Where do you get your protein? It’s a question I hear all the time after people find out I’m plant-based.
People have varying opinions about the health benefits of vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diets. We’ve been overwhelmed as a society with the belief that protein only comes from animal products.
Yet it is also true that many vegetarians, vegans, and plant-based advocates still don’t understand protein and how to ensure their daily needs are met.
Let’s start with a better understanding of protein
Some of the confusion comes from lumping the concept of “protein” into one category. Instead, it’s time to think about what makes up “complete” and “incomplete” proteins.
A protein molecule is made up of amino acids. You may hear this occasionally in marketing, where they refer to a food item containing essential amino acids. In nature, there are 20 different types of amino acids. Our bodies make 11, meaning we need food for the other nine. These are termed “essential” amino acids, and when combined, create what is termed as a “complete” protein.
Most complete proteins are animal-based. A few plant-based resources are also complete, including soy, quinoa, and chia seeds.
The 11 already contained in our bodies are often referred to as “incomplete” or “nonessential.” That doesn’t mean they are unnecessary. It’s simple that the body already contains them, and we look to the other nine to build a complete set of amino acids for optimal health.
The assumption with protein is that you need “all or nothing.” They teach that every meal must have protein. They instruct that women especially need “complete” proteins at every meal. This isn’t true.
Instead, complete proteins can feed your body over time. We eat several times in a day, and should eat a variety of foods throughout the day to gain as many nutrients as possible.
Of course, how and what you take in should depend on your body makeup. I believe that’s where intuition comes into play. (And technology. I believe the near future will provide amazing benefits in learning exactly what our body needs. We’ll be able to create meal plans based on who we are individually and what we need to thrive.)
Why plant protein is beneficial
In a perfect world, our food would be created with tender loving care.
Unfortunately, the world is anything but perfect.
Let’s talk about animal protein for a moment. (Just a couple paragraphs, I promise!)
We have an insatiable appetite for meat. A few decades ago, a small portion of meat was included at several meals. Now it’s the centerpoint of EVERY meal. Add in the fact that we’ve ballooned to over 8 billion people, and you’ll find an animal industry that has been pushed to the limits. In the UN alone, we slaughter 3 million cattle, 10 million pigs, and 9 billion chickens per month.
To keep up, we’ve moved to a CAFO (concentrated animal-feeding operation) facility system that moves animals through the system at breakneck speed. They’ve done everything they can to grow faster and slaughter sooner. They’ve chemicalized the feed to maximize efficiency. The majority of antibiotic use is to keep animals alive and healthy throughout this process. (There’s a lot of bacteria and disease in CAFO environments.)
Don’t think grass-fed is the answer. For starters, there isn’t enough grass in the world to feed this growing industry. Add in there are rules defining exactly what grass-fed means. (Hint: It’s not what you think it means.) Technically, all cattle are grass-fed. But most of them are grain-fed during the finishing process before they are brought to market. Grass-finished beef is the solution, but this can be very difficult to find. This is where buying local where you know your farmer can come in handy. Yet it’s unrealistic for the vast majority.
Okay, so there’s my three paragraphs about what I believe is currently wrong with animal production. Yes, there’s a lot to unpack there, but I’ll leave that for other training.
Which leads back to plant-based protein.
When you eat plant protein, you’re getting more than protein. You’re also getting micronutrients the body needs to thrive. Things you need to be healthy.
Plants have been proven to reduce chronic illness. That’s why EVERYONE recommends getting multiple servings of fruits and veggies daily. Evidence consistently shows that swapping plant protein for animals can help lower blood pressure, reduce diabetes, and may prevent cancers such as colon, stomach, prostate, and even breast cancer.
Plants have also been proven to add more years to your life. Not just years, but healthy years that you enjoy. It helps reduce the time between decline and death, giving you more life to thrive.
And in case you need other reasons, Mother Earth will thank you. Remember I said that it’s impossible to have enough space for the amount of animals we’re raising to be “grass-fed?” No matter what you believe about meat, it’s easy to believe that plants take up a lot less space and don’t require nearly the same level of production.
Go plant-based … Get your plant-based protein here!
Whether you currently eat meat or not, start moving towards a plant-based diet. There really isn’t a reason not to. And as you start adding in plant-based foods, be sure these proteins are included in your daily meals.
Examples: walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, cashews, pecans, peanuts
I remember hearing nuts are filled with oils and are bad for you. Not true. Many of them have a lot of healthy benefits, including essential amino acids and protein.
Peanuts are a legume, but we often eat them nut-like. The good news is as you move into plant-based eating, you’ll find nuts are used in a variety of ways.
I use cashews in many of my sauces. Soak them, blend them, and substitute them for cheese and other dressings.
Examples: beans, lentils, chickpeas
I’m a huge fan of Blue Zones creator Dan Buettner. In his books, he recommends adding beans to your daily diet as one of his top tips for longevity.
Yes! With so many varieties and so many possibilities, this is one food that’s easy to add to your diet. Soups, salads, entrees, and snacks, when you look through plant-based cookbooks, you’ll find them everywhere.
Want a simple snack idea? Roast chickpeas. I often rinse a can of organic chickpeas, toss them in olive oil, add a little salt and pepper, and leave them in the oven until nice and crunchy. Grab a handful, or use them as toppers for your salads. Mmm!
Lentil soup is also one of my go-to dinners. Think of it as a plant-based “chicken” soup. Add veggies, some spices and herbs, and you have a delectable lunch or dinner idea. It’s great to make ahead of time and store for quick meals.
Examples: flax, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, sesame
Seeds are super easy to use and provide healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. There really isn’t a good place not to use them!
Sprinkle them on your bowls, salads, and soups. Whip them into your smoothies. Instead of cashews, consider blending sunflower or pumpkin seeds into your favorite sauces and dressings.
Flax is also a great egg replacement. I use 1 tablespoon of flax meal (ground flax seeds) and 3 tablespoons of water mixed and left to sit for a few minutes to absorb the water.
Examples: tofu, tempeh, edamame
Soy contains all nine essential amino acids. Tofu is high in leucine for muscle growth. Tempeh has the added benefit of being a fermented food, which makes it especially easy to digest.
There continues to be controversy surrounding soy as to its benefits. Some suggest it raises breast cancer risks, others say it lowers it. It is one of the most common food allergens.
It’s equally important to pay attention to how it’s grown. Because most of it is a GMO crop, the only way to reap the benefits is to ensure you eat non-GMO, organic soy products.
Examples: quinoa, brown rice, millet, teff, farro, barley
Most of us don’t use grains in our normal cooking routine. If anything, rice migrates to the top of the list. But as you get further into your cooking routine, I suggest you start utilizing many of the different whole grains.
Quinoa has moved up in status, and for good reason. It contains all nine essential amino acids, and it’s packed with fiber. Shop Costco? You can get a big bag of organic quinoa. I store it and use it regularly for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I use it as a base for my homemade granola. I use it to make quinoa bowls when I’m unsure what to make for dinner. Make up extra and keep it in the fridge. You can top arugula, spinach, or kale for an easy lunch. Just top with your favorite veggies, and you’re good to go.
Plants are truly superfoods. Think of all the power packed in one tiny plant. It’s truly amazing we’ve ignored their benefits for so long.
But that’s the beauty of today’s world. I believe we’re just starting to realize the error in our ways. We understand that we can’t survive on this overprocessed mess of a food system we’ve made.
You’re here now. Which means you’re searching for something more.
Let me know how I can serve you better and help you in your plant-based journey.