Protein on a Plant-Based Diet
Protein on a Plant-Based Diet
When people think of protein, they usually think of animal products – meals assembled around a meaty main attraction. Times are changing, and today a growing number of individuals are considering a meat-free or animal-free diet. It is true that animal sources of protein are much easier to obtain, but remember, plants have protein too! For people who choose to eat plant-based diets for ethical, environmental, spiritual or other personal beliefs, this is great news. Here we will address the age-old question that vegans and vegetarians are posed: “where do you get your protein?”
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Proteins are large molecules that are made up of hundreds or thousands of amino acids, neatly bound to one another in long sequent chains. There are a total of 20 amino acids, 11 of which our bodies can make, and 9 of which are considered essential and need to be obtained through our diet.
Animal protein sources are considered complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by our bodies.
Plant-based sources of complete protein are harder to come across – foods such as: soy, quinoa, and buckwheat are on the short list of complete proteins. Most plant-based protein sources are either low in the amino acids methionine or lysine, which makes it very important to eat a variety of plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts/seeds, and grains so that we obtain all the necessary amino acids required for optimal function.
WHY DO WE NEED PROTEIN?
Structure & Physical Function – The body’s connective structure is built with keratin, collagen & elastin.
Immune Function – Proteins help form fibrinogen for blood clotting, and antibodies to battle infections.
Transport/Storage – Hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen. Lipoproteins transport cholesterol.
Hormones – Proteins are chemical messengers that help with cell, tissue and organ interaction. These include insulin, glucagon and steroids from fat cholesterol and sex hormones (testosterone & estrogen).
Enzymes – Proteins aid with digestion (e.g. lactase) and support various metabolic functions.
Brain Function – Eating protein raises levels of the amino acid tyrosine, triggering the brain to make norepinephrine & dopamine, which promotes alertness and increases energy. [i]
Buffering Proteins – Proteins such as hemoglobin help balance the blood pH.[ii]
Fluid Balance – Albumin and globulin are proteins in the blood that assist with maintaining fluid balance by drawing and holding water.
PLANT-BASED PROTEIN SOURCES
Source: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference & https://food-nutrition.canada.ca/cnf-fce/
Below are some great plant-based protein options.
1 cup firm Tofu – 30g of protein
1 cup Tempeh – 41g of protein
1 cup cooked Lentils – 18g of protein
1 cup cooked Black Beans – 15g of protein
1 cup cooked Chickpeas – 12g of protein
1 cup cooked Buckwheat – 22.5g of protein
1 cup cooked Quinoa – 9g of protein
1/4 cup raw Hemp Hearts – 14g of protein
1/4 cup raw Chia Seeds – 7g of protein
1/4 cup raw Almonds – 7g of protein
1/4 cup raw Cashews – 6g of protein
It is totally possible to get an adequate amount of protein on a plant-based diet. It calls for a little extra meal planning and prepping to ensure that a variety of plant proteins are consumed throughout the week. Remember, variety is key! The World Health Organization recommends 0.8-1g of protein per kg of body weight for the average person. Protein needs are generally higher for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and athletes. I always recommend sticking to whole food protein sources, but in case you are in a bind, there are also some high quality plant-based proteins on the market that can be added to smoothies or other recipes.
[i] Asor, E., Stempler, S., Avital, A., Klein, E., Ruppin, E., & Ben-Shachar, D. (2015). The role of branched chain amino acid and tryptophan metabolism in rat’s behavioral diversity: Intertwined peripheral and brain effects. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 25(10), 1695-1705. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2015.07.009
[ii] Hamm, L. L., Nakhoul, N., & Hering-Smith, K. S. (2015). Acid-Base Homeostasis. Clinical journal of the American Society of Nephrology : CJASN, 10(12), 2232-42. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4670772/