It’s a joy to welcome back monthly columnist and registered dietitian Laura Clark here as she shares her expert view on making a plant-based diet as healthy as possible. I’ve definitely let things slip health-wise over the summer, scoffing vegan pizza and biscuits on repeat so need all the help I can get. A soup is on the stove and I’m re-reading this piece.
Over to Laura.
So Sam is 2 weeks into school and I thought I had all the essentials covered when Vicki popped into my inbox and started talking protein essentials. She was keen to find out more about achieving her protein needs whilst following a plant- based lifestyle and wanted to understand amino acids away from the biology bench, in the real world.
We can now see once little-known plant-based sources of protein are claiming their place firmly on the supermarket shelves in various forms and plant- based approaches to eating are growing in popularity. Plant-based eating can for some mean the equivalent of veganism. For others it might simply be a move towards plant based foods making up the bulk of their diet.
Whether you are considering your carbon footprint, your health or your taste buds, following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle can be good for health, and it is possible to achieve a healthy balanced diet without animal foods. Neither is automatically synonymous with healthy though so let’s take a closer look.
Amino acid low down
8 amino acids are referred to as essential because we can’t make them and are therefore reliant on our foods to provide them. Foods such as meat, eggs and soya do provide all these 8 essential amino acids but you may hear some plant- based proteins referred to as having a low biological value – this is because they do not contain all of the amino acids the body needs to make the proteins essential for growth, repair, maintenance and production of everything from hair to hormones.
This doesn’t make plant-based proteins inferior – being smart with how we combine foods together will still ensure you can achieve all the essential amino acids in one meal if you want to. For example, the amino acid methionine is lacking in lentils but can be found in rice. You do not need to achieve perfection each meal, it’s the balance of foods across the day that matters most.
Often though when there is a lack of planning or fussy tendencies to start with, simply cutting out meat from the diet doesn’t make it healthier. Over the years I have seen a lot of vegetarians who eat cheese, cheese, cheese and a lot of jacket potatoes.
The main protein sources you will need to include to make your diet as balanced as possible are nuts and seeds, pulses and lentils, soya products and grains and if not completely vegan, eggs and dairy. Also consider protein sources which have both vegetarian and vegan options available.
The protein content of grains is often overlooked as they are thought of as predominantly carbs. In fact, wholegrains where the whole of the grain is consumed contain 25% more protein than their more refined counter parts. Quinoa is the most protein rich, quickly followed by wheat and then rice.
The body utilises protein best when it is spaced out across the day and whilst it is important, I feel there is a slightly skewed impression out there of how much we actually need. It is all relative to body weight with heavier individuals requiring more. Your needs will also go up if you do a lot of exercise, particularly resistance training. 20g per meal is a good aim for those with higher needs wanting to quantify their protein intake.
Examples of plant-based protein that provide 20g protein include a tin of pulses or 100g nuts. Remember combining nutritious protein foods together will meet requirements without over doing one particular food and for many, simply remembering to include a source per meal and varying it across the day is enough to meet daily needs.
Protein, no matter its origin has benefits for satiety and preservation of lean muscle mass. Eating protein after exercise is important for muscle repair although not to the extent that you need to neck a protein supplement before you take a shower as some marketing would have you believe. The ‘window’ in reality is much longer.
Plant-based protein foods have the advantage of being higher in fibre too which adds to their nutritious halo. Great for gut health and good bacteria feeding as well as feeding muscle and protein production within the body.
The bigger picture
Most importantly we have to consider plant-based alternatives as a truly viable option for environmental sustainability. The population is set to increase to over 9 billion by 2050 and this will lead to an increase in food production of 70%. Sustainable solutions for production of high nutrient foods have to be found and this inevitably involves more plant-based protein usage.
It will be interesting to see how this evolves and no doubt Vicki will have lots more recipes up her sleeve to support us to do this easily.
Read some more of Laura’s posts here: How to Lose Weight Healthily, How to Lose Weight as a Busy Mama, Food Assumptions and How They Affect Their Children, and Confessions of a Dietitian Mum: What I Actually Feed My Children.