“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” ~ Michael Pollan
When Michael Pollan said, “mostly plants” in his now famous quote on how to eat healthy, he wasn’t just speaking fruits and veggies. He also meant beans, lentils and pseudo-grains like quinoa and millet – plants that have nourished the bellies of our ancestors for centuries.
These foods, humble in both cultivation and procurement, are just as powerful when it comes to nutrition as those three short sentences. Simple, yet they pack one helluva mighty punch.
What makes these foods so weighty is their protein content, a crucial element to any diet. But while many have switched to more plant-based ways of eating, through the popularity of things like VB6 and Meatless Mondays, there are just as many skeptics thinking, “where’s the beef?”
If you’re still not sure about plant-based protein, here’s your intro lesson on some of the key benefits.
How is plant-based protein different from animal protein?
All protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Just like you would lay bricks to build a house, these amino acids play many structural roles in your body, creating everything from tissues to cells, to enzymes, and hormones.
Our amazing body can make most of these amino acids, but not all. Nine of them, which we refer to as “essential”, must be obtained through our diet. While all animal sources are what we call “complete” proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, the same is not true of plant proteins (with exceptions like quinoa, hemp, soy).
How does this affect my body?
If you choose to eat meat, good news, you don’t have to worry, animal sources contain all of these “bricks” your body needs! But if you go completely plant-based, you need to exert a little more caution to make sure you’re eating a variety of protein sources to avoid any deficiencies.
How do I make sure to eat a “complete protein” at every meal?
For years, vegetarians and vegans were told to ensure they were eating “complementary proteins” (i.e. protein sources that would complement each other to make up a complete protein); think rice and beans, nuts with dairy.
We now know this is a total misconception, and as long as we’re eating a variety of plant-based sources every day, our body will have a sufficient pool of amino acids to pull from to keep us healthy and strong.
Try throwing some hemp and chia seeds in your morning smoothie, lentils on your salad, and tempeh in your sandwich – then you’re all good when it comes to getting all your essential amino acids.
Why should we include more plant protein in our diet?
Don’t confuse “high in protein” with “solely protein”. High protein foods, be it animal or vegetable, may be high in protein, but they also contain other nutrients like fats and carbohydrates.
When it comes to plant-based protein, these other nutrients tend to be things like fibre, healthy fats, and phytonutrients (plant chemicals that help to prevent disease), which are often missing in the typical North American diet.
And you know what they say: “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Livestock is one of the biggest contributors to environmental problems including deforestation, desertification, depletion of our fresh water, diverting food for use as feed, and greenhouse gas emission.
By simply swapping some of your animal-based protein for plant-based, you not only do wonders for your health and nutrition but you drastically reduce your carbon footprint and give a little hug to Mama Earth.
Are there things to consider when choosing plant-based proteins?
Just because it’s plant-based, doesn’t necessarily make it healthy. If it’s overly processed, contains artificial or GMO-ingredients, it’s not doing much benefit for our body or the planet.
Choose wholefood sources of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, quinoa, millet, nuts, and seeds. If you find you have a hard – or shall we say a somewhat musical – time digesting these foods, remedy this by soaking them overnight in an acidic medium, like a splash of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. This extra step may sound like a pain, and one more obstacle to consuming these foods, but it further increases their nutrition and dramatically cuts down on cooking time.
What are some tips for going plant-based?
· Start slow: if you’re used to eating animal products at every meal, choose a few days (like the weekend) where you can play around with some new plant-based recipes. The more comfortable you get with these foods the easier having them in your diet will become.
· Variety: Choose an assortment of nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes to include in your diet each day.
· Get soaked: beans and nuts can be hard for the body to digest. Take the time to soak these foods overnight to maximize nutrition and ease digestion.
· Read labels: processed forms of soy, or other plant-proteins that are high in flavours, preservatives or GMOs ain’t no good for you. Stick to only whole food sources of plant-based protein.
· Shake it up: while quinoa, tofu or almonds may be your daily jam, if you consume these foods too much, over and over again (think almond milk, almond butter, almond flour everything) sensitivities and deficiencies can start to develop. Shake up your diet by choosing a variety of nuts, grains, and seeds to keep your body (and belly) happy.
But is it still OK to eat meat?
Yes!! Meat, be it beef, chicken, or otherwise can offer some great nutrition benefits, like healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, if it is done right.
Choose higher quality forms of meat and poultry like free-range, grass-fed, organic, which are better for you and the planet. These may cost a little more, but they are worth the investment for your health. Choosing to spend a little more money less often, and substituting the diet with more plant-based protein, is one of the most economical ways to have your beef and eat it too.
Done right, dishes centered on plant-based protein can be extremely satisfying and filling, so much so that you might find yourself answering your previous question…
Where’s the beef? Who cares.