I grew up in the Midwest. The heartland. The flyover states. However you want to call it.
One staple of my Midwestern upbringing was a (false) belief that a meal was not a meal without a big hunk of meat in the center of the plate.
When I first went vegetarian as a college-aged male in 2007, I really didn’t know what I was going to eat! Now, after almost 8 years at this, I have learned a lot. And sometimes the biggest hurdle to eating less (or ideally no) meat is simply figuring out what else to eat!
There are a few schools of thought that we will discuss:
1. Meat substitutes
3. Beans and Lentils (my personal favorite!)
By far the simplest and easiest way to replace the meat in your diet is to switch to meat substitutes, and in 8 years I certainly have eaten my fair share. And there is good news on this front — in just 8 short years they’ve progressed from barely passing to convincingly similar!
If you are used to cold cuts on sandwiches, try Tofurky instead. If you are a chicken-lover, go with Gardein (this stuff is good!). If you have to have burgers, the closest that I have heard is the Beast Burger by Beyond Meat. They apparently even use a blood analogue so convincing it turns off a lot of long-time vegans! Of course, it has more protein than beef with zero cholesterol and far less saturated fat, so it is infinitely better for you. If you can’t find this burger however, there are plenty of other great veggie burger options to choose from.
One note: for both the environment and the animals, these are an infinitely better choice. For health, you’d still be better served going 100% whole-foods plant-based, but to be sure, these substitutes can be incredibly beneficial as you transition away from a meat-centric diet, and are still much better for you than the animal products!
When I went vegetarian I felt like there were two main camps to choose from: those who ate lots of tofu and those who ate lots of beans. We’ll talk about beans in a second, but many vegans and vegetarians rely heavily on soy and wheat-based protein products.
Tempeh is fermented soybeans (sometimes with other grains as well). It has a firmer texture than tofu, and can be marinated to resemble the smokey flavor of bacon, used in stir-fries, and especially can star in some awesome vegan sandwiches!
Seitan is the isolated gluten from wheat. It is also known as “vital wheat gluten.” Obviously if you have Celiac’s this is not a choice. However for the 97% or more of Americans who are not gluten intolerant, it is a great choice, and can mimic chicken or duck in stir-fries (mock duck is seitan), can be used on pizza, and can bulk up soups.
I eat all three of these products from time to time. My favorite is tempeh sandwiches!
Beans and Lentils
This is the camp I most closely identified with! I absolutely love beans and lentils. They have great protein, and incredible fiber. And they are very versatile!
For breakfasts you could try the traditional Costa Rican breakfast called “Gallo Pinto,” which is rice and black beans sauteed up with some onion, peppers, and a special sauce called Salsa Lizano.
Black beans make a great soup, and can star in spicy chili along with pinto and kidney beans. Chickpeas are phenomenal roasted as a snack, are great in Indian dishes, and can even be used to mimic chicken.
Lentils are real heroes of the vegan plate! I have enjoyed them Ecuadorian style, Indian style, and even have used them to replicate a childhood favorite with Sloppy Lentils! They also make a killer soup.
It’s Easy To Eat Without The Meat
There are so many great ways to go meatless! Use one or all three of these strategies as you transition away from an animal-based diet and toward a healthy, eco-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable plant-based diet!
As we have been discussing the past few weeks, knowing what nutrients are essential — meaning they must be consumed from food, our body cannot manufacture them — teaches us a lot about what we should be eating.
This week we take a look at protein, or more specifically amino acids.
It’s a list of nine this week. The amino acids that are essential are:
It’s not so important that you memorize the names of each of these amino acids — just understand that we need to get each of these from the foods we eat.
So sticking with the theme of this series of posts, what does this teach us about what we should be eating? Does it teach us that we need to eat meat and other animal products to be healthy? Does it tell us that getting enough protein is hard?
Well actually the opposite…
To dive deeper, let’s look at the list of foods that contain ALL of these essential amino acids:
- ALL vegetables
- ALL fruits
- ALL whole grains
- ALL legumes (beans)
- ALL nuts and seeds
- and of course animal products as well
Wait, that’s a pretty comprehensive list of foods… You might even say that all whole foods contain all nine essential amino acids…
In fact the only foods that do not contain all nine essential amino acids are processed foods, like white sugar and added fats (oils and butter).
So what this really teaches us is that protein is a nutrient of very low concern, and getting enough of it is incredibly easy.
As long as you are eating enough calories, you cannot be deficient in protein!
This of course only applies to eating whole foods — all bets are off if you guzzle olive oil by the quart…
Simply put, you DO NOT need to try to get protein in your diet. The mantra is this:
Be wary of protein washing as well. This is the practice of processed food manufacturers to label on the package “now with more protein” to make you think it is a healthy food. Sadly, this works. Our obsession with protein in America leads us to believe that it is a sacred nutrient, scarce in the food economy, and any food or food-like substance that contains it is automatically healthy.
Do not be fooled. Protein is so easy to get — just eat enough food every day. And trying to get more protein by focusing on the most protein rich foods on the planet (animal flesh) adds so much negative baggage to your diet — like saturated fat, cholesterol, and the protein itself, which has been linked to cancer progression — that it is not worth it in the nutritional cost benefit analysis.
Protein is in everything. And all essential amino acids are in all whole plant foods. So just eat the appropriate amount of calories of them, and seriously, stop worrying. Protein deficiency is so incredibly rare and is always associated with starvation. Your risk is zilch: just eat enough.
I hope this has permanently put to rest your fears of not getting enough protein. Rest easy, you’re already getting enough (likely too much, as virtually all Americans including vegetarians and vegans get well over the recommended amount).
For more on this topic, check my YouTube channel this Thursday!
Technically speaking, you need zero protein in your diet. You read that right.
What your body needs every day are amino acids. A protein is a molecule made up of many different types of amino acids strung together. The quantity of each amino acid and the configuration is what separates one protein from another.
But the key point here is this: when protein from food hits your stomach, your stomach acid denatures the protein, breaking the bonds between the amino acids, and leaving them loose and unbound. In other words, you do not digest whole proteins, but rather absorb individual amino acids.
There are 22 amino acids, 13 of which our body can synthesize, and 9 which we cannot. In other words, 9 amino acids must be consumed via the food we eat.
Let me bust another myth right here — ALL whole plant foods are complete proteins. In other words, even cabbage contains all 9 essential amino acids. They were once thought to be “incomplete” because of the reality that all whole plant foods are low in one or two of the essential amino acids. However, they contain more than zero (making them complete) and if you ate only one type of fruit or vegetable all day you would reach your daily minimum for each of the 9 amino acids.
Quite simply, if you consume enough calories you cannot be protein deficient.
This alone should forever put your mind at ease when it comes to protein. Eat enough food, of any type (given that it is real food, not processed), and you will get enough protein. Without the help of protein bars, protein shakes, and protein-infused Fruit Loops, you will get enough.
But back to where we left off with the last post. My calculated protein needs are anywhere between 23.1 and 50.82 grams per day, with the former being my daily losses and the latter being a very, very safe number to meet any excess needs beyond what I lose every day. How much and what type of “rabbit food” do I have to eat to get that many grams?
To maintain my weight, I am supposed to consume about 2500 calories. Let’s look at how many grams of protein are in 2500 calories of different plant foods:
Black Beans — 165 grams
Brown Rice — 60 grams
Whole Wheat Pasta — 100 grams
Kale — 150 grams
Sweet Potatoes — 55 grams
Bananas — 25 grams
Of course, I don’t generally only consume one food for a day, but the above points out that 2500 calories of a mix of plant foods will put my daily protein consumption somewhere between 25 and 165 grams. In other words, even eating only bananas all day long I’d replace all the amino acids I lost that day (23.1 grams worth). Throw in some grains, some beans, and some veggies, and I have more than enough to function and build muscle.
In fact, let’s bust one more myth when it comes to protein.
When you workout with weights to build muscle you instantly increase your protein needs.
Researchers took a group of previously sedentary males and had them complete an 12-week resistance strength-training workout program in an effort to build muscle mass.¹ During the study the participants did not change the amount of protein they were consuming. Of course to build muscle you need to eat more protein though, right? Wrong. The researchers found that the participants were retaining more protein and losing less of it in their urine.
In other words, your body is smart. Very smart. When you need more protein (for example to build muscle tissue after a workout), your body has the ability to recycle amino acids for use in building new tissue instead of flushing it out of your system. So these strength-conditioning athletes would have been foolish to increase their protein intake — their body was already doing it by recycling amino acids instead of dumping them!
Protein is a non-issue.
Eating a whole-foods plant-based diet provides more than enough amino acids, even if you are trying to build muscle. You DO NOT need to try to get protein in your diet. Protein happens. It is a byproduct of eating real, whole food.
I will close by teasing a topic to come in a few posts — not only is not getting enough protein a non-issue, but you can actually have too much of the stuff. There is significant science suggesting that our protein obsession is actually killing us. Think about that next time you feel like you “aren’t getting enough protein…”
Did that title give you a little anxiety? If so, you may be suffering from “Proteinophobia,” or the fear that you are not getting enough protein.
This affliction strikes the hearts of millions of Americans. In a world where carbs and fat are vilified, it seems protein is the sacred macronutrient, one we can all agree is just plain good.
Food manufacturers and marketers know this phobia is widespread. Peruse the middle aisles of your local supermarket and check out the packaging of some of your favorite brands and you might be surprised to see that your Fruit Loops are “now a great source of protein!”
With all of the hype over this macronutrient, you’d think we were at high risk of deficiency. But let’s look into the science to find an answer.
Diagnosable protein-deficiency is called “Kwashiorkor,”¹ and is most commonly seen in infants and children in areas of starvation. A quick Google search for cases in the United States yields very few results, a handful here and there, often related to extenuating circumstances.
A second case of protein-deficiency is called “Marasmus,” which is marked by a deficiency in all three energy-yielding macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbs). In practical terms, this is simply starvation, and being protein deficient is just one of the many problems. Notably, there are few cases of this in the US as well, and certainly if you are reading this article you are not at risk.
So, apart from medically diagnosable protein-deficiency, how much do we actually need?
A report on protein needs in the diet was released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2002.² While I won’t go into all 284 pages of the report, the review highlights the science on protein needs — and the results are undoubtedly surprising for most Americans.
Two numbers stand out. First, the amount of protein your body loses every day, from daily metabolic activities. This is called “obligatory nitrogen losses.” It is simply an unavoidable cost of being human that some amino acids are lost everyday. From the report, a reasonable estimate of the daily protein losses is 0.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
The second number to highlight from the report is that the median protein requirement is 0.66 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, as found in a meta-analysis of current research.
Let’s use me as an example. I currently weigh 170 pounds, or 77 kilograms. Using the two equations above, we get two estimates of my protein needs: 23.1 grams, and 50.82 grams. The first number is the estimate of my daily protein losses, and the second uses the median for protein needs.
It is important to note that the first number (23.1 grams) would be the minimum protein I would need to consume daily to maintain balance — 23.1 grams in, and 23.1 grams out, every day.
From this perspective the second number can be considered oversight: more than I need to maintain balance, but since I exercise and try to stay active, a safe level just in case I need more on a particular day.
We consume more protein than we need in this country.
You might be surprised to learn that the daily average intake of protein for adults 19-30 in the US is a whopping 91 grams per day.³ That’s nearly twice as much as my safe number, which itself is already twice as much as my minimum need.
A second interesting finding from the WHO report is specifically for strength-training males. Everyone who lifts weights knows you have to pack in the protein to gain more muscle and strength, right? Well, researchers fed one group of strength-training males 2.62 grams of protein per kilogram and another group 1.35 grams per kilogram and found ZERO difference in strength output and muscle mass gains. In other words, consuming more protein did not help in any measurable way.
So, after a certain point, more protein is at best neutral, and as we’ll see, may be harmful. But we still need some of it every day from food.
What would it look like for a rabbit-food eating vegan such as myself to consume between 23 and 51 grams of protein? What types of foods would I have to eat? Is it possible to reach these levels without meat or other animal products? And what percentage of my daily calories then must come from protein?
Check out Part 2 of this series to find out!