I've always always always loved protein - cheese, yogurt... *sigh* meat. When I was little (don't judge me for this), I was alllllllll over beef jerky, salami, pepperoni, Slim Jims - yeah, all that jazz. Even just 8 months ago, I relied on meat as my number one protein source, and that dependence was what had kept me from giving vegetarianism a try.
Here's the thing with protein: it's all easy peasy lemon squeezy when we're dealing with animal proteins because they're considered "complete" - they fuel our bodies with all 9 essential amino acids (the building blocks for protein in our bodies). Plant-based sources like beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, however, are "incomplete" because they lack a few of those essential amino acids. But don't worry - we can still build muscle, strength-train, run, and live incredibly healthy lives on plant-based protein sources! I didn't learn/understand/grasp this information/concept until a few weeks ago (oops), so now I'm excited to share with you what I can!
First, these plant-based sources of protein - beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains - need to be paired together in order to become "complete". So, throw that fear of carbs out the window and give some whole grains a big ol' smooch! When our bodies depend on plant-based diets, we need to fuel them "complete"ly (pun intended). This means that a black-bean salad for lunch needs more than just veggies and beans. And that afternoon-snack plate with hummus and carrots is missing something else, too. Oh, and feel free to slather that peanut buttuh' on something whole grain.
Now that we've got that covered, let's talk about pairs! The information in my textbook for the Nutrition class I took this summer (best class ever) made things a little confusing, but once I said it all out loud, I realized how simple it actually is. I love it when that happens.
Basically, plant-based protein sources are divided into 3 groups -
Each of these groups has an amino acid that another is looking for. For example, legumes need methionine and tryptophan - two amino acids that nuts/seeds can supply. This is where the pairing comes into play. By combining these different plant-based sources, we can create meals that supply complete protein - no meat required.
Here are some combination examples to give you a better idea:
- black bean burrito - a whole-wheat/brown rice/sprouted grain tortilla (check out the differences here) filled with veggies, brown rice/quinoa and black beans. You can find this at almost any Mexican restaurant (is Chipotle calling your name right now, too?), and it's easy to make at home, too! Check out this recipe from Cookie + Kate.
- nut-butter sandwich - a thick slab of peanut, almond, cashew, sunflower seed, or whichever nut-butter is your favorite, between two slices of whole-grain, whole-wheat, or Ezekiel bread. This is the perfect sandwich to pack if you won't have time to pick up lunch during the day, and it also makes a delicious breakfast with a sliced banana!
- chickpea-brown rice bowl - what's great about bowls is their versatility - thrown in any bean, any veggie, and brown rice. Top it with a light dressing, avocado, or just olive oil, and you're set.This teriyaki recipe from Naturally Ella already has my mouth watering!
I hope this all makes sense, and I hope you can use your newfound vegan/vegetarian protein knowledge to stay strong and toned while still eating plant-based. Although incomplete proteins can seem high-maintenance at times, like on the days when you need to pack your lunch, or when you're out to eat with friends and have no idea what plant-based dish to order, they open up opportunity for creativity, for trying new foods, and for feel-good food!
Now head over to This vs. That to read more about your favorite foods, and keep coming back for more! Also, do you have any questions? Any comments? Any pretty pictures? Email me, comment below, or tag me and #hungryhaley on instagram or twitter!