Whenever we hear of someone deciding to go vegetarian, our first concern is often: are they getting enough protein?. It is one of those commonly accepted ideas, that meat is the best, or only, source of protein.
But how much do you really know about protein? What is it exactly? Why is it so important to have in our diet? And do we have to eat meat to get it?
Protein is a nutrient and can be found in all cells of the body. It is absolutely essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells, muscles, skin, hair and nails, and pretty much anything that makes up your body. It is also needed to form blood cells. During digestion it is broken down to release amino acids which are then used to make new proteins including enzymes and hormones such as adrenalin. Your body also uses proteins as an energy source.
So basically, yes, you do absolutely need protein in your diet. It is essential to overall health and well being. Does this mean that you should be eating meat every day and that all vegetarians are doomed? Not really. Meat protein is not necessarily ‘better’ than plant based protein. In fact according to nutritionfacts.org: “The source of the protein we eat (plant vs. animal) matters to our health because food is a package deal. Plant protein, unlike animal protein, naturally contains healthy nutrients thought to extend our lifespan, significantly reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, boost our immune system, and prevent/treat rheumatoid arthritis.”
While meat can be a good source of protein, there are plenty of plant based foods which contain just as much or even more than meat and have more health benefits. On average, turkey contains 20.4 grams (per 100 g.) of protein, pork has 18.95 grams, and chicken and beef are almost on par with 18.7 and 18.6 grams respectively.
So far, so good. But there are lots of plant based foods which contain way more than that. Here are just 5 of them:
1. Spirulina (57.5 g.) – Spirulina is cultivated all over the world and is a kind of algae that can be consumed as a dietary supplement and as a whole food. It also comes in tablet, flake and powder form.
2. Red rice (39.6 g.) – Red rice, like Colusari, Matta or Himalayan, has a strong, nutty flavor and a firm yet slightly sticky texture, and has more bran than brown rice and 10 times the antioxidants. It is often cultivated in areas like the Himalayan and Sri Lanka.
3. Hemp seeds (36.7 g.) – Hemp seeds are the tiny seeds of the cannabis plant that are nutty in flavor and not to be confused with marijuana.
4. Lupini beans (36.2 g.) – Lupini beans are great beans that can be eaten cooked or raw. They must be soaked overnight till their shell becomes loose and they can be easily popped out of the the thick skin.
5. Peanuts (25.8 g.) – Peanuts are the small brown kernels inside a veined brown shell that grows underground, under a peanut bush. They are therefore actually a type of legume, and not a fruit like almonds.
These are just a few examples of foods at the top end of the scale when it comes to protein content. If you can’t stand the taste of spirulina, and wouldn’t have a clue where to buy red rice, but still would like to eat less beef, there are plenty of other alternatives. Consider fish, for one. Sardines (24.6 g.), tuna (23.4 g.), and salmon (20.4 g.) are just a few seafood options. Additionally, most types of beans, like kidney, mung, borlotti, cannellini, and pinto contain more than 20 g. of protein per 100 g. placing them higher on the list than all the meat options. The same goes for nuts and seeds, with almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds coming in at above the 20 g. mark. And so far we haven’t even discussed the foods which contain the same amount or just a little less protein than the meats.
So if you have a vegetarian friend, or are thinking about cutting down on meat yourself, rest assured that protein deficiency doesn’t have to be an issue. The key here is variety in your diet and, of course, knowing what’s right for you as an individual. Some people need meat in their diet and others are just fine living their whole lives without it. Educate yourself, listen to your body and, if you’re still confused, give ph360 a try.