The meat, poultry, dairy, and egg industry have many Americans convinced that animal protein is a necessary ingredient in a healthy diet. This myth has been perpetuated by a great deal of media, most recently with all of the hype around the paleo diet. I’d like to set the record straight here…You do not need to consume animal protein to be healthy.
There are mountains of evidence showing that plant-based diets can provide more than enough nutrition to our bodies and minds. While eating organic, grass-fed meats in moderation can be a part of a healthy diet, they absolutely should not be the center of all of our meals. When people ask me how much meat they should be eating, my answer is simple: “Less than you do now.” The healthiest way to eat is to center your diets around plants.
One of the most common questions that people ask about plant-based diets is whether it is possible to get enough protein. The answer is yes. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and you can get a rich supply of all the essential aminos you need from vegetarian (and even vegan) foods. There are two main reasons why you should be looking for ways to add vegetarian protein to your diet:
- Plant-based protein sources are healthy foods…simply stated, these foods are good for you.
- Plant-based protein sources usually replace a meat-based meal. In other words, one more plant-based meal means one less meat-based meal.
If you’re confused about where to start with plant-based proteins, here is an overview of the basics.
The proteins listed below contain no ingredients derived from animals.
Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are nutrient dense foods that most Americans do not eat nearly enough. There are so many varieties to choose from…some of the most popular include: black beans, butter beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, lentils, chickpeas, and split peas. Along with plant-based protein, beans and legumes contain plenty of heart-healthy fiber, as well iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and a wide range of other minerals. The science is entirely clear… beans are superfoods.
Nuts, seeds and whole grains
Nuts and seeds are another category of nutrient-dense superfoods that you should be eating regularly. The nutrient profile of each different type of nut or seed will vary, but as a group…they reliably provide plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 oils.
The pantry (and the fridge) in our house is always well stocked with nuts and seeds. I just looked and took a quick inventory and found the following: walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds (white and black) chia seeds, hemp seed, and flax seeds. They will all find their way into my morning oatmeal, on top of a salad, as a post-exercise snack, or as an ingredient in a meal on a daily basis.
Technically grains are a seed as well…the difference is that most of what we call grains need to be cooked in order to make them palatable and digestible. Grains do contain amino acids and when they are prepared in their whole form (not refined or processed) they are also an excellent source of complex carbohydrate, fiber, vitamin, and minerals. Family favorites in our house include: short grain brown rice, black rice, oats, quinoa, and buckwheat (kasha).
Veggies and fruits
It may come as a surprise to many of you but fruits and vegetables contain protein, although not as much as the other vegan foods listed above. Combining fruits and vegetables with nuts, seeds, and legumes, however, is a great way to amp up the protein factor and the vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content of your meals. Green vegetables including broccoli and spinach contain more protein than most other vegetables, so be sure to get plenty of these.
The proteins below are animal-derived ingredients, but may be included in some types of “vegetarian” diets.
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt do provide substantial protein, as well as saturated fats, vitamin A and D (which is added to most milk in the US), vitamin B12, and a range of minerals, especially calcium. If you do eat dairy, choose organic dairy products from grass-fed animals. This will ensure that no hormones and other additives were used in the animals or their feed. If you have a family dairy farm in your area, this may be the best place to go — remember that the quality of the dairy products entirely depends on the health of the animal that produced it.
Eggs are a great source of protein for those who choose vegetarian, but not vegan, diets. The protein is concentrated in the white of the egg whereas the yolks are primarily composed of fats. Eaten together, the whites and yolks provide a high-quality protein, saturated fat, modest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and a range of vitamins and minerals.
Remember, the quality of the egg depends heavily on the health of the hen that laid it… so always choose pasture-raised eggs, from a local farm if possible. Please buy your eggs from a farmers market or a small, local producer rather than a huge commercial operation.
Technically, a “vegetarian” diet would not include any animal flesh at all…but many people choose to avoid the meat from land animals and birds but will include fish in their diets. Fish is rich in lean protein, as well as minerals, a range of B-vitamins including vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. If you do eat fish, choose wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon, mahi-mahi, sardines, and mackerel. Although there are some potential risks from excessive fish consumption because of the sad fact that the ocean in polluted…the benefits of eating wild fish outweigh the risks associated with eating fish from large factory fish farms.
Don’t be fooled, you can get plenty of protein on a plant-based diet, even without a protein supplement powder. If you make these proteins part of your meals on a regular basis, you’ll soon find that you don’t miss meat at all. And…you will have decreased your risk of virtually every chronic disease in the process.
Take good care,
Dr. Joshua Levitt