Protein is one of the three macronutrients our body needs to function. The other two macronutrients are fat and carbohydrates. The foods that we eat are made up of these three macronutrients in varying amounts. I hear lots of talk about concerns with not getting enough protein when meat isn’t part of the diet. Today’s post breaks this issue down and shows the many ways you can get enough protein when eating strictly plant-based. I even share one of my favorite quick and easy plant-based protein recipes with you.
Amino acids, protein’s building blocks
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our body is able to produce some of the amino acids the body needs, but there are nine that the body is unable to make, and so we must obtain these amino acids through our diet. Most animal protein including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are considered complete proteins. A complete protein contains all these nine essential amino acids in amounts the body needs.
Many plant-based proteins are unfortunately not complete proteins, they are actually missing one or more of the essential amino acids that our body needs. Quinoa and soybeans are the ONLY plant-based proteins that are considered complete proteins. Plant-based proteins that have missing amino acids are often combined with other foods that do have the missing amino acids. An example of these complementary foods in action is eating rice with beans. Rice is short on the amino acid, lysine, but when eaten with beans the missing amino acid is provided making the meal now full of complete proteins. Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods including proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruits will generally ensure that you are getting all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Function of protein
Every single one of the cells in our body contains protein. Therefore, making sure we get protein in our diet is important for the growth and the repair of our cells. Proteins are hard at work in our cells whether they are repairing injuries such as cuts or burns, or simply maintaining the cycle of replacing worn out cells.
Proteins also control and manage many of the processes in the body and without them these processes would not be able to take place.
- Blood clotting proteins allow our body to stop the the loss of blood when we are injured.
- Proteins in the form of hormones and enzymes activate chemical reactions in the body.
- Proteins play a role in the contraction of muscles. Without enough protein, our heart, which is a muscle will not be able to pump blood to the body.
- Proteins work as transport in our body for essential substances such as carrying oxygen to the blood and carrying vitamins.
In addition, protein plays a role in providing the body with energy when enough carbohydrates or fats aren’t consumed.
You can see by the many different roles that protein plays, clearly eating enough protein is important.
How much protein is enough
The amount of protein needed is individualized by your age, weight and activity level. Calculating your needs involves some math so the easiest way to determine your needs is to use an online calculator. After entering your information, it calculates the range of protein in grams you should be eating daily. These ranges are based on the amount of protein your body needs to replace the body’s proteins as they are used in various processes. However, in times of illness, disease or injury the body may need a higher amount of protein and you should consult with a doctor or dietitian about your protein needs.
In cases where the body doesn’t receive an adequate amount of protein, it is unable to perform the basic function of repairing the body’s cells. The body will begin to breakdown its protein stores in the muscle and tissue in order to perform these basic functions.
However, for most of us, especially those in developed countries, eating enough protein is easily achievable even when eating a mostly plant-based diet. That’s because there are many sources of plant-based protein available, and as long as you eat a wide variety of foods you likely will eat enough.
What are good plant-based sources of protein
I have compiled a list of various \sources of plant-based proteins. This list is not inclusive of all plant-based proteins. I chose foods that are most widely available, popular and ones that I am more familiar with and eat frequently. Proteins are also found in many foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains but in much smaller amounts. There are a few vegetables and grains however that do contain more protein than the others, and in such amounts that it is worth noting so I have included them in this list.
Note: I didn’t include eggs and dairy products in this list because they aren’t technically plant-based but these are considered acceptable foods on a vegetarian diet and are definitely good sources of protein and other nutrients as well.
Now that you have a bit of background on protein, I want to share one of my favorite quick and easy recipes created with quinoa, a high quality plant-based protein.
Quinoa and Spinach Stuffed Sweet Potato
Quick and easy vegetarian favorite!
- 2 medium sweet potatoes
- 1 T olive oil, separated
- ½ cup yellow onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 cup vegetable broth
- ½ cup quinoa, dry
- 2 T white wine
- 1 T nutritional yeast
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 2 T toasted walnuts
- 4 cups fresh spinach leaves, chopped
- Step 1 Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and scrub sweet potatoes. Wrap in aluminum foil. Place in hot oven for 30-45 minutes or until a fork enters easily into potato.
- Step 2 While potatoes are cooking, heat 1/2 T olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add onion. Cook five minutes or until onions are translucent and slightly golden. Add garlic and cook another 60 seconds. While onions are cooking, place quinoa in a strainer and rinse well.
- Step 3 Add quinoa to the pan and stir around to toast for a couple minutes. Then add 1 cup of vegetable broth to the pan and bring to a boil. When it reaches a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and allow to cook for 20-25 minutes or until water is absorbed and quinoa is tender done.
- Step 4 Remove quinoa from the heat, leave covered and allow it to sit.
- Step 5 Combine white wine, soy sauce and nutritional yeast in a small bowl and mix to dissolve yeast. Heat the remaining ½ T of olive oil in a skillet. When hot, add spinach and saute until wilted. Mix together spinach and quinoa. Add white wine, nutritional yeast, soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste.
- Step 6 When potatoes are ready, remove from oven and unwrap. Cut in half and using a fork break up the potato. Top each potato with half the quinoa mixture (about ¾ cup each) and then 1 T of toasted walnuts on each potato.
**Nutritional Facts were calculated using recipe input in MyFitnessPal. No data was available on Vitamin D in this recipe.
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