A question from Instagram follower @mischiwest: " How does a vegetarian go for protein??? Cheese is high in fat and so are nuts. However I do eat fish..."
What is Protein?
Protein is macro nutrient that is ESSENTIAL to life. Protein is made up of a bunch of amino acids. There are 9 amino acids that are essential- as in, they need to be eaten in the diet. They are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine.
Then there are 5 dispensable amino acids, alanine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid and serine- they can be made by the body out of the other amino acids (but remember if you aren't getting them in your diet, you are depleting your essential amino acids by making them).
Then there are 6 conditional amino acids- as in, they can be made by the body, as long as the conditions are right and co-factors are present. These six are arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline and tyrosine.
All these amino acids can be found in plant foods, but you need to make sure that you are getting the full complement of amino acids when eating a vegetarian and particularly a vegan diet. If you are lacking in some of the amino acids your body won't be able to function properly, because every function that occurs in the body relies on protein and protein is made up of a bunch of amino acids bonded to each other. If one of the amino acids is lacking then the chain is broken and the protein molecule can't be formed. If you are lacking in protein molecules your health will suffer -big time!
It's important- in fact I think it is your responsibility as a vegetarian or vegan- to understand where you are going to get your full complement of amino acids from.
You don't need to combine foods to get them all in one meal, but you do need to plan so you are getting a full complement each day.
How much protein do I need?
The general rule of thumb here is that you need 1 gm of crude protein per kg of body weight and more if you are exercising. So let's say you are a 70kg person, you will need at least 70kg of crude protein per day. Say you go for a daily run, then your protein need increases, depending on your level of exertion your may need 1.5-2g of protein per kg of body weight = 120-140g of crude protein per day.
Good sources of plant protein
Okay, so here is the answer to answer your question Mischi. Firstly I would say: don't think about the fat! The issue that I see with a lot of vegetarian diets is that they are so high in carbohydrates. That may be fine for the genetic type that can run on a high carbohydrate load, but many people are carbohydrate intolerant and their body will run much better with low carbohydrates, burning fat for fuel instead.
Frankly, vegetarians can't afford to be filling up on carbs; you need to focus on what protein value your food is giving you and making sure that you are getting your full compliment of amino acids. Don't worry about the fat, it's the protein : carb ratio that you need to look at.
The best source of low carb high protein plant based foods are nuts and seeds. You can increase the bio availability of the protein in nuts and seeds by soaking them overnight in filtered water and a dash of apple cider vinegar (known as activating). Most nuts and seeds have a value of 20-30gm of crude protein per 100gm. Except for macadamia's and pecans which come in at about 10g/100g.
Seeds such as Flaxseed and Chia have the added value of giving you essential fatty acids (something that you also may lack as a vegetarian).
My next pick would be tofu. Tofu has no carbohydrates or fat and comes in at about 15-20g of crude protein per 100gm. You may easily eat 200gm in a meal giving you 30-40g of protein.
Lastly comes the legumes (beans) coming in at about 5-10g/100g. The problem with beans is that they are high in carbohydrates about 60g/100g and then many people will eat them with a grain, like rice, even brown rice is 45g of carbohydrate per cup. So really what you are getting with legumes are a lot of carbs and not much protein. The best way to get protein value out of legumes is to sprout them, the sprouting process uses up a lot of the carbohydrates and leaves you with a protein rich vegetable. Sprouted legumes 13g/100g.
I am not saying don't eat legumes, but don't rely on them as your daily protein source and remember that they are carbohydrate rich so if your having a bean curry eat it with a high protein/low carb grain such as quinoa 4-5g/100g.
Then there are the incidental proteins that come from eating a variety of vegetables. The best vegetables for protein are kale 4.3g/100g, broccoli 3.8/100gm, mushrooms 3.6g/100g.
Let's have a look at a what a high protein vegetarian meal might look like: tofu steak (200g=35g), with stir-fry of mushrooms, kale, broccoli (150g=6g) on a bed of cooked quinoa (1/2 cup = 4g) , with a topping of sprouted lentils (50g=7g). This particular meal gives you a total protein value of about 52g and will only be around 20g of carbohydrates.
The last thing that I want to mention is protein powder. Protein powder is a good way to top up on protein. Their are some good vegetarian/vegan protein powders out there and they are a worthwhile way to make sure that you are getting your daily protein.
Thanks for your question Mischi, I really hope that this has helped.
Let me know what you think
Melanie Turner, Naturopath, mother, gardener, lover of wholesome food