When I tell people I’m pretty much vegetarian (technically I still do eat seafood about 2x’s per week, so I can be defined as pescatarian) they always ask me “Well how do you get your protein?” There are many misconceptions about how much protein you should consume as well as protein sources. So let’s discuss!
First off, protein is a macronutrient composed of building blocks called amino acids, which link together to form protein chains in different combinations. Our bodies do not use protein per se, it uses amino acids to perform many different functions in the body. To name a few, they maintain and foster the growth of our cells, make antibodies and hormones, and help regulate our fluid and electrolyte balance. There are roughly 23 amino acids and of those, eight are found outside our bodies and must be obtained from our food. When a food contains all eight amino acids – known as the essential amino acids – it’s considered a complete protein.
Now once we eat this protein, the amino acid chains need to be broken down so we can reconstruct their order in a specific way for our bodies. I think a big misconception is that when we eat a big hunk of steak, it instantly turns into muscle in our bodies. But think about it, how does a cow, the source of those big protein steaks, build muscle when it naturally only eats grass? The cow builds its large muscles from the amino acids in the grass it is eating!! In fact, many of the largest, most muscular animals on earth are vegetarians – gorillas, wild horses, hippos, and rhinos. If that’s not solid proof that plant-based foods can source you with enough protein to thrive, then I don’t know what is!
Another question I would like to briefly address is how much protein should we be eating? Over the past decade or so, a number of high-protein, low-carb diets have become increasing popular. We’ve heard from the media as well as the government that we should be eating lots of dairy and meat (both high in protein) to stay trim and healthy. But remember, it’s the dairy and meat industries as well as the government that are paying for, and of course, benefiting from all of the hype! The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Forks Over Knives by Caldwell Esselstyn are both excellent resources to read (Forks Over Knives was also made into a documentary!) if you’re interested in really understanding the scary effects of a high animal protein diet. But in short, the numerous studies and experiments conducted by both of these doctors found that cultures who consumed around 10% or less of their diets from protein were the healthiest, especially if the protein was plant-based. The results also linked high animal-based protein diets* with Cancer, Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Autoimmune Diseases, Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Eye Diseases, Obesity, Kidney Stones and Osteoporosis. There have been ZERO studies linking plant-based protein to ANY of the above diseases. And from personal experience, I’ve never felt better or have been as toned as I am now since cutting out animal protein and limiting dairy to just a few times per month.
(*Animal-based foods include all animal meat, dairy products and eggs)
So what are some great plant-based protein foods that contain the essential amino acids our bodies need to perform at its finest?
*All Nuts and Seeds (Ground Flax Seed, Chia Seeds, Walnuts, Almonds, Sesame Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Pine Nuts)
*Whole Grains (Quinoa, Millet, Brown Rice, Forbidden Rice, Wild Rice, Oatmeal, Amaranth)
*Beans (Black, Cannellini, Kidney)
*Non-Dairy Milk (Almond and Rice are the best choices)
*Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, Cabbage, Mushrooms, Cauliflower, Asparagus, Arugula, Collard Greens, Romaine Lettuce, Avocado, Sweet Potato, Kale and Spinach to name a few!
*Chlorella, Spirulina and Hemp are great supplements to take orally or add to your smoothies if you feel like you need more protein!
The best part is, all of these yummy foods also have a plethora of disease-fighting vitamins, minerals (including calcium), fiber and antioxidants that will keep our body looking and feeling its best!
One final note – these essential amino acid chains wear out and do need to be replaced each and every day. But the amazing part is our bodies are so smart that they automatically store and arrange the amino acid chains in the correct order to function optimally. In other words, we don’t have to worry about properly combining different proteins at each meal. As long as we have a diet rich in a wide variety of foods from the above plant groups, we will receive the essential eight essential amino acids in abundance and our bodies will handle the rest! Happy Eating! 🙂