Worried you’re not getting enough protein?
Are you worried that you’re not getting enough protein, or maybe a little unsure about how much you should include in your diet? I get it. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there regarding protein requirements.
My clients are often surprised to hear that I don’t really track my protein intake. In fact, I don’t count calories either . . . you can read about that here. I believe that as long as our caloric needs are met through a whole foods, plant-based diet, our protein needs will be met as well. Even as an endurance athlete, I find that it’s pretty easy to ensure that I’m getting the protein I need by focusing on the quality of my protein sources rather than the quantity. Our bodies naturally crave more calories on days we are more active, and our protein intake is then higher as a result.
The only catch? You need to make sure that you are including high quality protein sources in your diet every day.
But first, what are protein and amino acids, exactly? And why are they important?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are used by your body to build muscle, bone, skin, nails, hair and cells. There are twenty amino acids used to make protein; the human body is capable of synthesizing eleven amino acids on its own and relies on protein from other sources for the remaining nine. Those nine amino acids are known as “essential amino acids.” A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary for every protein source to contain every essential amino acid. Nor is it necessary to focus on food combining when it comes to meeting your protein requirements. The human body is capable of pulling the amino acids it needs from those that are available in your body at any given time. Therefore, what matters is that you’ve met your body’s requirements over the course of the day to ensure that the essential amino acids are available for your body when it needs them.
In addition to being a critical building block in our bodies, protein helps improve brain function and plays a role in blood pressure, disease prevention and cardiovascular health. A diet rich in high quality protein also results in greater satiety, which helps keep hunger at bay and can result in improved body composition and reduced body fat.
Conventional recommendations dictate that we should consume lean animal protein to meet our daily protein requirements. While it is true that animal products, including meat and eggs, are sources of complete protein and are often an easy way to meet the recommended guidelines, they are not my preferred choice. There are many plant-based sources of complete protein as well, which are alkaline, easier for the body to digest and loaded with health-promoting nutrients. Most vegetables contain at least 10 percent protein, and many have more than 40 percent. Therefore, by eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods throughout the day, you can easily fill your body’s protein needs.
To get you started, I’ve provided a list of some of my favorite sources of plant-based protein and links to some quick and easy recipes below:
Hemp seeds are one of my favorite protein sources, because they are a complete protein and are also high in omega-3s, magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium. They are slightly nutty in flavor, and can easily be added to smoothies, sprinkled on cereal, yogurt or veggies, or eaten by the spoonful with a piece of fruit. Try this Vanilla Mango Green Smoothie – one of our favorites – or quick and easy Avocado Toast.
Chia seeds are rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. They are also high in iron, calcium, zinc and antioxidants. Chia seeds can be used as an egg replacement in vegan baking, and are great in smoothies. I love to sprinkle them on homemade waffles and nut butter sandwiches, and they add a perfect boost of protein to some variations of my Homemade Larabars.
Beans are an excellent and inexpensive source of protein and can be used in a variety of different ways, from soups to salads to hummus. Beans are not a complete protein on their own, but quickly become one when added to brown rice or, in the case of hummus, to a whole-wheat pita. I love preparing beans in my slow cooker, but also keep BPA-free cans in my pantry for our busiest days. Our Favorite Hummus comes together in just 10 minutes!
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are another staple in my pantry. I sprinkle them on salads, grab a handful as a quick snack with a piece of fruit, and use them in many of my recipes. We aim for a variety over the course of the week, and especially love almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and sesame seeds. Nuts and seeds are not complete proteins on their own, but can easily be made complete by spreading nut or seed butter on a slice of sprouted-grain bread such as Ezekiel. One of my favorite ways to use cashews is as a substitute for cheese. If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s creamy and delicious. Here are two recipes to get you started: Healthy Queso Dip and “Cheesy” Kale Chips.
Like beans, lentils come in a wide variety of colors and sizes. They are an excellent source of protein, fiber and iron and can significantly boost the nutritional profile of soups and salads. This Curried Lentil Salad is a family favorite.
Quinoa is a complete protein, is packed with fiber, magnesium and iron, and is highly versatile. I use it in everything from breakfast porridge to salads to veggie bowls to energy bars. Quinoa is quick and easy to prepare, and makes an excellent addition to any meal or snack. Spanish Quinoa is our go-to favorite in place of Spanish rice, and we also love these Quinoa Stuffed Anaheim and Poblano Peppers.
Buckwheat is a great alternative to oatmeal, and I love adding it to homemade energy bars to bump up the protein. Buckwheat has also been shown to help regulate blood glucose levels, improve circulation and lower cholesterol. These Chewy Oat and Cacao Energy Bars use buckwheat as their base and are delicious.
Leafy greens are often overlooked as a source of protein, but they are a nutritional powerhouse. My favorites are kale, collard greens, chard and spinach. Leafy greens are highly alkaline and easy to digest, and should constitute a significant part of your daily diet. This Quick Kale Avocado Salad is a great place to start.
Finally, on days when my family is more active than usual or I feel we need an extra boost of protein, I add a scoop of a high-quality protein powder to our morning smoothies. I recommend avoiding protein powders that contain whey or soy as they are difficult for most to digest and often contain unwanted ingredients. Focus instead on protein powders that combine a mix of plant-based protein. My favorite is Vanilla Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Vegan Protein Powder.
Including a variety of the high-quality protein sources listed above in your diet every day is the best way to ensure you are meeting your protein requirements. Most weight-loss programs and health guidelines are based on the belief that our diet needs to consist of 20 percent protein. However, that figure does not account for the fact that each of us is unique. It also fails to account for the amino acid profiles of those protein sources, and the differences in how our bodies assimilate protein.
Therefore, rather than counting calories and percentages, I urge you to listen to your body for clues. Regularly finding yourself hungry between meals is one of the easiest ways to detect that your protein needs aren’t being met. Lack of energy and failure to maintain muscle tone are two additional signs to look for. If you feel satisfied after your meals and have the energy to get through your day, you can trust that you are getting enough protein. If you find yourself hungry within an hour after eating or find that you often lack the energy you need, bumping up your meals with one or two protein sources from the list above will result in noticeable changes.
What are your favorite protein sources? I’d love to hear in the comments below.