Many have chosen a meat free diet, or a diet that contains smaller amounts of animal products for a variety of reasons—whether for health, or the well being of animals and our planet, or something completely different, it seems that more and more are adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Of course, when we begin to remove certain things from our diet, it is crucial that we make up for it in other ways. Primarily, an issue many face (whether they are a meat eater or not) is adequate protein.
Protein Is Key
Most of us agree that protein is an important part of a healthy diet. Even more so for those of us who are active: protein is essential to rebuild and repair every single system in our body, from our skin to our immune system. In addition, protein boosts metabolism and promotes fat burn. Consuming too little protein can result in low energy and fatigue, a sluggish metabolism, the inability to build muscle, poor immunity, slow wound healing, trouble losing weight, weak skin, hair, nails, and more.
For individuals who have chosen to limit animal products, it is even more common to experience symptoms of insufficient protein. Not only that, but being sure to include foods, and combine foods, as needed, to get a full amino acid profile (meaning all 9 essential amino acids are present) can be difficult. Essential amino acids are just that, essential, due to the fact that our body does not make them independently. But when a vegan or vegetarian diet is done right, it can be extremely health supportive.
Remove Labels: What Do You Need?
Personally, I don’t like labeling, whether its vegan, paleo, or whatever. I think anytime a person feels they need to follow a specific diet perfectly, imbalances often occur. I think our focus ought to be shifted to how our bodies feel. For instance, maybe you’re vegan and avoid gluten, but find that eggs and fish are supportive for you. Or maybe you lean more towards a paleo diet, but incorporate legumes and organic yogurt.
So what are some ways to ensure you’re consuming adequate protein while eating a mostly plant based diet? First of all, protein should be present at every meal and snack. Not only is this essential for blood sugar balance, but it will keep your metabolism going, and keep you fuller longer. In addition, from a functional medicine perspective, the average woman needs at least 60 grams of protein per day, and the average man, 80 grams per day. Often people are unaware how little protein certain foods have.
THE BEST PROTEIN SOURCES
Finding ways to include a variety of protein sources in your diet will be the best way to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids necessary for repairing and rebuilding the body. I recommend that even those who consume a primarily plant-based diet experiment with things like pasture raised eggs, possibly some organic yogurt or kefir (if dairy is tolerated), and fish. In addition, even including animal protein like chicken or grassfed beef a couple times a week, as long as it is organic, can be extremely supportive. However, for the remainder of the time, here are some of my top picks for plant based protein sources to incorporate into your diet:
1. Grains And Legumes
If you lean more toward a primarily plant-based diet, grains and legumes are likely a staple for you. Grains and legumes are often served together, as they are a complete protein (containing all 9 essential amino acids) when combined. Even if you were to consume grains in the morning, and beans or lentils for lunch, you would receive the benefits of a complete protein.
Nuts are also a good source of plant-based protein and healthy fat. Some nuts more so than others: almonds and walnuts contain higher amounts of protein, and can be added to a meal to boost protein content.
Like nuts, seeds are another great form of plant protein. Hemp seeds are one of my favorites, as they are high in fiber, and contain 10 grams of protein per serving! I also recommend sesame seeds, or tahini (ground sesame seeds). Tahini is excellent for making dressings and sauces, or simply drizzled over roasted veggies. Two tablespoons of tahini contains eight grams of protein. Sesame seeds are also one of the best plant-based sources of calcium, another bonus for vegans and vegetarians!
In previous years, soy has been touted as a health food, but recently, we have found some dangers in consuming high amounts of soy. But consuming the right kinds of soy is key: choosing organic and non-GMO is a given, as over 93% of soy is genetically modified. In addition, selecting fermented forms of soy, such as tempeh and miso, are less processed, easier to digest, and contain beneficial bacteria for the gut! Whole edamame beans are also a good option, as they are unprocessed. However, keep in mind that unfermented soy may cause digestive upsets, and in those cases, opting for the fermented varieties is best. Soy is one of the rare sources of plant protein that is complete.
5. Nutritional Yeast
My all-time favorite source of plant protein is nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast is actually an inactive form of yeast. It’s high is B-vitamins which support energy, metabolism, and reduce stress. B-vitamins are a common deficiency for those who do not consume animal products, so nutritional yeast is a great option. Not only that, it adds an incredible nutty, cheese flavor to food. I love it on top of roasted vegetables, kale salads, grains, etc. Nutritional yeast contains eight grams of protein per tablespoon!
If you’re open to eating some animal products, fish is one of the best sources of complete protein, and also contains major anti-inflammatory properties. I like to recommend wild salmon, as most people enjoy it, and it’s low in mercury. Sardines are another favorite of mine, as they are one of the highest in omega-3s, lowest in mercury, and a great source of vitamin B-12, again, another common deficiency among plant eaters. Don’t let the idea of sardines creep you out; there are plenty of recipes out there to prepare them in a delicious way!
7. Yogurt And Kefir
If dairy is tolerated, both yogurt and kefir are good ways to get a complete animal protein into your diet, along with some healthy gut bacteria. However, when selecting such things, I recommend opting for plain, and sweetening it yourself with some honey or stevia. Some brands of yogurt actually contain as much sugar as a can of soda: yikes! Organic is also important anytime animal products are being consumed to avoid antibiotics and hormones that are added to our food supply. If dairy causes issues, try a goat’s milk yogurt or kefir; it’s tasty and much easier for the body to digest.
8. Protein Powder
Protein powder can be a great way to supplement some additional protein into your diet. I prefer cold-pressed organic whey, as it is one of the most bioavailable forms of protein, meaning the body is able to use it well. The quality of the whey is key for bioavailability. Make sure to select cold-pressed, organic, and grassfed whey to receive the true benefits of whey protein. I love Natural Force Whey. Whey is also great because it is free of casein, which is the protein in dairy that the majority of people are sensitive to. If you don’t want to do whey, there are lots of vegan proteins out there. Pea protein is a good alternative, as it is easy for the body to digest. Sun Warrior protein is an amazing raw and vegan protein that I recommend.
Variety is the key here. So maybe you have some black beans with tahini, some sliced avocado, and roasted veggies with nutritional yeast sprinkled on top for lunch. Later that day you have a more grain-based meal with some tempeh (fermented soy), and vegetables sprinkled with hemp seeds. Doing this will ensure you’re getting a wide range of amino acids to support the building and repairing of your body.