I am currently planning a blog series looking at what make up the building stones of a healthy diet and we’ll be starting with proteins. If you read one of my earlier blog posts, you all know that by a healthy, plant-based flexitarian diet, I don’t mean being vegan or vegetarian for that matter. Instead, it is simply a diet, which makes home-cooked meals based on real foods the main focus and avoids processed food in any shape or form. So, most of the diet may indeed be vegan, but occasionally there will be fish, meat, eggs or very rarely, dairy products (as these are essentially processed foods).
As part of this blog post series, I am aiming to break down the different food groups that a healthy, plant-based flexitarian diet covers, so that you can make informed and empowering choices for yourself! Today’s focus: proteins!
Proteins in our body
Proteins are hugely important for our bodies. Whereas carbohydrates and sugar provide the body with fuel and energy, proteins enable that energy to be utilized within our bodies, be it as part of muscles for movement or digestion, be it part of the immune or nervous system.
Proteins are molecules build of amino acids and our body utilizes 20 different amino acids. Our dietary needs require us to get nine of these 20 amino acids from food: these are called the essential amino acids and you have probably heard them being referred to as ‘complete protein’. All other amino acids can be made from the essential set.
Protein sources from animals usually cover us with all nine essential amino acids, so if you are not vegetarian or vegan and regularly eat meat and dairy products, your protein needs are covered. However, don’t despair if you are avoiding animal sources as it is easy enough to ensure you are taking in complete proteins.
Firstly, there is quinoa. If you have never heard of quinoa, it is a grain that originates from the Andes and is amazingly versatile in the kitchen. Despite being a grain, quinoa is extremely protein rich and covers the whole set of nine essential amino acids that is required as part of a healthy diet.
Secondly, do what our ancestors did in so many cultures: combine vegetarian protein sources to get a complete set of proteins. Beans and legumes with rice is the prime example! The Mexicans do it, the people in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean do it, the Japanese do it, the Indians do it … you look at original foods from ancient cultures around the worlds and you’ll find a dish that combines beans and grains. Grains may be ‘carbs’, but usually also contain amino acids and combining beans with grains means that between these two foods, the complete set of essential amino acids are covered. Don’t forget, though, that there are plenty of vegetable sources that also provide you with protein ( (actually all of them, but some are high – such as broccoli – than others), as well as nuts and seeds, so as long as you have a healthy, varied diet, proteins should not be a problem for you. And if you are still worried about protein combining, rest assured: science has actually shown that you do not have to eat all nine essential amino acids in one sitting, so if you don’t want rice with beans, don’t eat it. I am still advising for a varied, healthy, plant-based flexitarian diet, though, so get both in separately at different meals! 😉
Protein quality matters, not quantity!
So, what protein to eat then?! Well, I am not here to tell you to become vegan, don’t worry! However, I would like you to consider your protein sources. If you are likely to get most of your protein from red meat, be aware that the nutrient value (i.e. how much other vitamins and minerals come with the protein source), is actually really low. Plus, red meats usually are rich in saturated fats which contribute to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. A big concern with meats from all animal sources generally is also the quality: most of the animals from which the meat comes from are not raised in their natural environment anymore, they are being raised on food that is not natural to them anymore and they are exposed to much medication. All of this lowers the overall quality of the meat. Hence, if you find yourself to be a heavy meat eater, you may want to consider eating less meat per week (2x/week) and instead of standard supermarket fair, choose organic meat from a local farmer (or fisher). Make similar choices with regard to dairy: most of the medication used in animals is also found in the products we make of their milk. Also be aware that dairy is actually mother milk for a species that is not us humans: it essentially needs to cover the protein needs of a young animal and not for a grown up one, particularly not for a different species as the protein needs don’t match. So keep that in mind and eat dairy only in small quantities.
Fish is a great complete protein to have on your plates, but again quality matters! Fish farming is even less restricted than meat farming, so ensure you get organic aquaculture fish or wild caught. Wild caught is generally better, but being a wildlife ecologist, I am aware that overfishing is a huge problem. So I have made the conscious decision to buy organically raised farmed fish, if I have any (which is maybe once or twice a year), despite the fact that often pollutants are higher in those fish meats.
This leaves us with vegetarian protein. You can literally go wild here. The best way to have it is to make it as varied as possibly. Have beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Don’t forget that vegetables and fruit also provide some protein. You will find that your veg and fruit intake will go up quite considerable on a plant-based flexitarian diet (we’ll talk more about it in a later blog post), so it really adds up!
Remember that ‘no foods are forbidden except when your body tells you so’ (Lima Ohsawa), so test what works for you and what does not. Any questions, comments or suggestions? Let me know below or get a discussion on my Facebook group going!
With Vibrant Love,