comparing it to what was recommended for women my age (and my activity level) I decided I wanted to increase my amount of protein I consumed to be between 15%-20%.
I observed that trying to stay within a specific calorie allotment makes meeting your percentage goals a little more difficult, which previously had not occurred to me. I determined that this is mostly because my favorite vegetarian protein sources seem comparably higher in fat or carbohydrates (nuts, avocados, beans). As I’ve not been eating meat for more than half my life, I’d be interested if this is more of a concern for vegetarians/vegan than omnivores? Obviously peanut butter per ounce has more fat in it than let’s say halibut, but if anyone has done more research let me know in the comments below.
What’s the big idea about incomplete and complete proteins?
When I became a vegetarian in 1997 I remember the big thing everyone kept telling me is that I had to combine foods in order to make sure I got proper nutrition. If I was eating beans, I had to include rice with the meal, or peanut butter on whole grain toast, or pasta and cheese etc. This theory of having to combine two ‘incomplete’ proteins to form a ‘complete’ protein is largely outdated. It’s just not thinking of the big picture of how our body actually works.
Essentially, ‘complete’ proteins are foods that contain 9 essential types of amino acids (source). Our body actually produces 13 amino acids on its own, provided you eat regularly and healthy. Aminos come from protein sources, and most adults need about 22 circulating, doing their work in your body like rebuilding muscle tissue. The reason why nutritionists call out 9 of them as essential, is because our bodies either can’t make enough of those 9 types of aminos, or make them at all. Therefore it’s up to us to get them from food sources.
Vegetable sources of protein sometimes (this does not mean always) have lower levels of amino acids, or more often, lower levels of lysine, methionine and threonine (3 of the 9 essential aminos). However, eating a balanced diet of whole grains, healthy fats and loads of fruits and vegetables is what rounds out the essential aminos you need. To directly quote Wikipedia (source):
“Nearly all foods contain all twenty amino acids in some quantity, and nearly all of them contain the essential amino acids in sufficient quantity. Proportions vary, however, and some foods are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Though some vegetable sources of protein contain sufficient values of all essential amino acids, many are lower in one or more essential amino acids than animal sources, especially lysine, and to a lesser extent methionine and threonine. …
Consuming a mixture of plant-based protein sources can increase the biological value of food. For example, to obtain 25 grams of complete protein from canned pinto beans requires consuming 492 grams (423 kcal); however, only 364 g of pinto beans (391 kcal) are required if they are combined with 12 grams of Brazil nuts. Complementary proteins need not be eaten at the same meal for your body to use them together. Studies now show that your body can combine complementary proteins that are eaten within 24 hours.
According to Dr. John A. McDougall, “any single one or combination of these plant foods provides amino acid intakes in excess of the recommended requirements…it is impossible to design an amino acid–deficient diet based on the amounts of unprocessed starches and vegetables sufficient to meet the calorie needs of humans. Furthermore, mixing foods to make a complementary amino acid composition is unnecessary.””
Now that we have the low down on complete/incomplete proteins and aminos let’s talk about sources. As quoted in the article above, all vegetation contains proteins, below are just food with higher sources:
Note: I have bolded anything that is widely considered a complete protein. Some soy products and meat substitutes, as well as, most vegan and vegetarian protein powders are considered complete proteins check the packaging information for nutritional details.
- Free-ranged eggs
- Dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, kefir, milk)
- Whey (dairy) based protein powders, be careful a lot of them contain animal by-products such as animal hormones, thickeners like gelatin, flavor aids like castoreum (anal secretions from beavers) or red food dye called carmine (really just ground up cochineal insects).
Vegetarian and Vegan
- Whole grains (quinoa, bulgur, wheat, barley, amaranth)
- Nuts (coconut, almonds, brazil nuts, nut butters etc)
- Seeds (flax, chia, hemp)
- Legumes ( lentils, beans, peanuts)
- Soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso)
- ‘Meat-substitutes’ (commercial or home-made: seitan, textured vegetable protein, quorn)
- Food additives (nutritional yeast aka nooch, bee pollen, spirulina and wild blue algae)
- Vegan protein powders ( hemp, brown rice, pea, etc)
- Goji berries
Protein full recipes from V-Spot
- Baked Faux-Fish Sticks
- Chickpea Bulgur Burgers
- Granola Protein Bites
- Stout Lentil Loaf
- White Bean and Quinoa Chili
Protein-full recipes from around the Web
- Chilaquiles by The Vegan Stoner
- Chipotle Black Bean Burgers with Sweet Corn by Oh My Veggies
- Creamy Spinach Dal (Lentil Curry) by Veggie Belly
- Green Powerhouse Pesto Plate by Oh She Glows
- Seitan Piccata by Isa Chandra from the Post Punk Kitchen