Joe Jackson on why we need protein and which plant foods provide the most
Anyone who chooses to follow a plant-based diet is probably all too familiar with the question “where do you get your protein?” The mind automatically jumps to animal products when thinking about the answer to this question, whether it be the meat itself or animal products such as milk and eggs. This may seem completely baffling to some, as there is such a wide variety of plant-based foods available in the human diet, which offer just as much protein as animal sources, without some of the associated health risks that can be linked to excessive animal produce consumption.
So what exactly is protein? It’s one of the most abundant nutrients in the human body (second only to water), responsible for the growth and repair of every cell in our anatomy, including bone, tissue, muscle, hair and nails. In fact, protein makes up 45% of our total mass, meaning it is crucial in our diet. We would quite simply just waste away without adequate amounts being consumed in the diet.
Protein is made up of smaller components called amino acids. There are well over a hundred that we know about, however, the human body uses only twenty of them in order to create the proteins that make up our body tissues and maintain them. To add to the complexity of the human body, each of these amino acids can be arranged in different sequences to build a variety of structurally different proteins for different roles within our bodies. To make it easier, think of the proteins being the house and the amino acids being the bricks. Not all houses look the same and have the same purposes, and neither do proteins. These twenty amino acids are split into two groups, “essential” and “non-essential”. The “non-essential” can be created within the human body, but the “essential” can’t be, meaning we must obtain them from our diet. These nine essential amino acids are all responsible for unique roles within the body and for combining with their “non-essential” counterparts in order for the latter to become fully functional for their role in the body. Not all foods contain all of these amino acids in equal parts, therefore a varied and balanced diet is key to obtaining them all.
If you think the role of protein in the body is limited to repair and growth, then you would be wrong. As a Nutritional Therapist, I see a lot of patients whose health complaints can be linked back to blood sugar imbalance. The amount of glucose in the bloodstream is tightly monitored by insulin produced in the pancreas, however, if we’re consuming excessive amounts of sugar, this can have a knock-on effect on many other aspects of our health, including weight gain, headaches, adrenal stress and fatigue. The advantage of protein is that it is broken down slowly in the gut and released gradually into the bloodstream, allowing your body to use it more effectively. This also provides you with a constant stream of energy over a longer period of time, unlike carbohydrates for example, which are quicker to be broken down, causing an influx of glucose into the bloodstream which could possibly be stored as fat if supply outweighs the demand.
Protein also plays a huge role in producing and supporting enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals that keep our body functioning effectively, particularly in the immune system. This bodily system is largely composed of protein, which is responsible for forming antibodies, which circulate our body and remove any threats to our health before they can manifest further.
The health benefits seem to be endless, we should eat as much as we can shouldn’t we? The answer is no. In fact, out of our total calorie consumption, only a tenth needs to come from protein. The British Nutrition Foundation currently states that 0.75g of protein should be consumed per kilogram (kg) of body weight in adults, roughly equating to 55g a day in men, and 45g a day in women. Although the current national average daily intake of protein more than exceeds this, the sources it is derived from may be linked to the increasing prevalence of chronic disease, with 37% on average being obtained from meat and meat products. In fact, various studies have suggested populations that consume the most red meat tend to be more susceptible to conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and macular eye degeneration. Therefore it could be suggested that the amount of protein we’re eating isn’t the key to optimum health, but rather the sources we are getting it from in our diet. Results of the same study also showed that an average of just 33% of the protein in our diet comes from plant-based sources (vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and cereal). This, however, may not always be the case; trends in nutrition are now leaning in the direction of plant-based protein alternatives, due to the surge in plant-based food blogs and recipe books invading the mainstream. Working as a Nutritional Therapist as well as an independent health store manager has allowed me to see the shift in the market first hand, with people becoming more invested in their health and educating themselves on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
So what are the best sources of protein in the vegan diet? Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds contain significant levels of protein. Perhaps the most infamous are beans and pulses, which are a great addition to any meal to bulk them up. For example, a cup-size portion of red kidney beans offers over a quarter of the daily recommendations for protein. I hear some of you saying “beans don’t agree with me”, but a lot of people don’t realise that it’s really important to wash beans thoroughly when using tinned versions, as it helps wash away any naturally occurring gases that may have built up during storage, which are the culprits responsible for causing bloating and gas. Nuts and seeds are also great additions to any meal as a topping as they are packed with protein, beneficial fats and minerals. Nut butters are also great for use as a spread or stirring into porridge and sauces. Try and be adventurous – peanut butter will always be the firm favourite, but almond and cashew butter are hot on its heels and are both staples in my pantry. Alternatively, there are some delicious nut-based milk alternatives on the market, fantastic for directly replacing dairy milk in cooking, cereals and tea. Try swapping out pasta and rice for foods that have a higher protein content, I’m talking about grains such as quinoa and buckwheat. If you’re not looking to make too many changes all at once, this would make the perfect place to start, as they can be prepared and used exactly how you would use your other tried and tested grains.
It has long been believed that vegan sources of protein are not “complete”, due to claims that the levels of all nine of the essential amino acids needed by the body are not as concentrated as protein from animal products. For example, some grains tend to be slightly lower in the amino acid lysine, whereas a selection of legumes tends to contain slightly less methionine. But this does not mean that there aren’t vegan foods that fall under the “complete” proteins category, meaning that someone with a strict plant-based or vegan diet is still able to easily meet the required threshold for essential amino acid intake.
Until recently, it was recommended that vegans should combine their proteins in every meal in order to obtain sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids. As you can imagine, this was a very rigorous task that sapped the fun out of eating for many. Luckily for us, this idea has now been discarded, and it is believed that vegans can go above and beyond the recommendations by making sure they are including a variety of plant-based proteins in their diet on a regular basis.
I hope that the next time someone asks you the dreaded question “where do you get your protein from?”, you will have a whole bank of information to answer them with. Not only is there a vast variety of vegan-friendly proteins available, but you also have the assurance that they supply a variety of other health-boosting benefits, without the possible risks associated with their animal-based alternatives. “Vegans don’t get enough protein” – another myth put to bed.
Joe Jackson, Nutritional Therapist BSc (Hons), mBANT, mCNHC
Taken from June 2015 (Issue 6) Vegan Life Magazine