Probably the biggest concern when skipping meat and starting a journey as a vegetarian or vegan is the lack of protein in a diet. Especially if you want to exercise hard or you are an athlete. But do we really need meat and dairy to gain the right amount of protein and is the meat protein the best protein to consume? How could I replace the protein and other missing nutrients with plant-based food?
The purpose of this blog post is not to convince everybody to turn vegan. I’m not a vegan or even a vegetarian. This is more about my own journey to eating less meat, kind of as a side dish, not the main ingredient. I like to exercise regularly though, run, do kettlebell and stand up paddling, so I need energy and muscle strength.
I think it’s fascinating to hear Olympic level athletes being vegans and doing so well! Vegan athletes even claim they have actually increased performance, better energy levels and faster muscle recovery after they have turned vegan. They even say they feel happier! Maybe there are some specific foods and vegetable sources of protein that I could adapt to my own life and diet.
Why do we need protein in our food?
Protein is not the main energy source for a human. Only when the carbohydrates and fats are missing, protein is used for energy (glucose). The main function of protein is to preserve lean muscle mass, growth and repair. Protein is needed in a body to build new proteins from amino acids which are then used for hair, nails, tissues, immune function or, to transport vitamins and fat to and from cells. Protein also manufactures enzymes, hormones and antibodies and controls the fluids balance in our body. So there are many important functions and we need the right amount of protein to stay healthy.
From runners and bodybuilders to climbers and surfers, these athletes are an evidence against the misconception that you can’t build and fuel the human body on a vegan diet. Hear what Mic. The Vegan has to say about it.
Meat, poultry, fish and eggs are great sources of complete protein along with dairy products. But it’s not like we need every essential amino acids in every bite of food in every meal. We only need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day.
The thing is that also plant-based foods can be rich in protein such as legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, whole grain, and in smaller quantities, vegetables. Just not in the “complete” form of proteins like in meat or eggs. When eating only plant-based foods it’s important to eat a variety of foods to maintain all the essential amino acids that we need.
Plant-based protein sources
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 essential amino acids that we need as humans, but 10 of them are needed from our food and rest is made in our body. The following essential amino acids can be easily limited or deficient in a vegan diet (no meat, fish, eggs or dairy):
Can be found in broccoli, Brussels sprout, garlic, onions, granola, red peppers, wheat germ, oats and sprouted lentils.
Can be found in amaranth, adzuki beans, quinoa, lentils, sprouted lentils, pumpkin seeds, peas, split peas, chickpeas (garbanzo), soybeans, sprouted soybeans, navy beans, kidney beans, winged beans and kidney beans.
Can be found in almonds, brown rice, lentils, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, wheat germ, oats, peanuts, chickpeas, pinto beans, corn (maize) and soy protein concentrate.
Can be found in bananas, chickpeas, dried Spirulina, soybeans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, oats, potatoes, wheat flour, rice and quinoa.
By combining these different sources of plant-based amino acids your body is able to make all 10 “complete” proteins.
The right amount of protein
It’s important to note that our body is able to utilise only between 20-30 grammes of protein at a time. A woman like me (170cm=67in tall) only needs around 40-60 grammes of pure protein per day, depending on how it’s counted and also other factors including my activity level, age, muscle mass, physique goals and the state of health. But in general, there’s really no need for an extra refill of protein. Only one cup of dry beans has already about 16 grammes of protein and a typical 225 grammes (8-ounce) piece of meat could have over 50 grammes of protein!
The excess protein can’t be stored in the body but instead, it’s broken down and part of it can be stored as fat. Too much protein in a body can cause a variety of problems such as weight gain, kidney problems, leaching of important bone minerals or dehydration. On the other hand, protein deficiency can raise the risk for muscle loss or cause impaired immune function, weakness, fatigue, poor recovery from workout, frequent colds, anaemia or hair loss.
With all this being said, it might be a good idea to at least reduce animal based protein consumption and switch to more plant-based diet. Especially while red meat can be a tough one to digest and there’s a major economic weight on meat production. After all, a plant-based diet can contain all we need to create the essential amino acids, to exercise and to stay healthy.
Just pick all the colours of the rainbow on your plate, along with nuts, seeds and legumes. In addition to that, make sure you’ll get the vitamin B12 from fermented foods, algae (like chlorella or spirulina), seaweeds, plant milk or as a supplement and you should do just fine with your exercise. But of course, we are all different and the same doesn’t fit for all, so see how you feel and do what’s best for You.