Last weekend, I taught a seminar on plant-based nutrition. At work, my classes cover more "typical" topics, like diabetes, heart disease or weight loss, so it was a blast to cover a different topic, especially one I'm so passionate about. In the class, we covered the benefits of a plant-based diet, how to plan plant-based meals, and of course the million dollar question, plant-based protein.
Without a doubt, the biggest concern people have about plant-based diets is if they can get enough protein if they eat less or no meat. The answer is YES, it is not only possible, but it's actually easy to consume adequate protein on a flexitarian, vegetarian and even vegan diet.
The confusion arises from two misunderstandings. First, the amount of protein we actually need is vastly overestimated. Protein seems to have taken on an aura of health. While it's a critical nutrient, we only need a small amount. Also, most plants contain at least a small amount of protein, and many contain a fairly significant amount.
Let's look at how much protein the average person needs. The general recommendation is .8 grams for every kilogram you weigh (just divide your weight by 2.2 and that's your weight in kg). Now, athletes need a bit more. If you are an endurance athlete (think marathon runner), you should be eating about 1.2-1.4 grams per kg. Strength athletes, like football players, benefit from a bit more, 1.4-1.6 g/kg. Please note my use of the word athlete. Maybe you go to the gym a few times a week, lift a couple weights when you remember, maybe do a little stretching, that does not make you an athlete, just active! If you are physically active, but not quite at athlete level, your protein needs are probably somewhere between .8-1.2 g/kg.
So lets do an example, maybe a 140 lb woman who goes to the gym 3 or 4 times a week for a fairly vigorous workout. For her, .8-1.2 grams of protein per kg would equal 51-76 grams per day. Since I doubt many people are keeping tally of their protein intake (if you are, it's wasting your time), what does this mean in terms of food? To put it in in perspective, a 6 ounce chicken breast, a fairly typical serving for most people, contains 55 grams. Clearly, megadoses of meat are not needed to meet protein needs.
Don't forget, plants contain protein too. Most people know about beans and lentils (10-20 grams in a cup), tofu (10 grams per half cup), tempeh (15 grams per half cup), and nuts (5 grams per ounce). Whole grains also contain significant amounts of protein, with 5 grams in a cup of brown rice, 6 grams in a cup of oats, 7 grams in a cup of 100% whole wheat pasta and 8 grams in a cup of quinoa. Vegetables contain small amounts of protein which adds up when you eat them in large quantities (as you should!). Take the vegetables in this recipe for example - 3 grams of protein a cup of mushrooms, another 3 grams in a cup of kale and 5 grams in a medium potato.
If you are concerned about eating enough protein, don't bother with massive portions of meat. Your body can only utilize about 25 grams at a time. Anything extra is simply stored as fat. A better approach is to include a small amount of a protein containing food with each meal and snack. Think a scoop of almond butter with your apple, a few ounces of chicken (or chickpeas!) on your salad, tempeh in your stir-fry, or hummus on a brown rice cake. Not only will this step keep you full until your next meal, but it will also help keep you from mindlessly munching on junk food, like chips and cookies. If you're considering a protein supplement, there are plenty of vegan options. My favorites are Vega Sport, Phood, Sun Warrior, and Manitoba Harvest hemp protein.
- 1 lb Yukon gold potatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
- 1 cup dried mushrooms (I used porcinis)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour or spelt flour
- 1 bunch kale, stems removed, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon butter (preferably organic, grassfed)
- 1/3 cup full fat sour cream (ditto to above)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In a medium bowl, toss potatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet in an even layer without overlapping. Roast for about 40 minutes until puffed and browned.
- Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Turn off heat and add mushrooms. Cover and let sit 12 minutes, until softened. Carefully remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Pour 1 1/2 cups of the liquid into a measuring cup and set aside. Once mushrooms are cool enough to handle, chop coarsely.
- Add 1 teaspoon oil to a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and saute until they have released and reabsorbed their liquid, about 5 minutes. Remove and place with the dried mushrooms.
- Add 2 teaspoons oil to the same skillet. Add onion and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Add paprika and cook an additional 30 seconds until fragrant. Add flour, stir and cook about 1-2 minutes. Add kale and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing frequently, until wilted, about 2 minutes.
- Add mushrooms and reserved juices to the pan. Stir to combine. Add the wine and cook until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add mushroom liquid and scrape up any bits stuck on the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to low and cook 5-7 minutes until thickened.
- Turn off heat and whisk in butter. Once melted, whisk in sour cream. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over roasted potato rounds.