Protein for Plant-Based Diets

As more Americans cut back on their intake of meat and high-fat dairy products, incorporating alternative protein sources into the diet is of paramount importance. The ideal to strive for is a diet rich in plant-based foods, with those being the primary protein sources as well. Many nutritionists recommend that at least two-thirds of dietary protein be derived from plant-based foods. The benefits of plant-based diets are numerous, and you can read all about them in Great Reasons to Go Vegan.

Whole grains, legumes, soy products (organic and non-GMO only, please!), and nuts and seeds are primary protein sources in a plant-based diet. And nearly all vegetables contribute to daily protein needs. Here are some articles on VegKitchen that present high-protein recipes and cooking tips:

Many basic tissues of the human body are composed of protein including the skin, muscles, tendons and cartilage, even hair and nails. New protein is needed to form enzymes, hormones and antibodies, replace old cells, build new tissues, and transport nutrients in and out of cells.

The body can manufacture all but nine of the 22 amino acids that make up proteins. These nine amino acids are referred to as “essential” amino acids and must be derived from food. That is why getting sufficient, good quality protein is crucial.

The operative word here is sufficient–this is not a case where more is better. New York Times nutritionist Jane Brody writes in her Good Food Book, “There’s no need for an ordinary, healthy person to eat more than the RDA suggests.” Further, she writes that many Americans eat twice as much protein as needed. Excess protein can’t be stored, and its elimination puts a strain on the kidneys and liver. Too-high protein consumption is linked to kidney disease, cancers of the colon, breast, prostate and pancreas, and even osteoporosis.

In addition, Brody suggests, too much protein can make you fat since most of the typical protein sources in the American diet (70 percent of which comes from animal and dairy foods) are high in fat and calories.

How much, then, is just enough? The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), established by the National Academy of Sciences, calculates that an adult in good health needs 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Thus, a 160-pound man needs about 58 grams of protein a day, and a 120-pound woman needs about 43. To put this into perspective, here’s how a 120-pound woman could fulfill her daily requirement. For breakfast, she has a cup of yogurt with fruit and a slice of whole wheat bread. In her salad at lunch, she includes a half cup of chickpeas. Her main dish at dinner is a generous portion of cooked spaghetti tossed with a cup of broccoli and 4 ounces of tofu.

Some notable exceptions to the RDA guidelines: Pregnant and lactating women need considerably more protein, as do those recovering from surgery and other physical trauma. Infants and children need more total protein per body pound than adults, and the protein must be of high quality and rich in amino acids.

Those exploring plant-based diets inevitably hear the terms “complete protein” and “protein complementary.” Foods with all the essential amino acids in precise proportions readily usable by the body are considered “complete proteins.”

Foods that have incomplete proteins can be eaten with other foods whose amino acid structure complements, or completes, their own. For example, corn, which is low in the amino acids tryptophan and lysine but rich in methionine, can be eaten with beans, whose amino acid strengths and weaknesses are just the reverse.

Sounds complicated? Fear not — no need to plan your plant based meals with amino acid charts, calculators and slide rules. Frances Moore Lappe, whose landmark book, Diet for a Small Planet (1971), first made the case for protein complementarity, modified her stand in the book’s tenth anniversary edition, apologizing for spawning a generation of neurotic vegetarians. She wrote that “if people are getting enough calories [in a varied diet], they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

Thus, while complementarity is essential to form usable proteins, complementary foods need not necessarily be combined in the same meal. Amino acids that don’t form a complete protein survive in the body for 12 hours. Eating a variety of foods throughout the day insures proteins from plant-based foods will be completed by those in other foods.

Aromatic grain and nut pilafs, grilled tofu and vegetable kebabs, whole-grain pancakes, and black bean enchiladas are just a few examples of plant-based dishes that provide protein. The coming of age of vegetarian, and more recently, vegan cuisine, has stretched the boundaries of what might be considered good protein sources.

Quinoa pilaf varieties

Simple quinoa pilafs; photo by Hannah Kaminsky

Before you can change your way of eating, you must change your way of thinking. Banish the image of dinner as a piece of meat garnished with mashed potatoes and plain green vegetables. In a diet rich in plant foods, there is no such thing as “typical.” Here is a sampling of supper menus around the seasons:

Summer: Tabbouli salad with beans or chickpeas added to make it a main dish; Baba ghanouj (roasted pureed eggplant with tahini) with pita bread, marinated cucumbers and fresh fruit salad.

Fall: Grain-stuffed winter squash, steamed broccoli with cashews, coleslaw, and baked apples.

Winter: Black bean soup, crusty whole-grain bread, crisp raw vegetables, warm pear and apple crumble.

Spring: Noodles with stir-fried asparagus and cashews, seasonal mixed salad, fresh strawberries with nondairy ice cream.

While this foray into a wide new world of foods might initially be daunting, think of it as a delicious and healthful adventure. Explore ethnic, natural food and vegetarian cookbooks for ideas, then learn to improvise and sim plify to suit your needs and tastes.

How do you convert finicky kids accustomed to pizza, hot dogs and burgers to a more plant-based diet? Give them familiar foods, but in more nutritious, plant-based versions. As well as kids and teens, this also applies to picky eaters of the adult variety:

If you think it takes more time to prepare a plant-based meal, think again. Here are several protein food categories that are quick to prepare.

Whole-grain noodles: Try buckwheat, udon and lupini noodles, or domestic whole wheat spaghetti. Most cook in 8 to 12 minutes. Toss with beans, peas, stir-fried vegetables, or diced and sautéed tofu or tempeh. Season Asian-style dishes with sesame oil and soy sauce, and cold summer noodles with fresh herbs.

Quick-cooking whole grains: The high-protein grain quinoa is exceptionally nutritious, very tasty, and cooks in only 15 minutes. Whole grain couscous (pre-steamed, cracked semolina) and bulgur other quick cooking grains. Less quick but good to make ahead are brown rice and millet. All work well as a base for pilafs, grain salads, for stuffing into vegetables, and as beds of grain for bean and vegetable dishes.

Tofu and tempeh: These high-protein soy foods can be prepared in many quick and easy ways. Cut into slices and sauté in a small amount of oil and soy sauce to make cutlets for sandwiches. Diced and similarly sautéed, they can be tossed with grains, noodles and vegetables. Tempeh is particularly good in curried vegetable stews. Crumbled and sautéed, seasoned with tomato sauce, chili powder and oregano, both can substitute for ground meat in tacos, burgers and casseroles. ONLY organic, non-GMO soy products should be used.

Canned beans: For those times when it’s impossible to cook beans from scratch, it’s handy to have several varieties of canned beans on hand. Versatile, nourishing beans can be tossed into salads, combined with quick-cooking grains or noodles, and used to make quick stews and chilies. Heat up black beans with sautéed onion and garlic, season with lemon juice and serve atop quick-cooking brown rice for a satisfying quick hot dish. For an instant enchilada, top a corn tortilla with pinto beans, prepared salsa and a sprinkling of nondairy cheese and heat until the cheese melts.

Explore VegKitchen’s wide array of informative articles on plant-based nutrition.