Protein provides the ‘building blocks’ of ALL living cells, as a component of bones, skin, muscles, cartilage and blood. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. The human body uses protein to build and repair tissues, as well as to make hormones, enzymes, immune system antibodies and other body chemicals. Since we don’t store protein in our body, we must obtain it in relatively large amounts from our diets.
Protein is made up of amino acids; around 25 types of amino acids are pieced together in varying combinations to make different kinds of protein. There are 8 basic amino acids that are known as essential, as the body cannot function without them, although others are semi-essential under certain circumstances. From these basic 8 amino acids most of the remaining 17 can be made.
Vegetarians need to educate themselves about where they can get good protein sources from to ensure they are having enough. For good blood sugar regulation, consistent energy levels, weight loss/gain and maintenance, for satiety (feeling full for longer) it’s ideal to have protein in EVERY meal, including snacks. Below is a list of the best sources of vegetarian protein and why.
Eggs are one of nature’s most perfect foods and a wonderful source of easily accessible, high quality protein. Please let go of any old-fashioned thinking that eggs are ‘bad’ for you as they contain cholesterol. Nutritionists have known for decades that eggs are a perfect source of protein and other nutrients. People avoid eggs because they’re afraid of the cholesterol, but the choline in the egg yolk actually helps prevent the accumulation of cholesterol and fat in the liver! Egg yolks are a fabulous source of choline (as phosphatidyl choline), which is the universal ‘building block’ for ALL cell membranes – especially important for the brain! Egg whites contain adequate amounts of all essential amino acids; in fact eggs are used as the standard against which all protein is measured. They are also a good source of iodine which is essential for proper thyroid function. They are also loaded with vitamins and nutrients that support your eyes, your brain and your heart. They are so nutritious, versatile and easy to cook. Enjoy 2 eggs daily (especially if vegetarian!), have them boiled, poached, scrambled or as an omelette or frittata (a great way to increase your vegetable intake in a nutritious and delicious way!). Please only eat free-range and organic eggs whenever possible.
Legumes (also known as pulses) include beans, lentils, chickpeas and soy. They are important foods due to their plant protein and amino acid content, for example they have 3 times the protein content of rice! Legumes provide 2 macronutrients in one food – they contain both carbohydrates and a varying amount of protein. They may be low in some essential amino acids and therefore are not classified as ‘complete proteins’. For this reason they have been traditionally been eaten alongside grains, nuts or meats which compliment (and complete) their amino acid profile.
If you are vegetarian, especially if you are not eating eggs or cheese; or if you are vegan, then it is extra important to include legumes in your diet, as their protein content will be really essential. It’s good to eat a variety of different legumes. They contain only around 1% fat (soy and peanuts are the exception). They can also provide iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, calcium, selenium and B vitamins.
Legumes are one of the best sources of fibre available. Most of us don’t get nearly enough fibre on a daily basis. High fibre diets are associated with lower risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as well as better gut and bowel function generally. Broadly speaking legumes have a ‘low’ glycaemic index rating, meaning that they release their energy slowly into the bloodstream and so will not cause a blood sugar spike/crash.
Always buy organic if you can and always soak dried legumes for a minimum of 4 hours, ideally overnight, changing the water throughout and rinsing well. This helps to reduce the amount of phytic acid present in legumes. Phytic acid reduces the amount of minerals you will absorb, so the more soaking, the more nutrition you’ll get from your legumes!
Chia seeds have been used by humans since at least 3500 BC. The Aztecs relied on chia to help keep their civilisation healthy. Chia seeds are loaded with protein – a generous 21% of chia is comprised of this macronutrient – which is an unusual thing for a plant food. Chia seeds contain all 8 essential amino acids the body needs to fully utilise its protein. They are also loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and the nourishing omega 3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Chia is a whole food because it contains all of its original components – the bran, germ and endosperm. It’s SO easy to use and add to your daily diet. There’s NO need to keep them in the fridge as their high levels of antioxidants protect the seed and valuable oils. They’re available as black or white seeds. There is no nutritional difference between black or white seeds. There’s no need to soak or grind them either, as after a few minutes in a fluid they will start releasing their oils. Add them to porridge, yoghurt, protein powder drinks, smoothies, juices or salads. Take up to 2 tablespoons per day. Chia seeds are excellent for everyone, including children and the elderly.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds may be small in size but they’re big when it comes to nutrition! They are not only a rich sources of many vitamins and minerals and serve as a good plant-based nutrition source, but many of them also contain monounsaturated fats, essential omega 3 fatty acids and phytosterol phytonutrients! . The most nutritious choices include almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, flaxseed and sesame seeds.
People who eat nuts regularly are less likely to have heart attacks or to die from heart disease than those who don’t. Some of the largest and most important long-term studies have shown a consistent 30-50% lower risk of heart attacks or heart disease with eating nuts several times a week!
Nuts & Seeds – please consume raw, unsalted and unroasted so that you benefit from all the beautiful oils that are present in nuts and seeds as heat through roasting will damage them. Many people are concerned about eating nuts and seeds because they view them as high fat foods. Yet for optimal health we need good fats! Nuts also have a high satiety factor, meaning they’re great for satisfying your hunger, sustaining you for longer. They will provide long-lasting energy that can carry you throughout the day whilst maintaining stable blood sugar levels. Enjoy a generous handful a day, or add them to salads, cereal, porridge or smoothies.
Don’t forget the value of nut and seed butters (organic ideally), excellent spread on oatcakes or crackers. Ground almonds, also known as almond flour/meal, is a fabulous ingredient that can be added to many recipes to top up your protein intake in foods such as gluten-free breads, muffins, pancakes, added to smoothies, pasta sauces, curries and casseroles.
Quinoa, pronounced ‘keenwah’ is not a grain but actually a seed. It was known by the Incas as the “mother of grains” and they used this seed as one of their main sources of nutrition. It is a highly nutritious food that is considered a high protein “grain”. Quinoa is higher in lysine than wheat, which is an amino acid that is scarce within the plant kingdom. It has a lower sodium content and is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese and zinc than wheat, barley or corn! Plus it is especially high in iron (more than any other cereal grain), with a decent amount of fibre too. It’s very easy to prepare in a similar way to rice, just don’t forget to rinse it first; otherwise you will leave the bitter coating on the seeds, which negatively alter the resulting taste. Use quinoa in place of rice, as a base for stir-fries, casseroles, to stuff vegetables, add to salads and breakfast cereals – the possibilities are endless!
Good quality protein powders can be an excellent way to increase your protein intake especially for vegetarians and vegans. There are many high quality protein powders available, which are easily digested and absorbed, that taste delicious too! Making a protein smoothie for breakfast is also a great thing for those who are not good at having breakfast or who are short of time. Protein shakes are also an excellent way to finish off an intensive exercise session, as the readily available protein will help ensure the maintenance of muscle cells. I always add some extras to make it a ‘power shake’, including things like chia seeds, flaxseed oil, lecithin granules, glutamine powder and more! I recommend investing in a Nutri Bullet; it’ll make it even easier – a fabulous, efficient, easy to clean piece of equipment! It has so many uses too.
It may be unrealistic for most, but the most ideal way to have dairy is if it’s organic, raw, unpasteurised, non-homogenised milk from grass-fed cows. Raw, whole milk consumed in this way is nutrient dense and immune fortifying. Unfortunately most of us don’t have easy access to this at all. Try to consume only organic dairy foods, reducing your intake of hormones (especially oestrogen), antibiotics, pesticides and GMO via the food these non-organic animals are fed.
There is an obsession with dairy and the calcium it provides. If only calcium metabolism and use in the body was that easy, but its not, many other nutrients are involved especially magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K, zinc and boron. In milk the ratio of calcium to magnesium is 10:1, therefore relying on dairy products for calcium is likely to make you magnesium deficient. Add to that the semi-skimmed and skimmed milk culture means that without fat very little fat-soluble nutrients are absorbed at all (calcium is a fat-soluble nutrient).
So if you’re going to consume milk and dairy products make them ideally organic and full fat, so that you get the most value out of it. Also consider goat and sheep’s milk products. Kefir and natural, ‘live’ yoghurt, feta, cottage cheese and ricotta would be the best choices of dairy. Make sure and balance it up with many mineral-rich vegetables such as kale, cabbage, carrots and plenty of nuts and seeds.
The way many of us are currently consuming soy is NOT the way it is traditionally consumed in places such as Japan. The Japanese consume small amounts of fermented soy as miso, tempeh, soya sauce and natto. Fermenting the soy stops the effect of phytic acid and increases the availability of isoflavones. The fermentation process also creates probiotics that further enhance the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilation of nutrients in the body.
Non-fermented soy contains significant amounts of phytic acid, which as previously mentioned has anti-nutritive properties. Phytic acid binds with certain nutrients, especially iron, and inhibits their absorption. Soy also contains the other major anti-nutrients – enzyme inhibitors and goitrogens. As an enzyme-inhibitor, unfermented soy inhibits digestive enzymes, making the carbohydrate and protein of soy impossible to completely digest. This can lead to bloating and discomfort. The high amounts of goitrogens in unfermented soy can block the production of thyroid hormone, which can have a huge impact on the metabolism slowing everything down.
Especially if you are a vegetarian or vegan, please do not focus too much on soy as a protein source, and if so make it fermented. There are plenty of other better choices of protein!
Vegetables also contain a SMALL amount of protein that can of course add to your overall consumption of protein. Plus all of the other health benefits vegetables provide including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fibre means you should consume as many servings a day as you can from a variety of sources – aim for a rainbow of colour on a daily basis! Some examples include sun-dried tomatoes (14%), garlic (6%), dried seaweed (6%), mushrooms (4%), spinach, Brussel sprouts, onion, carrots, kale, broccoli (3%), asparagus, parsley and cauliflower.