In October 2014 the Daily Express reported that a record 1 in 8 people in the Uk are now vegetarian. Fast forward a couple of years to May 2016 and the Daily Telegraph headline screamed, “Number of Vegans in Britain Rises by 360% in 10 Years”, indicating that this clearly isn’t a passing fad. The number of people who are turning away from the meat industry and committing to a meat free (and/or dairy free) diet is testament to the fact that people are becoming more conscious of where their food actually comes from.
Possibly one of the most asked questions a non-vegetarian will ask a vegetarian or vegan is, “So where do you get your protein?” With the human body using just 21 amino acids to make all of the proteins it needs to function, only 9 of these are essential - so the question should be, “Where do you get your complete protein?” Luckily nature has provided many sources of complete plant based protein, or simply combining a couple of food types in one meal can easily supply the body with high quality plant protein that is much easier on the digestive system than the highly complex and intricately folded protein structures found in meat.
1. Protein – King of the Nutrients
Current UK government guidelines for men aged 19 to 50 are 55.5g of protein per day, slightly lowering to 53.3g in those over 50. Women aged 19 to 50 are recommended 45g per day, slightly increasing to 46.5g for the over 50’s. However, lifestyle should also be a consideration with regard to protein intake and perhaps a more individualised calculation would be more beneficial. For example Dr Joseph Mercola recommends that you need half a gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. There is a simple rule to calculate this and all you need to know is your lean body mass and to determine this you subtract you percentage body fat from 100. If you have 20% body fat, then you have 80% lean muscle mass – multiply that percentage (in this case 0.8) by your current weight to get your lean body mass in pounds or kilos. This formula has the advantage of taking into account your actual body composition which is more relevant than age or gender.
Some great sources of plant based protein include:
Hemp Seeds – often touted as one of the most nutritionally complete foods in world, these nutty seeds provide around 10g of high quality complete protein per 30g serving.
Quinoa – making a great substitute for rice or couscous, a typical serving of quinoa provides around 15g of complete protein. It also has prebiotic properties which help to feed the beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, making this protein easier to digest.
Buckwheat – although a typical serving of this gluten free seed only provides around 8g of complete protein, it is packed with dense nutrition and richly furnished with antioxidants.
Chlorella/Spirulina – both are high quality complete proteins which are denser and more easily digestible than any animal derived protein.
When you combine legumes such as beans and lentils with rice, a complete protein is born. Beans don’t have to be boring and neither does rice! Some tasty beans to choose from include; Aduki, Black Turtle, Haricot, Red Kidney and Butter Beans. Try combining with; Black, Brown, Red or Brown Basmati Rice for a wholesome filling dish. Lentils taste great in a curry whose natural accompaniment is rice – you could try; Dark Speckled, Green, Red or Brown Lentils or a combination of all four to make a delicious, healthy meal.
Another concern when considering turning away from animal based foods can be calcium requirements. Whilst it is essential to get the balance between calcium and magnesium right for strong and healthy bones, many plants contain more than enough of these important nutrients to ensure you won’t be deficient.
Kale – this nutritious, green leafy vegetable will provide around 15% of your daily needs for calcium and 12% for magnesium per 100g of fresh leaf. Not only that, it is very rich in vitamin A, vitamin K (also essential for strong bones) and is full of health promoting phytonutrients.
Moringa – also known as the “Tree of Life” due to the fact there is more nutrition in the leaf of the moringa tree than any other plant known. Its leaves are brimming with essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium and magnesium.
Kelp – Although better known for its high iodine content, kelp is also an excellent source of calcium and magnesium.
3. Vitamin B12
This is one of the most important and often misunderstood nutrients that must be addressed when following a vegetarian or vegan diet. It is very important to understand that you cannot get vitamin B12 from plants, some plants contain analogue B12 which mimics the true vitamin but is worse than useless in the body.
Eggs - a great non-meat source of vitamin B12, the freer and healthier the chicken they come from the better! If you are a non dairy vegetarian relying on just eggs for your B12 then it might be an idea to supplement your diet with B12 fortified nutritional yeast to top up your levels.
Dairy – Milk (raw if possible), yoghurt, cheese (especially feta made from raw ewes milk) and cottage cheese are all good sources of this important nutrient.
Get your B12 from fortified Nutritional Yeast or good quality supplements.
4. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
It can be challenging for vegetarians and vegans to meet their omega-3 fatty acid needs. Of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, plant foods typically only contain Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA).
Flaxseeds are one of the richest dietary sources of ALA, which is the parent or pre-cursor to Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). Whilst ALA is considered an important fat, EPA and DHA are critical to human health. If we rely on plant based omega sources, our bodies must be able to convert ALA to these important fats. Conversions of ALA to DHA and EPA are dependent on adequate levels of other nutrients, such as vitamins B6 and B7 (biotin), copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.
If our body’s assembly line for converting ALA is working smoothly and we are getting enough omega 3 supportive nutrients, consuming ALA rich foods such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and walnuts is extremely beneficial to health.
According to the Vegan Society, “Getting the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats is important. Your body can make ALA into other omega-3 fats, including EPA and DHA. However, if you eat a lot of LA (omega 6), your body may convert less ALA into EPA and DHA, reducing the amount of omega-3 fat in your blood.” Hemp seeds are famed for having the perfect balance of omega 3 to omega 6.