By popular demand, this is a post about plant-based proteins. Before you freak out, I’m not “anti-meat,” nor am I vegan (not that there’s anything wrong with eating vegan). In fact, just this morning I made some chorizo breakfast burritos that were the bomb.com. However, we simply can’t deny the literature that supports the benefits of a more whole-food-plant-based eating style with regard to health promotion and disease prevention. So here it goes.
First of all, an undying myth exists surrounding a “meat-free” eating style. This myth entails someone dreaming up the idea that we have to have “complimentary proteins” to obtain all the amino acids (teensy protein-building blocks) we need. The need to combine certain foods to obtain adequate protein is simply NOT TRUE. I don’t feel like explaining this, especially since a respected colleague, Jeff Novick, MS, RD, has already done this quite nicely; if you’d like, you can read about it here.
Most people, including and especially athletic individuals, seem to think that we HAVE TO HAVE MEAT to obtain enough protein to get those killer muscles. Again, not true. A whole-food, plant-based diet can provide more than enough protein to fuel even the most “athleticky” althletes around. I will give you some numbers in a second regarding protein, carbohydrate, fiber content, and all that jazz. But first, I think it’s valuable for you to see first hand some stories about some real-life athletes who [gasp!] never eat meat. Read about a few of them here. There are plenty more other stories about vegan athletes out there as well. It’s some pretty legit stuff. Not to mention that gorillas are pretty buff and totally vegan too…
Often, tofu becomes one of the first foods that comes to many minds when one mentions plant-based proteins. While I don’t have a beef against tofu (see what I did there), I don’t really like it much. Some people live by the stuff. I don’t like tofu for two reasons: (1) I haven’t eaten anything containing tofu that made me go “wow, that’s good;” and (2) I am unable to form a professional opinion on the benefits vs. harm regarding soy based on current research.
About half the peer-reviewed literature touts soy as a fabulous way to obtain phytoestrogens and isoflavones, which are phytochemicals (phyto=plant) that have been shown to improve risk for heart disease, cancer, and which can help manage menopausal symptoms. The other half of the peer-reviewed literature exposes the fact that phytoestrogens can potentially disrupt the endocrine system, posing harm on our thyroid, risk for cancer, etc.
I simply have been unable to form a solid, professional stance on soy due to the fact that the risks seem to equal the benefits. It all depends on the individual, the health of your gut, presence of mutated cells already in your body (which you wouldn’t feel or see), and so many unmanageable variables. Personally, I simply choose to stay away from soy when I can; what you do with soy is up to you based on what I just said. The topic of soy, alone, would take up an entire post or two; so I’m going to leave it at that.
Ok I lied…I still have a few more things to say about soy. What is important for you to realize is that soy is in nearly EVERYTHING we eat, not just that block of tofu at the grocery store. Soy can be in that mysterious ingredient “natural flavoring;” it is also usually found in the ingredient “lecithin.” For a more comprehensive list of how to determine if your food contains soy, look here. Furthermore, fermented soy products (i.e. tempeh, miso, natto, etc.) appear to be a better soy option, as the fermentation process decreases some of the “risky” aspects of soy. Again, the topic of soy deserves an entirely separate post. Stay tuned.
Ok, now for what you probably came here for: which foods are considered plant-based proteins, and how much protein do they contain?
- Beans. I know you’re thinking, “shocker!” But hear me out. I feel like beans are underappreciated. And by beans, I’m actually referring to all legumes: lentils, peas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, and many others. You see, legumes can contain about 15 grams of protein and about 30 grams of carbohydrates per 1 cup (varies depending on specific type – 1 cup of sprouted lentils contains a whopping 20 grams of protein). “What?! [Gasp!] Carbs! We will all die!” Carbs won’t kill you, and carbs from beans are certainaly not going to independently “make you fat.” If you’re trying to gain muscle, you need protein and carbs to physiologically make that happen. The cool thing about legumes, is that they have a pretty decent carb-to-protein ratio; and they have fiber, magnesium, folate, iron, a ton of antioxidants, and a whole bunch of other cool stuff you need in order to be healthy. Here are just a few examples of the five-zillion meal ideas that exist containing legumes.
- Nuts and seeds. Although they are high in fat, nuts and seeds are high in super-healthy types of fat that we definitely need (in appropriate amounts of course). A half-cup of whole almonds contains about 15 grams of protein; a half-cup of pecans has about 5 grams of protein; and a half-cup of peanuts has about 19 grams of protein. If we want to get nit-picky, peanuts are actually legumes…but whatever; you get the idea. Nuts and seeds contain so many good nutrients beyond just healthy fats and protein. They contain fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, and many other nutrients and antioxidants. Just use caution with portion control with nuts/seeds, and be aware of the added salt that many contain. Some of my favorite things to do with nuts (besides just a good ol’ handful) are:
- Sliced almonds in my oatmeal w/cinnamon and honey
- Sliced apple with natural peanut butter (only ingredients are peanuts and salt if it’s truly a “natural” peanut butter)
- Homemade trail mix: a 2 to 1 ratio of whatever nuts you like to dried fruit (no-added-sugar dried fruit)
- Sunflower seeds and/or slivered almonds on my leafy salad
- Nut crumbs (zap some whole nuts in a food processor until crumbley/powdery) mixed in with whole grain pancake batter for pancakes that are actually nutritionally worthwhile (c’mon – “regular” pancakes are like having birthday cake for breakfast. Seriously…)
- Vegetables. We have been so ingrained to think of only meat as our protein sources, that we forget about that which is right in front of us sometimes. Just because a food isn’t “high in protein” doesn’t mean it doesn’t all add up. For example, cooked broccoli contains about 4 grams of protein per 1 cup. One cup of cooked spinach contains about 5 grams of protein. The added bonus of protein from these sources is the too-many-to-list micronutrients and antioxidants they contain. Additionally, think bigger-picture with the vegetable protein concept. For example, you make a soup with spinach, beans, and some other vegetables, such as this one, and you could easily have a hearty amount of protein despite the meat-less-ness.
- Whole grains. Yeah I know, “but they contain those ghastly carbs!” Again, I’ll say that you need some carbs to be able to physiologically build muscle. And, whole grains provide us with really valuable phytochemicals that punch our cholesterol in its face and help us poop, to say the least. A 1 cup serving of cooked quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) contains about 8 grams of protein. One slice of my favorite Dave’s Killer Bread contains 5 grams of protein.
Keep in mind that you may not need quite as much protein as you think; and you certainly can achieve your protein needs without “fake nutrition” (i.e. protein shakes, packaged protein bars, etc.). If you’re a fit, muscle-building athlete, you may need up to of 1.2-1.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. This means, for a 150 lb woman, for example, you might need around 80-90 grams of protein per day. If you are simply a regular person, doing a mediocre amount of exercise (think walking a few miles per week at best), you only need up to 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight. So, for the same 150 lb woman, this would be around 65-70 grams of protein per day.
It’s also very important to note that calculations for protein needs vary significantly depending on an individual’s activity level, gender, height, weight, age, kidney function, liver function, etc. Too much protein can strain your body in some unnoticeable yet damaging ways. Additionally, it is critical that you drink adequate water, especially if you have a “high” protein intake. If you want a true-to-you protein recommendation, consult your local RDN. Hy-Vee and King Soopers grocery stores have accessible RDNs; most, if not all, hospitals and some gyms do too. You could also ask your doctor for a referral to see an RDN.
Let’s pull it all together in a sample plant-based day and see how we add up with protein. If we are talking about the example above, a 150 lb woman who is an athlete trying to maintain and build muscle, we need no more than about 80-90 grams of protein per day.
Here is a sample day’s eating to give you a better picture:
- 1 slice whole grain bread w/ 2 Tbsp natural peanut butter = 9 grams protein, 31 grams carb, 5 grams fiber
- 1 small apple = 0 protein, 15 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
- ¼ cup almonds = 7 grams protein, 7 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
- 1 small orange = 0 grams protein, 15 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
- Tuscan White Bean Soup (1 cup) = 12 grams protein, 38 grams carb, 8 grams fiber
- Arugula salad w/2 Tbsp sunflower seeds and veggies = 6 grams protein, 6 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
- Lara bar (peanut butter cookie flavor) = 7 grams protein, 23 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
- 2 Baked Falafel Burgers w/ lettuce wraps & tomato = 18 grams protein, 35 grams carb, 10 grams fiber
- Spinach salad w/2 Tbsp walnuts = 4 grams protein, 3 grams carb, 3 grams fiber
- Chickpea Cookie Dough = 11 grams protein, 31 grams carb, 7 grams fiber
- The total daily protein intake for this sample day = 74 grams. Not too shabby given our 80-90 g/day goal. Bear in mind this was a completely vegan sample day. I don’t eat that way, nor do I feel you have to to be healthy. You could swap out any number of items on this menu for more protein. For example, 1 boiled egg chopped up as part of each of those two salads listed for lunch and dinner would add another 14 grams of protein. With that extra bit of egg on the salads, the grand total would have been 88 grams of protein for the day. Easy peasy. Get it – “peasy” Haha…
- I don’t really ever believe in a “carbs per day” total; carbohydrate needs vary widely from person to person. However, if we are using a 150 lb woman athlete for an example, I think a rough guideline of about 45 grams carb per meal (per day is less relevant) and about 15-20 grams carb per snack would be pretty appropriate. This sample day gives us a pretty good total per meal and per snack with regard to carbohydrates; and they are all high-fiber, good-quality carbohydrates, which does make a difference physiologically.
- Total fiber intake was 53 grams. This is a tad on the high side of fiber actually, as the recommended grams of fiber per day for most of us is 25-35 grams per day. With a little creativity, and if you’re open to some animal products, a few adjustments could reduce the fiber a bit while not sacrificing protein or nutrition.
Eat meat or don’t; but try to emphasize plant proteins to the best of your ability and you are more likely to be healthy. Also don’t forget to drink ample water.
It’s bean fun (see what I did again – get it). See you next time!