Thinking about going vegan or vegetarian? It’s likely you’ve worried, or thought, about the amount of protein and the types of nutrients you’ll be ingesting.
Let’s start by busting the myth that you need meat to get enough protein in your diet. Lean protein from animals is a great source of the necessary nutrients, but there are a variety of plant protein sources out there. And they work for anyone, omnivores and vegans alike!
Plant consumption may be linked to lower risk of heart disease, while the intake of animal protein can be associated with increased risk. Plant protein also appears linked to lower cancer risk than animal protein. There have even been studies linking a plant-based diet to beneficial effects such as lower risk of allergies, lower risk of blood clots, and better preservation of muscle mass into old age.
The primary difference between animal proteins and plant proteins are their chain of amino acids. The close-mimicking of human proteins found in soy and animal products leads them to be called “complete” proteins. Most plant foods are low in both methionine and lysine, whereas legumes are low in just methionine and are almost as “complete” as soy.
The key to a balanced diet featuring plant proteins is focusing on variety and the amount you consume. You can also focus on pairing foods that combine amino acids into the balance you need. In the early 1970s in her book Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe popularized the idea of combining plant proteins at each meal in order to get a “complete” protein. Her suggested pairs include rice and beans, hummus and pita, and pastas with lentil-based sauces.
The 2009 American Dietetic Association’s Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets says:
“Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.”
Essentially, as long as you’re eating a healthy balance of different types of proteins in your diet, you don’t need to worry about supplementing in any way! You should be looking for the best package deal with the foods you eat — lots of phytonutrients, fiber, low saturated fat, and healthy complex carbs.
So what should I be eating that’s high in protein?
Nutrient-dense grains and seeds are a good choice. Amaranth has nine grams of protein for every one cup. Quinoa is popular for many reasons, one of which is that it’s higher in lysine, so it makes a good pair for other plants. Pumpkin seeds can be a delicious snack. It’s easy to throw grains and seeds into porridge, salads, and soup!
Legumes make up a large part of most plant-based diets. Beans like garbanzo, kidney, and pinto are chock-full of nutrients. Lentils and peas are delicious additions to many meals. Soy foods like edamame, tempeh, tofu, and soy milk also fall into this category.
Nuts are also a major source of protein. One ounce of almonds contains about six grams of protein. However, if you ate a cup of almonds in a meal to fulfill your protein intake, you’d also be consuming more than half of the recommended daily allowance of fat. That being said, nuts are the perfect mid-day snack to give you a protein and fat boost.