If you’re not really familiar with the concept of protein beyond buying a tub of it from a health food shop to build muscles, then I’d like you to indulge me in a little bit of visualisation. Imagine a gold chain if you will, similar to Mr. T’s. The gold chain is the piece of jewelry we will ultimately buy, however we can see that it’s made up of many links. Proteins can be thought of in the same way: the chain is the protein, but all the links that make it up are the amino acids.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of protein in the diet and the constant flow into the body of amino acids from protein-containing foods. Muscles, blood cells, skin, organs, neurotransmitters, and some hormones are all comprised of amino acids. Essentially, amino acids make life possible due to their role in growth and repair, as well as being involved in every single chemical and biological reaction that takes place within the body.
The body is pretty clever in that there are certain amino acids that it can make via breaking down body proteins into constituent amino acids and reassembling them into new proteins. There are some other amino acids that the body cannot build and we must take in through the diet, these are referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids.
Where does protein come from?
Chatting to patients (and thinking over my own diet), protein seems to be a tricky macronutrient for most of us to ensure we’re getting enough of, especially via wholefood sources and without turning to protein shakes. I’d be pretty confident in retaining my money if I placed a bet on most people automatically turning to animal-based foods when they think about where to get protein, and the truth is – not all of us like to eat animal-based foods at every meal and snack.
Protein from plant sources
‘Complete’ proteins are those that contain all of the essential amino acids. It's true, complete proteins tend to occur mainly in animal foods, i.e. meat, fish, eggs, dairy. Plant foods are often missing one or more of the essential amino acids. This doesn’t make them less important, it just means that we need to consume a variety of plant-based protein foods to ensure there is a supply of all the essential amino acids into the body. For example, most grains and legumes each lack one or more of the essential amino acids, but combining them in a meal ensures that all the amino acid boxes are ticked, if you will.
By creating a better balance between plant and animal protein in the diet, you’ll likely achieve a couple of things:
A reduction in the amount of saturated fat you consume overall (animal foods tends to be higher in saturated fats than plant-based foods);
An increase in fibre (plant-based foods tend to be much higher in dietary fibre).
Listed below, you’ll find five examples of great sources of vegetarian protein. Beyond all the biochemistry business, protein also keeps us feeling fuller for longer and maintains steady blood glucose levels, making it a worthwhile (and indeed necessary) addition to every meal and snack.
As a reference, the humble egg (often viewed as a ‘perfect protein’), when hard-boiled, contains around 12g of protein/100g. It also, for references’ sake, contains 9.5g of fat, 1.2g of dietary fibre, and about 140 calories.
More information, please!
Tofu, also known as bean curd, comes from the humble soybean and is made in a similar way to cheese, by pressing the curdled fresh soy milk into blocks. A quick stroll down the relevant supermarket aisle will reveal an array of options: firm, momen, hard, classic, silken, marinated, possibly even smoked (if you’re lucky enough!) Google is your best friend when it comes to incorporating this ingredient into your meals and I highly recommend doing a bit of experimenting in the kitchen.
As well as being high in protein, tofu is a source of calcium that is definitely worth including in the diet if you’re avoiding dairy.
Despite its name, buckwheat does not actually contain wheat. In fact, buckwheat is not even a cereal grain, but a fruit seed! In addition to the great protein content, buckwheat provides the body with compounds found in plants, known as flavonoids. The flavonoids provided by buckwheat are called rutin and quercetin and these compounds play a significant role in preventing the body’s response to allergens, as well as providing antioxidant actions within the body (I’ve written more about this here).
What’s most impressive about buckwheat though, is that it’s a complete protein, providing all nine of the essential amino acids. Quinoa is another grain that is also a complete protein source.
Categorised as a legume, these small vibrant green pods are not only a great source of vegetarian protein, but they also provide a host of other nutritional benefits. Peas are a great source of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and dietary fibre. Dried peas, if you prefer, provide similar health benefits to fresh peas.
If you’ve ever dipped a carrot stick into a pot of hummus, you’ve discovered the chickpea. Loaded with fibre and a great source of folic acid, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, and magnesium – they’re a great inclusion into the diet as far as obtaining crucial minerals goes.
Hummus is a great way to include chickpeas in the diet, but they’re also a great addition to vegetarian curries or stews. I especially love them in a satay sauce, stuffed into roasted sweet potatoes.
Before you recoil in horror at the comparatively high content of fat and energy of sunflower seeds, come back to earth and consider how you generally eat them: sprinkled on top of a meal, mixed in with other nuts and seeds etc. Yes, nuts and seeds contain high amounts of fat but they’re a food that is nutrient-dense, as well as energy-dense (i.e. high in calories). Sunflower seeds are a great source of vitamin E, iron, folic acid, and the B vitamins. Also worth noting, they’re CHEAP! Get them onto your shopping list this week.
If you're interested in obtaining more information on incorporating more plant-based protein sources into your diet, including health benefits, cooking tips, and recipes - get in touch to have a chat.