I don’t consider myself a Vegan or even a Vegetarian, but a look at my typical daily diet would certainly indicate that I am. I don’t keep many animal products in my house, with the exception of Greek yogurt; no eggs, milk, butter, cheese or meat. I tend to bake using only Vegan recipes because it’s simply easier to use what I have on hand, such as almond milk and coconut oil, than buy a whole carton of eggs and only use two. I also tend to cook mainly Vegetarian meals because of this as well; I always have fresh produce on hand. There is the occasional craving for a hamburger or sushi, which I indulge in when it strikes, but more often than not my diet is plant-based.
The question that often gets asked, certainly of my Vegan friends, is “Where do you get your protein?”. I find this interesting because although meat does provide us with a large amount of protein, as well as essential vitamins like B12, we can get the same 22 amino acids our bodies need to manufacture protein from a whole slew of plant-based foods. Our bodies can absorb protein from veggies, legumes, whole grains and nuts just as easily, and often more easily, than they can from an animal source.
According to Amy Lanou, PhD and senior nutrition scientist for the Washington D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, your body doesn’t care where the protein comes from. The body breaks down all proteins into their amino acid building blocks which it then moves around like Legos and assembles into hormones, fingernails, hair, muscles, bones, etc. She says, “Your body can use amino acids from anywhere, methionine is methionine no matter if it came from chicken or soy.” (FYI: Methionine is an essential amino acid found in eggs, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, fish, meat and cereal grains.) Interestingly, the rate at which your body can access that methionine, or any other essential amino acid, depends on the components of the protein and how it is prepared and the high fat content of most animal protein actually slows down digestion and makes it more difficult for the body to absorb.
While animal products do contain all the essential amino acids (there are nine of them), research has indicated that we don’t need to get all of them in only one meal to ensure good health. If you eat a variety of plant protein during the course of the day, maybe oatmeal for breakfast, lentils at lunch, and leafy greens at dinner, you can easily accumulate all nine by day’s end. Plus, a day’s worth of plant protein provides way more nutrients your body needs that animal protein just doesn’t have, such as antioxidants, flavanoids (they help prevent cancer and heart disease), carotenoids (they can boost the immune system), and fiber (which is the reason why it can be absorbed more easily into the body). Plant protein also has significantly less saturated fat than animal. For example, a single 6oz porterhouse steak has 38g of complete protein (yay!), but nearly 44g of fat, 16 of them saturated (boo!). By comparison, a cup of cooked lentils has 18g of protein (hooray!) and less than 1g of saturated fat (double hooray!). It has also been found that plant protein contains higher level of one amino acid called arginine, which stimulates the body to make less cholesterol, so if you are concerned about high cholesterol levels, switching to plant-based protein sources is a great option for you.
So, we’ve discovered how we don’t have to eat steak and eggs for breakfast every day in order to get all the essential amino acids our bodies need, but are we focusing too much on getting enough protein overall? “Americans are having a love affair with protein,” says Lanou. “The average American eats nearly two times the protein needed by the body.” The general recommendation for daily protein intake is about 1g per kilogram of body weight. For the average person, that translates to about 70g of protein a day (roughly 280 calories worth). If we have that porterhouse for dinner (38g) and add that to a breakfast with eggs and bacon and a salad with chicken, beans and cheese for lunch, we’ve seriously exceeded our recommended limit for the day. If you do plan on having that steak for dinner, try to limit your other animal protein sources throughout the day, and definitely pair that porterhouse with a hearty side of sautéed leafy greens to help all that protein through your system.
But is having more protein than we might need in a day really a bad thing? Unfortunately, yes. I have encountered this problem most often with my clients and they are usually shocked to learn that too much of a good thing is actually not healthy. Excess protein is stored as fat in the body and studies indicate that excess animal protein can be linked to kidney stones, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and a number of cancers including breast, colon and stomach. Plant protein, amazingly enough, does not produce these risks, even when eaten in excess. So double up the leaves and lentils and halve the eggs and bacon!
If you’re interested in reducing your animal protein intake, certainly peruse the produce aisle at the grocery store, but add some beans, quinoa, lentils and legumes to your cart and you’ll be good to go! I am a huge advocate of nut butters, certainly my delicious homemade peanut butter from my Vitamix, but you do have to watch the serving size (no more than 2Tbsp, something I am still trying to abide by) since nuts are quite high in fat (even if it is the “good” kind!).
Soy is a good protein alternative, although it’s best to avoid heavily processed soy products, such as tofu and soy milk, which can be high in extra estrogen and unnecessary chemicals. I have been having a love/hate relationship with soy lately, something which I plan to address in my next blog post, so stay tuned!
It’s incredibly easy, not to mention beneficial for your health, to replace some of your animal protein with plant sources. You can still have that steak, just try a smaller serving paired with a larger serving of veggies and reduce the amount of times you consume it in a week. Here’s a few meatless meal ideas to get you started!
Oatmeal with berries and almonds
Spinach and mushroom omelet
Tofu veggie scramble with a side of fruit
Black bean soup with a side salad
Quinoa tabouli (with tomatoes, parsley and chickpeas) on a bed of greens
Almond butter and banana sandwich with raw veggies
Tempeh tacos with a spinach salad
Kale, carrot and sunflower seed stir fry with brown rice
Lentil dal with brown rice and steamed greens
Resource: Experience L!fe Magazine