After 18 years as a vegetarian I am quite used to getting this question. It’s a well meaning one, especially from a person genuinely interested in transitioning to a more plant-based diet. Since part of my mission as a health coach and personal trainer is to help people NOT make many of the same mistakes I made early in my fitness journey I love tackling the protein question.
In fact, for me “carbitarian” might have been a better fit when I started my journey. I was the vegetarian who didn’t really like vegetables, preferring pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches. I had no idea what a balanced plate looked like and what my body needed to be healthy and strong. Vegetarian or carnivore, most people are confused about getting the right mix of protein, carbs and fats in their diet. In an effort to get more protein into my meat-free diet I started with a lot of “faux meat” like tofu pups and veggie burgers. Then I started educating myself about not just quantity but also quality of food. It took time and experimentation to figure out a plant based lifestyle that fit me and my active body needs.
In both the science and fitness community, you’re going to find varying opinions and research around how much protein is needed on a daily basis. One side says carbs and sugar are to blame for the rise in obesity and its related illnesses. The other side says that a low fat and low protein diet is the only way to avoid heart disease and cancer. I see the livable truth as somewhere in the middle.
We do need a steady intake of protein. Protein is different than the other two macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats) in that it can’t really be stored up and saved for later use. Our amino acid pool, the short-term supply of building blocks for cells and tissue in the body, is relatively small. Since we are constantly turning over bone and skin cells, growing hair and working our muscles we are also constantly breaking down and building up our bodies. Therefore, we do need to be replenishing our short-term stockpile of amino acids aka protein.
We replenish that stockpile by eating a variety of protein rich foods on regular basis. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 recommends anywhere from 10-35% of an adult’s daily caloric intake should be from protein. This is a wide range, allowing for variation based on activity levels and lifestyle goals as well as chronic conditions that may be helped with a lower carbohydrate diet such as type 2 diabetes and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
For the average person, being in this range is much easier than you might think even if you choose to reduce or eliminate meat in your diet. You don’t even need to worry about tracking your foods in an app or trying to manage protein combining. For most of us it is as simple as making sure you have a quality source or two of protein at every meal.
A plant based diet means different things to different people. For me, it means I don’t eat it if it had a face. I also try to limit dairy. That gives me the option of getting plenty of quality protein from eggs, soy foods like tempeh, tofu and edamame and beans. If your body is okay with dairy, foods like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese can also be extremely satisfying and convenient sources of protein. If you prefer to stay away from eggs or dairy, you can still find protein in plenty of other plant based sources. Consider this list:
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A PROTEIN SUPPLEMENT
While our best bet to meet daily protein needs is whole foods like the ones discussed above, we all need an easy button for busy days. Protein powder supplements can be a helpful tool but they can also be confusing, especially the plant based varieties. Here’s a breakdown of the three most common types of plant based protein powders.
Brown Rice: When I say rice you think of carbs, right? Brown rice protein powder, however, is manufactured to separate out the proteins to create a powder that is about 70% protein. Rich in glutamine, which promotes muscle recovery, brown rice protein powder can also make a great post workout shake alternative. Brown rice powder can be a bit gritty so it works best in protein shakes made in the blender or smoothie bowls.
Pea: Pea protein powder can be an excellent stand in for the more common milk based whey protein when baking or cooking. If you wish to pump up the protein in your favorite pancake or muffin recipe try substituting half the flour for pea protein.
Hemp: Hemp is very close to a complete protein, making it a great alternative for those with who can’t tolerate soy. It also works well in cooking so feel free to add some to your favorite black bean burger recipe. It’s earthy taste however doesn’t make it the best choice for a protein shake or adding to your morning oatmeal.
My best advice for your routine protein shake is to use a protein powder that is blend of plant based proteins. A blend of plant based proteins like hemp, brown rice, pea or soy will make sure you get all your essential amino acids (protein building blocks the body can’t make on its own) in a single serving. Blends also taste much better with a creamier consistency. Just beware of other things that might be hiding in the ingredient list like extra sugar or artificial flavors.
If you’re considering a move to a plant based diet don’t make the same mistake I did and try to live off of bread and cheese alone. Plant based doesn’t just mean not eating meat, it also means plenty of colorful PLANTS with your protein.
Pamela Hernandez is a health coach and personal trainer with a passion for tea and travel. Her goal is to empower women with fitness and to help them take control of their lives starting with their health. Read her blog for more fit living tips and check out her Small Victories Health Coaching Program on her web site www.thrivepersonalfitness.com.