At Focused on Fit, this month is all about plant power. We will be featuring the countless ways to power your life with the nutritional value of plants. Even high-performing athletes, like Arizona Cardinals Defensive End, David Carter, and ultra-marathoners, like Rich Roll, have gone vegan and reaped the benefits of this amazing lifestyle. Even Venus Williams, at the top of her game, had to switch to a vegan diet due to an autoimmune disease, and continued to perform amongst the highest women’s tennis players of all time. The natural response is a concern around dietary intake, particularly protein and iron. Are these athletes getting enough protein to fuel their activities? And more importantly, if you choose a vegan diet, what are the best plant based protein sources to incorporate into your menu?
How much protein do you really need?
It’s shocking how much Americans focus on protein intake, especially in the advent of diets like the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the Paleo diet. In fact, we actually don’t need as much protein as most people think we need. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans actually recommends that Americans only need 10% of their daily intake come from protein – about 200 calories, if based on a 2000 calorie diet. This meager amount of protein can easily be met if one eats a lean beef hamburger patty, or 2 black bean patties. If pregnant or an athlete, that intake should triple, with about 30% of daily intake coming from protein.
Animal versus Plant Protein
Animal proteins – i.e. those proteins that are derived from animals, like beef, chicken, fish, eggs, etc – offer the most complete protein source. A complete protein is comprised of a protein with all the essential amino acids in one serving. While not complete, other animal proteins include dairy like milk, yogurt and cheese. The biggest drawback to animal protein – the high content of fat and cholesterol – which has been linked to increased cardiovascular and cancer risk. In addition, these animal proteins have also been demonstrated to affect bone health, cause metabolic disease, renal and liver diseases.
Plant proteins are derived from plants and include proteins like soy, lentils, legumes, hemp seeds, quinoa, chia seeds, spirulina, seeds and nuts. While not complete proteins, plant based proteins offer protein without the additional saturated fat and cholesterol. This balance of protein with low amounts of fat and cholesterol make it a super healthy alternative to animal based proteins. And what is the side effect of all that saturated fat – for me – it was an overall feeling of sluggishness, feeling like junk after a meal, and possibly running to the bathroom because I couldn’t digest the animal protein and fat effectively. All the protein in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t digest it!
Top 5 plant based protein sources
- Soy – Tofu/Tempeh/Edamame
- I know, I know – tofu. Everyone loves to hate it. But it really is the chicken of the veggie or vegan world. 1 serving of soy = 20g of protein. Soy proteins are particularly amazing as an animal protein as they offer a complete protein, despite being from a plant source. Plus they are low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber. Boom. And don’t always think of boring when you think of cooking tofu. Our Southwest Tofu (our take on the sofritas at Chipotle) is one of my favorite meal prep dishes – use a batch of this all week in tacos, burrito bowls or salad!
- Controversy around soy – Does it cause breast cancer? Does it cause thyroid issues? Does it cause fertility issues in men? While all of these topics have been debated for the past decade, the data is reassuring. Soy doesn’t cause cancer, thyroid concerns or infertility. The data supports moderate consumption (1-2 servings/day), given its numerous health benefits.
- One of the most amazing plant based protein sources. The perfect balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat, beans are an incredibly versatile and ubiquitous food in countless cultures. Watch out for the added sodium when purchasing them in the canned form; consider purchasing beans with no added salt if you need to opt for the convenience of canned foods. Or try cooking your own beans in a multi-cooker! Save time and tons on money (dry beans are super cheap); and you can control the sodium of your dish! One of our most popular dishes – our Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burgers with a Kick – we love the flavor profile of black beans with sweet potatoes!
- Pervasive in the Indian and Middle Eastern cultures, lentils are an incredible source of plant based protein that most Americans have never even tried. Like beans, lentils are legumes, but grow in a pod with 1-2 seeds (think green peas). They are smaller than beans and tend to cook much faster than beans, making them a great option for a weeknight dinner. For a healthy twist on Indian takeout, try our Kale Moong Dal. Or with Cinco de Mayo around the corner, our Southwest Lentil Salad makes a great side dish.
- Nuts & Seeds
- Nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, and brazil nuts are high in protein, but also rich in Vitamin E, selenium and healthy fats. 1/4 cup of nuts offers around 7-9g of protein, but be careful when you grab a handful of nuts as an afternoon snack. Just 25-28 almonds makes up that 1/4 cup, and this can go fast when you are trying to satisfy a craving. Always measure or count your nuts before you consume!
- Seeds like chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame or sunflower seeds are also protein rich. And they pack the punch when it comes to other health benefits. And just like nuts, 1/4 cup of seeds will offer 7-9g of protein. Be mindful – you have to watch how many you consume or how big of scoop you add to your morning oatmeal. A little goes a long way!
- Talk about trendy and healthy. They even serve Quinoa at Panera Bread now. This ancient grain of the Aztecs is one of the most incredible sources of complete protein on the planet. Although it is considered a grain, it is actually a seed and thereby is made up of protein, carbs and fiber. Minus the fat of a seed or nut! And it is super easy to cook, with a quicker cooking time than brown rice!
For many switching to a lifestyle of vegetarianism or veganism is so far fetched. Despite the health benefits, it is hard to imagine walking away from major food groups in general. But given the healthy upside, trying a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for a couple of days or even a week could be a great start. You may surprise yourself and really love it. Register with us and have access to our countless vegetarian and vegan recipes, while keeping track of your protein intake!