If you’re thinking of pursuing a vegan lifestyle or simply want to cut back on the amount of animal products you consume, you might be concerned about where you’re going to get your protein. But there’s no need to worry! You can get more than enough of all the nutrients you require from these superb sources of plant-based protein.
If you’ve heard that human beings require animal products to get enough protein, you aren’t alone. That rumour has been circulating for quite some time now. Brenda Davis, a registered dietician and nutritionist as well as the co-author of seven books on the subject of healthy eating, explains that the notion that we need animal products to get the “high-quality” protein we require is completely untrue. There is a “myth that meat contains high-quality protein and plants contain low-quality protein,” and that we require animal products for optimal health, explains Davis. But the truth is that the essential amino acids in protein that we’re after are actually made by plants. We can’t make them, and neither can the animals we eat. Nor do animals transform those amino acids into something different or better, asserts Davis.
Getting all the essential amino acids
“There are quite a few plant foods that have very good amounts of amino acids,” she explains, and it’s simply a matter of ensuring you consume a variety of plant-based proteins so you get all the amino acids you require. When amino acids are consumed, they are stored in “pools,” says Davis. So if you don’t consume a certain amino acid at one meal, your body can pull on its amino acid stores from earlier as a way to have everything it requires. You don’t have to consume every amino acid at every meal. So long as you consume protein from a variety of sources, your body will have everything it needs.
Now for the big question: What are the sources of plant-based protein?
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Legumes are the most concentrated sources of protein, explains Davis. Think beans, lentils and peas, as well as the products made from them, such as tofu and tempeh. Soya beans, which are used to make many meat-alternative products like tofu and tempeh, contain the highest quality of protein as well as all the amino acids.
Examples of legumes include kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, red lentils, black-eyed peas and edamame.
Nuts and seeds
Davis points out that seeds are significantly more concentrated in terms of protein than are nuts. For example, in pumpkin seeds, 17 per cent of the calories are from protein, whereas almonds offer 13 per cent. Many seeds, including pumpkin seeds, are also “high in zinc, iron and a lot of other nutrients that can be a little bit of a challenge on a plant-based diet,” she explains.
Examples of nuts and seeds include almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds.
You’ve likely heard of the many benefits of leafy greens, but did you know they are excellent sources of protein? Leafy greens can offer upward of 40 per cent of their calories as protein, explains Davis. Although the fact that non-starchy vegetables are low in calories means it’s hard to get enough protein from them alone without consuming large quantities, they still contribute to your overall intake.
Examples of non-starchy vegetables that are good sources of protein include spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, kale and asparagus.
“Grains are the largest source of protein in the world,” explains Davis, and their percentage of calories from protein can range from 8 to 18 per cent. Eating protein-rich grains in their intact form as much as possible can greatly contribute to your protein requirements.
Examples of protein-rich grains include quinoa, amaranth, teff, wild rice and bulgur.
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Where to be careful
There is no reason for someone who doesn’t consume animal products to not get enough protein, but it can happen. The two main reasons for that are consumption of too few calories and consumption of too many low- or no-protein foods. Oils, sugars and fruits are either void of or very low in protein, so a diet high in these foods or one that simply doesn’t contain enough calories can lead to not having enough protein. But if you eat from a variety of protein sources throughout the day, you should be just fine, explains Davis.
How to get it all
As explained above, you don’t have to consume every protein source at every meal of every day. But if you attempt to survive on pasta and bagels, you won’t likely fare well on a vegan diet. A good way to begin is by incorporating legumes, which Davis refers to as “our most precious source of plant-based protein and a source of many other nutrients vegans can be lacking.” She explains that people all over the world who don’t have access to meat have found ways to make legumes taste fantastic. Grains can be used as a scrumptious side or base for all kinds of dishes, and nuts and seeds make excellent snacks and flavourful toppings. When it comes to getting extra greens, blending them into soups and smoothies makes for tasty and time-efficient meals. All sorts of cookbooks and online recipes can be found, just waiting to show you all the ways in which you can make plant-based protein taste great. So enjoy your beans and greens!