Hey everyone, sorry about the silence last week – I switched into a new class last-minute and had ONE WEEK to study for the first exam. Not to worry, it went totally fine, but I had to devote a lot of non-working, non-running, non-mardi gras hours to study time.
I’ve talked about protein on here plenty of times in the past, but in all of those posts I was coming at it from a decidedly carnivorous angle. With my current challenge of cooking at least one new-to-me fully vegetarian meal weekly (which inevitably results in at least two vegetarian dinners and a lunch because #Iloveleftovers), I wanted to dedicate a post to explaining some delicious and wonderful VEGAN sources of protein. That’s right – vegan. I’ve experienced a few vegetarian patients who subsist almost wholly on eggs and dairy products, but we all know those have protein and we all know how to eat them so I’m going to leave them out and discuss the super-healthy plant-based protein sources that keep vegans everywhere alive. And yes, you absolutely CAN get enough protein from a vegan diet, even as an athlete.
First I want to introduce the concept of complimentary proteins, which is one reason that vegetarians and vegans need to be diligent about their choices when it comes to protein sources.
You may remember from our discussion of blood sugar during the “energy” post that carbohydrates are made up of sugar building blocks. Proteins are composed similarly of amino acid building blocks. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I won’t get too deep into the chemical structure of an amino acid except to say that your body cannot produce essential amino acids, you must get them from dietary sources. We briefly touched on how your body can convert fat to carbohydrate, but the same is not true about protein. There are 20 amino acids that your body requires to function, and 9 are essential amino acids that cannot be formed from the others – they must be included in the diet. The trick is that not all plant-based foods contain all essential amino acids. Therefore, a variety of different foods must be included to get all of the essential ones.
It is worthwhile to note that for a long time, experts believed that complimentary proteins needed to be eaten in the same meal, but we now know that eating foods with complimentary proteins over the course of your day is perfectly fine.
Beans and lentils
What they are: I think we all know what beans and lentils are, but a lot of us aren’t eating them enough! These 100% unproccessed super natural delicious things GROW from the GROUND – that’s enough to make me love them. Additionally, they have tons of fiber which keeps you full forever and lots of soluble fiber that can lower cholesterol/help you poop like a champ.
How to use it: Cook beans the same way any carnivore would, except exclude animal products! Sure, your red beans will taste a little different without a ham hock but adding extra herbs and spices for flavor (smoked paprika anyone?) will make it extra tasty and extra healthy. Bean soups are particularly filling and the only types that I suggest patients bring to work for lunch.
Be sure to…: Include grains in your diet to make sure you get all 9 essential amino acids.
Nuts and seeds
What they are: You know what nuts and seeds are. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seed, chia seed, etc. There is no “best nut/seed”, as people often ask me. They’re all great! Packed with healthy fats (especially the flax and chia) and with some good protein and fiber for staying power, nuts and seeds can be an important addition to round out any healthy diet, and especially helpful for those not eating animal proteins.
How to use them: My favorite way to incorporate nuts is in snacks. A handful of nuts and a piece of fruit will fill you up now and keep you full later – I find that if I have only nuts at snack time it takes a pretty large quantity (and a ton of calories) to fill up. Another good option is making a homemade snack mix with some less calorie-dense foods to increase the volume of your snack while controlling calories. Nuts and popcorn or a low-sugar cereal like cheerios along with a few bits of dried fruit works well for me. Seeds are a little bit trickier, because they are tough to just eat outright. Sprinkle ground flax or whole chia into your oats, cereal, or yogurt; make chia pudding for breakfast or a nutrient-filled snack; use a flax egg in place of a regular egg as a binder in recipes.
Be sure to…: Choose lightly salted or unsalted nuts (let’s be honest I cannot handle my cashews without salt, something is just missing), as regular salted nuts can be ridiculously high in sodium to the point where it doesn’t even taste good. When using flax seed, be sure to grind it to get maximum goodness – your body can’t digest through that tough outer shell to get to the healthy fats (though you will still benefit from the soluble fiber)!
What they are: Rice, oats, quinoa, different preparations of wheat like farro and bulgur, barley, rye, millet….the list continues! Most people don’t realize that these carbohydrate-rich foods also contain a bit of protein, but they do. A typical serving of a starchy food contains 3 grams of protein. But don’t get too excited, carb lovers – it would take a LOT of bread to fill your protein requirement that way and you’d end up going way over your starch allotment. However, when thinking about ensuring all the proper amino acids, those found in starchy foods are an important piece of the puzzle.
How to use them: You probably consume a bunch of grain products currently, either as whole grains cooked as a side dish (like rice) or ground into flour and made into baked goods (like bread or crackers). This is great! Keep your grains whole whenever possible (including whole grain flours) to keep all the good stuff in there.
Be sure to…: Keep in mind that most grains – except quinoa and buckwheat (technically not a grain but we use it as one) – are not complete proteins. Make sure you’ve got your beans/legumes somewhere in your diet that day to round out your essential amino acids!
What it is: Tofu is essentially cheese made from soybeans – the process to make it is the same. Soy milk is coagulated, and the curds are pressed into blocks of protein-rich tofu. Interestingly, a lot of tofu is coagulated using calcium sulfate, resulting in an end product high in calcium, which is a nutrient often lacking in vegan diets. Soy protein, while complete, does have less methionine (an essential amino acid) than animal proteins do.
How to use it: Tons of recipes can be made with tofu, especially if they’re stir fry-type dishes. You probably have seen tofu used in a lot of Asian cooking in place of meat, and it works perfectly there as well. Sometimes I like to press it, bread it, and bake it into tofu fries. There are more exotic uses too, like pureeing silken tofu into a delectable chocolate mousse dessert!
Be sure to…: Bake your tofu for crispiness whenever possible versus frying. Even though you’re starting out with a product lower in fat than most meats, frying still adds extra fat and calories that you probably don’t need.
What it is: Tempeh is a naturally fermented whole soybean product. Normally when you think “fermented” you think strong flavors and aromas, but that’s not the case here. Basically, the soybeans are stuck into a cake-like form that can be cut and sliced but that sometimes crumbles apart into the individual beans and therefore provide more of a substantial meaty chewy texture than tofu does. Sounds weird, but just try it.
How to use it: Because of tempeh’s texture, it’s especially great used in dishes where ground meat might be used. For example, I made lentil-tempeh sloppy joes the other day with extra extra vegetables (YEAH, it was as awesome as it sounds). I’ve also had thin slices of tempeh marinated in a soy mixture to give it a savory, umami flavor to take the place of bacon. One of my many restaurant jobs was at a family-owned place that served a badass tempeh reuben (you know you’re in the Pioneer Valley when…). To be completely honest, I haven’t cooked much with it myself but you can bet I’ll be trying more recipes over the next few weeks and beyond.
Be sure to…: Look for tempeh in the produce section where the tofu is. There are several different types – often whole grain and flax versions. They’re all tasty.
What it is: You know gluten, that naturally-occurring protein that everyone has been demonizing lately? THIS IS THAT. Which is why I love it. Because if you don’t have celiac disease, YOU HAVE NO REASON NOT TO EAT GLUTEN. Plus I think it’s super cool and I’m going to try to make it at my house. Basically, flour is mixed with spices and water and worked in such a way that the glutenin and gliadin (the two proteins that combine to form gluten) are drawn out of the flour and combine to form a doughy ball, then the starch molecules are rinsed off. You just rinse the carbohydrate straight off of this protein that you’ve carefully developed! It’s awesome. Science rules.
How to use it: The thing about seitan (or “wheat meat”) is that it really is just pure protein, just like meat is. Therefore, you can use it just as you would use meat. My personal favorite preparation that I’ve tried so far is seitan pad thai. Yum 🙂
Be sure to…: Check out this video for how to make your own tempeh, and this one for how to prepare it once it’s made/to get a little laugh along with your daily (weekly? monthly? yearly?) dose of metal music.
What they are: Chicken nuggets that aren’t chicken. Hot dogs that aren’t hot dogs. “Vegan ham” (wtf). These products are normally made of soy or fungus-based proteins that are processed to look like meat products. Not gonna lie, it is weird. I understand that it can be alienating to not eat meat in some situations, especially for kids. In that case, I can see how a tofu dog might be nice. But on the other hand, I also believe that it’s better to use more natural protein-rich products and prepare them yourself. After all, you’re choosing this lifestyle for a reason – why pretend you’re a carnivore? This opinion stems mainly from the paradox that is the angsty young vegetarian who chooses not to eat meat, but doesn’t take the time to learn about a balanced vegan or vegetarian diet, and instead just substitutes crappy meat products with crappy fake meat products (i.e. fake chicken nuggets and french fries for all meals always). These meat analogs can certainly have a place in moderation, but they should not be used as a crutch because you’re unwilling to learn about how to create a balanced and nutritious diet in the absence of animal products. (end rant)
Technically, this term applies to all non-meat proteins including tofu, but I’m sticking with the above “not meat meats”. They are typically made from textured vegetable protein (a soy isolate product), yuba (layers of soybean curd film that forms on the top of a pan of boiling soymilk), or mycoprotein (i.e. fungus, aka Quorn). I think the production of these foods is pretty cool from a food science standpoint, but a lot of the products are then breaded and fried which is just silly. Just because it’s not meat doesn’t mean that other not-so-healthy things can be added.
How to use them: Exactly as you would use the real meat version!
Be sure to…: Use in moderation. Ask yourself: is there a less processed food that I can use in place of this item?
Oh man, I’m overwhelmed.
Don’t be! The point is that there are a lot of different options. As mentioned before, eating complimentary proteins is important but it doesn’t have to be done at every single meal. The best way to achieve this is to eat a variety of different protein sources. And if you’re not vegetarian/vegan, you’ve got nothing to worry about as far as essential amino acids go but you should try out some of these foods anyway!