There are numerous benefits to cutting out meat from your diet, or at least eating less of it. Eating too much meat can slow you down and make you lethargic. Meat is difficult for the body to digest and consuming too much red meat can increase the risk of harmful toxins building up in the body. Furthermore, there are a lot of mysterious chemicals in meat products these days if you’re not eating organic.
“But without meat, how am I going to get my protein?” you may be wondering, especially if you’re into sports or weightlifting. Several years ago I tried going vegetarian for the first time. I felt great. My body felt lighter, my mind clearer and I hardly ever got sick.
But as I also started taking exercise more seriously around the same time, I too had many of the same concerns regarding protein. This prompted me to do more research on the best vegetarian and vegan protein sources.
The Importance of Protein
Protein is vital for human health and proper organ function. Protein is broken down into things called amino acids and these are necessary to build muscle, produce enzymes and hormones, and repair damaged tissue. Since the body isn’t able to store protein, it must be consumed every day.
The recommended daily protein intake is generally .8g for each kilogram of body weight for sedentary individuals and around double that for athletes and bodybuilders. But in our meat-obsessed modern societies, could most people simply be getting too much of it?
Concerns Regarding High-Protein Diets
“Everyone who eats an eight-ounce steak typically served in restaurants is getting more protein than their bodies need,” writes Neil Osterweil of WebMD. “Plus they’re getting a hefty amount of artery-clogging saturated fat as well.”
Recent studies have linked high-protein diets to an increase in cancer. Too much protein has also been linked with kidney and liver issues caused by the extra ammonia produced by our bodies in order to break protein down.
Other potential concerns include the loss of calcium. The body uses calcium to counteract the acid produced by protein, which can result in too much calcium being excreted from the body. This could maybe even lead to osteoporosis down the road. Other health concerns include are high cholesterol and constipation. But some people suggest that these problems aren’t caused by the protein itself, but from eating too much meat in general.
The Real Culprit: Protein or Red Meat?
There don’t seem to have been any serious studies done comparing the overall health of people on high protein, meat-based diets with those on high protein, mostly vegetarian diets. Could it be that many of the health concerns associated with high protein diets come from the source of the protein (i.e., red meat) rather than from the protein itself?
Eating meat is the quickest and easiest way to absorb a lot of protein at once, but there are still plenty of other ways to get it. “Simply choosing the right foods . . . will remedy some problems associated with high protein intake,” according to Bodyuilding.com.
What Are ‘Complete Proteins’?
While there are many vegetarian and vegan protein sources to choose from, the trickiest part is maintaining a proper balance of the nine “essential” amino acids. Proteins are comprised of various combinations of twenty different amino acids. Out of these twenty, we only need to intake nine of them since our body can just synthesize the other eleven out of the essential nine.
Foods which contain all 9 essential amino acids are known as “complete proteins.” Animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy fit into this category. If you’re not a full-on vegetarian or vegan, occasionally including eggs and fish into your diet is an easy way to make sure you’re getting both enough protein and also a proper balance of amino acids.
Vegetarian Protein Powders
Another fantastic alternative to getting protein from a meat source is whey protein. Whey protein originally comes from the byproduct of cheese and is usually found in powder form. Whey protein is a complete protein and even contains a higher amount of the nine essential amino acids than eggs, milk or beef. The powder in its bioactive form is also recognized for its antioxidant properties.
If you’re new to whey protein, you should know that there are two main varieties: whey protein and whey protein isolate. The ‘isolate’ variety is intended for those with lactose intolerance. I’m slightly lactose intolerant and generally avoid most dairy products altogether, so the ‘isolate’ kind is what I go for. It is a little pricier than the regular kind, though.
For a long time I’ve been using whey protein isolate from a company called Bluebonnet. Unlike other varieties, it’s 100% organic and sourced from grass-fed cows. They also use a low-heat method to keep all of the good stuff intact.
Whey, of course, is an animal byproduct and therefore won’t be suitable for vegans. Vegan alternatives to whey protein include soy protein, hemp protein and rice protein.
Some of the Best Vegan Protein Sources
To make sure you’re getting enough protein without eating meat, here’s a list of some healthy, vegan foods you should be eating more of (in alphabetical order).
- Black Beans
- Cashew Nuts
- Chia Seeds
- Soy (tofu and edamame)
And a whole lot more!
Feel free to recommend some of your favorite vegan protein sources in the comments.
Balancing Amino Acids from Vegan Protein Sources
Some plant sources are also complete proteins. Examples include quinoa, buckwheat, chia, hempseed and soy. However, even some of these plant-based “complete proteins” may be lacking in sufficient amounts of certain amino acids.
Soy, for example, is considered to be a complete protein yet is lacking in methionine. Methionine is an amino acid which breaks down fats and is used by the body to produce cysteine. Cysteine aids in the removal of heavy metals from the body and combats free radicals – surely an important amino acid you want to be getting enough of.
So how would a person getting most of their protein from soy, for example, make sure that they’re also getting enough methionine? Simply by adding vegan protein sources like nuts or spirulina to their diet. Non-vegetarians may also want to consider methionine sources like fish or crab.
Getting a proper balance of amino acids is not as difficult as it seems, as long as you’re consuming a well-balanced diet. Just make sure you’re consuming different types of vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains.
Just look at the traditional dishes of cultures throughout the world and you’ll likely find food combinations in which one food compliments the other in terms of missing amino acids. Examples include rice and beans in Latin American food, chickpeas and rice in Middle Eastern food, or a soy product eaten with sesame seeds in East Asian cuisine. “See how easy this is?” writes Nick English. “Every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born.”