Protein is essential, regardless of the type of lifestyle or diet we follow; it’s an important building block of life. Our digestion processes breaks down protein into amino acids that enables our bodies to perform a wide range of functions, such as: cell growth and repair, managing our metabolism and body processes (making hormones and enzymes) and also forming parts of our organs, muscles, bones, collagen, connective tissues, skin, nails and hair.
Besides the above, it can offer a high satiety level and depending on the source, comes bundled with a range of macro and micro nutrients, including: fibre, B-vitamins (niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and B6), Vitamin E, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids.
Every protein molecule consists of a chain of amino acids. There are many types of amino acids, but our body can only produce 11 ‘important’ amino acids that are used to make up proteins within our bodies. There are 10 essential amino acids that must be derived from protein-rich foods; good, quality protein sources (in adequate amounts) are essential as the body does not ‘store’ protein and therefore needs a regular supply from our diet.
It is one of the most common questions vegans or vegetarians get asked “where does your protein come from?”
Typical ‘westernised diets’ obtain protein from: meats, eggs, dairy, poultry and fish. These can all can be good sources of protein, but some of these foods are not ideal if we are watching our cholesterol, prefer to have alternative dietary choices or want to follow a vegan lifestyle! Good sources of plant protein include: nuts, seeds, pulses, beans and soya products; there is also some in grains.
Our Daily Protein Needs
For a ‘typical’ man or woman, the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein is:
0.75g Of Protein/Kg of Body weight (BW)/Day
- A 70kg man needs 52.3g protein/D
- A 58kg woman needs 43.5g protein/D
The average UK daily protein intake is: 88g for men and 64g for women. So it’s obvious that the current consumption is beyond the current recommendations.
NB: There is approximately 30g of protein in 100g of roasted chicken breast. So if you are having protein (from animal sources) at every meal in addition to grains etc, you can see how it quickly adds up!
Various plant proteins are not considered ‘complete’ because they lack one or more essential amino acids, however they can be ‘combined’ as part of a meal, e.g. eating a grain and a legume. This is ‘protein combining’ which can result in a higher biological value of the food and provide complete proteins.
With any type of diet, it’s a good idea to look into how to make these ‘complete proteins’ (See Table 1); the UK Vegetarian Society also gives a nice explanation.
Protein Combining: Meal Examples
Some of the major contenders for plant-based proteins…
Common & Nutritious Plant Protein Sources
Here’s a nutritional breakdown for some plant protein sources….
Nutritional Info: Protein From Plant-Based Foods
For example: If I consumed porridge made with 40g of oats, 15g of almonds, 10g of flax seed, 250ml soya milk and some berries, along with 2 standard fresh apricots, a 250g potato with 200g of baked beans and a small, a low-fat stir-fry with 150g tofu, a vegetable mixture (inclusive of dark leafy greens) on top of 65g of brown rice, I would be more than meeting my daily protein needs (it provides approx. 55g of protein); let alone whatever other fruits, vegetables or nuts/seeds/grains I decided to eat!
So let’s not let the food industry or anyone else dictate our dietary choices, because that’s what we have- choices.
Nature has so much to offer us, and there is such an assortment and amalgamation of cuisines… that I have to wonder why would anyone want to stick to a ‘typical westernised meal’ of meat and two vegetables anyway?
Whether you are trying to save money, are struggling financially, have decided to make some positive lifestyle changes to your health, or maybe even have a new ethical stance on animal welfare… rest assured, plant-based proteins are nutritious, varied and relatively cheap to buy; especially beans and lentils in their dried varieties.
We do not have to consume over-priced whey protein powders, meat, poultry, fish or any other animal products to meet our daily protein needs. With a carefully planned plant-based diet, we can reap the benefits of ‘complete nutrition’ and improve overall health. Whilst a high protein diet on its own is unlikely to cause you ill-health, if the source of the protein is from animal products high in fat, then your overall diet is probably unhealthy; if coupled with unhealthy lifestyle choices it can increase the risk of heart diseases, bowel cancer, stroke and possibly osteoporosis.
If you are unsure of where to start, there are lots of resources available…
- The Vegan society
- The Vegetarian society
- BBC Foods (they have a decent supply of recipes that you can adjust to your personal preference)
- An endless list of blogs that have personal recommendations of recipes and/or plant-based cook books.
Don’t let all the chopping and meal planning discourage you, it comes with the territory and it’s essential to make sure your plant-based diet is ‘nutritionally sound’; like a lot of things in life, the best things take a little patience and perseverance but are worth it in the end.
Happy plant-based cooking everyone! 🙂
Article written by: Lynn Risby BSc Nutritionist
Feature image by: qual dieta Flickr