One of the main things you’ll often hear me reiterate is, when planning your meals – always ensure a good source of vegetable protein. But that’s all very well if you know which are the best proteins to add to your dishes.
What is Vegetable Protein?
Every one of us needs to ensure we consume adequate sources of macronutrients. These are bulk nutrients in our diet, and include: carbohydrates, fat, and protein in that order. And that may well surprise you!
Protein and carbohydrates carry the same calories, whereas fat carries double. However, protein is the only nutrient that is not stored by the body, and so we must ensure we eat some with every meal.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, and are grouped into classes called “Protein Quality”, which describes the ratio of these amino acids. Proteins that have a full complement, are called complete proteins.
Complete proteins are mostly found as animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, but there are plenty of plant-based complete vegetable proteins (largely processed, I admit) that we can investigate.
One of the popular challenges you’ll face when you tell friends, family or colleagues that you’re going plant-based is: where will you get your protein?
OK, so let’s not get too much into the science. Let’s just say that people on a plant-based diet can certainly get as much protein as they need and it’s a total fallacy that you need meat.
There is a growing movement of vegan body-builders who achieve a pretty impressive bulk with no intake of beef, milk proteins or eggs. Surely that’s proof enough that meat, dairy and eggs aren’t necessarily the only sources of protein! They’ve discovered vegetable protein (such as pea) rather than whey as their main supplement.
However, and I need to stress this however, as plant-based lifestylers, we do need to be a lot more savvy about how we meal plan! To be fair, in an age of highly processed food, this is also true of the general population too! And I’ll explain why in another post (hint: you can be overweight and under-nourished).
When you follow any of the recipes on this blog, you will need to ensure that the overall meal has complete proteins, and there are different ways you can do this:
- You can make a curry using one source of protein (such as beans, lentils, or peas – collectively known as pulses) and serve it with another source of protein (such as rice, couscous, quinoa, bulgar wheat, wholegrain bread)
- You can make a curry that includes a fairly decent protein such as tofu or tempeh made with soya beans (traditionally it is, so if you buy it from the shop, it’s most likely going to be soya bean tempeh) or Quorn™
- You can split your proteins so that you have the complete source over the day (wholemeal toast with peanut butter for breakfast, green salad with quinoa and seeds for lunch, evening meal of chickpea curry with wholegrain rice)
It is easier to ensure you have complete proteins at each meal because it’s simpler to keep track of. But it isn’t necessary – you can split them over the day. The rule is to ensure the range of amino acids during one feeding cycle (between getting up and going to bed).
Sources of Vegetable Protein
We’ve touched a little on the sources of protein, but let’s look at this properly so that you can meal plan like a healthy plant-based guru you’ll become!
These are proteins that you don’t have to worry too much about balancing. They already have a good range of amino acids and include:
- Quinoa: quinoa is grouped as a grain, but is actually a seed. It is fast becoming the world’s most notorious super-food (a marketing term that actually has no scientific credibility!) because of its protein profile. This is great news for plant-based lifestylers, because it becomes a staple food.
- Soya: this includes tofu (soya curds) and soya milk
- Seitan: which is wheat gluten, or “fake meat”. Often used in Chinese cookery, but not suitable for people with gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease. Wheat itself is not a complete protein, but seitan is because the process of making it involves adding soya sauce.
- Tempeh: made with fermented soya beans
- Mycoprotein – marketed as Quorn™: This product is made with egg, but there are now vegan versions available, so if you follow a completely plant-based diet with no animal products at all, then you need to select the vegan version. It is clearly labelled, the company are aware that this product is popular with vegetarians. Mycoprotein is grown industrially, and is highly processed. However, it is a good source of protein – but will not appeal to those who do not want their food to look or taste like meat.
You can make complete proteins by following a simple rule, combine two or more of any of the following food groups:
- vegetables (always include at least one green leaf vegetable per day such as spinach, chard or watercress)
- grains (rice, wheat, barley, oats)
- nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pistachio, flax seed, chia seed)
- legumes (beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils)
Generally speaking, it’s advisable for vegans and vegetarians to consider consuming more protein than meat-eaters.
We normally suggest around 0.8g protein for each kilogramme you weigh, but the latest studies suggest that this even might be too low. For plant-based dieters, this should look to be at least 1g for each kilogramme of body weight.
So when you are working with the recipes I have posted on this blog, don’t constrain yourself to the bulk ingredients. Only follow the flavouring ingredients, substituting where I’ve given tips.
What does this mean? Well, the spices, their ratios and various ingredients such as stock, coconut milk, nuts, herbs or anything that makes up the sauce or the flavours really should be followed as close as you can.
What you can change are the vegetables – use ones that are in season and local to you. Use your favourite vegetables, but try and follow this rule of thumb: aim for colours. We often say eat a rainbow, this means eat foods of different colours such as yellow peppers with purple aubergines and green spinach or orange carrots. I think you get the drift…
But try and add one of the following: beans, tofu, seitan, tempeh, Quorn™ or serve with rice, wholegrains, lentils, couscous, bulgar wheat.
It’s easy once you get into the habit!
Stacy Spensley – Flickr.com
Seb is a nutritionist registered with the Association for Nutrition and a writer specialising in plant-based nutrition and men’s health. He graduated from Chester University with a masters degree in human nutrition and loves discovering new and vibrant plant-based recipes.