My vegan friend was over for a visit and we got onto the topic of protein… she was concerned she was not getting enough protein on her plant-based diet and wondered about some good protein sources. I empathize with her confusion around protein considering the inconceivable amount of conflicting information being thrown at us from all directions. Even the common ‘trusted’ source for general nutrition information is flawed due to its one-size-fits-all approach which groups its recommendations into a ‘generally healthy’ adult category.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein intake suggests 0.8g/kg of body weight, right off the bat this recommendation is highly over-estimated… The World Health Organization actually recommends cutting this total in half, making it more like 0.4g of protein per kg body weight.
Protein intake also depends on many factors, including body type, activity level, stress levels, and others. No intake of anything is one-size-fits-all. Consuming the proper amount and types of protein is not really as hard as many make it out to be (this information is often fuelled by the meat and dairy industry to influence people to continue to consume their products, I won’t get started on this topic, it’s a whole other story). It is really not as hard as many think to get the proper protein balance from plant-based foods, and getting adequate amounts of protein comes down to what kind of protein you are eating, not necessarily the total amount.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s examine protein. I need to stress that it is not so much the quantity of protein, it’s the quality. Proteins are composed of molecules called amino acids. Inside the body, we break down the protein into whatever amino acids they are made of, then use those amino acids as building blocks to create our own proteins.
There are also different types of amino acids, some that our bodies can create on their own (non-essential) and some that must be obtained through the diet (essential). The essential amino acids are the ones I would like to focus on. There are 8 essential amino acids, and when eating a plant-based diet we have to combine certain foods to make a complete protein due to the fact that plant foods contain very specific kinds of amino acids (aka protein). This might sound confusing, but allow me to simplify: if we purchase a plant-based protein powder that only contains 4 types of essential amino acids, even if we were to eat tubs and tubs of this protein powder, we would still be deficient in protein because we are lacking the other 4 essential amino acids. This is why quality of protein is more important than quantity.
In the plant world, the only sources of complete protein by itself is quinoa and amaranth. While these grains are versatile and delicious, we need a variety of foods in our diet to receive other important nutrients. So how do we make sure we are getting all 8 of the essential amino acids? We use complimentary food groups and combine them to create a complete protein.
Here are some easy combinations to create complete protein in your plant-based meals:
Whole grains with Beans/Legumes (ex: Millet + Aduki Bean Bowl or Brown rice + Black bean pilaf)
Whole Grains with Nuts/Seeds (ex: Steel Cut Oatmeal Porridge + Almond Butter or Buckwheat + Pumpkin Seed Salad)
Beans/Legumes with Nuts/Seeds (ex: Lentils + Walnut Loaf or Chickpea + Cashew salad)
The beauty in all of this is the endless combinations and flexibility to get creative in the kitchen!