After writing my better pantry post the other day, I wanted to speak a little bit more about why a bean and grain based pantry inherently lends itself to a healthier diet. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 17 years, which among many other things has taught me how to feed myself without falling into the American misconception that you need to eat meat in order to get enough protein.
This article will not be a discussion on why eating less meat is better for the environment, and is certainly not a self-righteous rant. Although I disagree with the way the meat and dairy industry is run, instead I’m writing specifically about why plant-based protein is not only comparable to meat protein, it is in a lot of ways much healthier.
Why eat protein?
For a human being to survive, we have to eat enough of three kinds of macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Proteins are made up of compounds called amino acids, we need 20 of these to function and survive, and 9 of them(called essential amino acids) we can only get through food sources. If you’ve heard the phrase “complete protein” before, this simply refers to a food that has all 9 of those amino acids in one place in relatively equal amounts. Some insist we need to get all of them in one place and time, but because of the way our bodies work, we can just get all 9 of those amino acids throughout the day.
Our bodies are finely tuned ecosystems that need energy to run. Fats and carbohydrates give our cells energy, and can be stored and used in a variety of ways. Proteins when digested are broken down into amino acid “building blocks” and hang around for a bit to be used to make new cells, but will be converted to glucose(carbohydrate energy), or to fat(stored energy) if they aren’t needed. The recommended amount of protein for adults is about .36g per pound of body weight, and for adolescents is about .39g per pound. So for a 130 lb adult, that equals 48.6g of protein. To put that number into perspective, one serving of rice and beans contains about 21g of protein, close to half of what the imaginary adult I described might need.
Are veggie protein sources just as good?
Many vegetarian food combinations create amino acid profiles that form a complete protein, with all 9 essential amino acids in a single dish. A perfect example is a bowl of rice and beans. Most beans are high in lysine and lower in methionine, and rice is lower in lysine and higher in methionine, so together their amino acid combination is solid. While the protein in this dish might not be as concentrated in that of a meat source, it also will include necessary fiber that keeps your digestive system running smoothly.
This is usually the part of the conversation where people start pointing out that they want to eat more protein with lower calories to achieve a leaner looking body. This is also the part of the conversation where I point out that not only does your body and brain need calories(energy) to actually function, if you make sure to get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity in a day, you won’t have to worry about the extra calories you’ll be ingesting with plant-based meat sources. There are also other ways to reduce extra calorie intake, like eating the least amount of processed sugar you possibly can, and cutting back on drinking alcohol.
Let’s pause here for a moment. You don’t need to be lean or slim to be healthy. Everybody is different, and our gene pool is a mixed bag of all different kinds of DNA from many different ancestors of many different builds from around the world. You’re beautiful when you are hydrated, nourished, and well rested, NOT when you fit into a certain size jeans, or have achieved a certain body type. Nature thrives through variety. Health and beauty are inside and out, and always individual. Period.
Benefits of less meat.
Ok, so back to healthy diets. There is so much evidence that diets higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat lead to greater health, including a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Adding vegetarian sources high in protein like rice and beans, tofu, and the increasingly popular quinoa to your daily diet ensure that you can eat meat-free meals without the worry of being malnourished. Hearty veggies like kale, spinach, broccoli and brussels sprouts are also great sources of protein and can be added to the aforementioned beans and grains for an extra-powerful meal. Protein is very important of course, but just as important are the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are in legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
The other benefit to reducing or eliminating meat-protein intake is budget. Most of my plant-based protein sources are sold as dried goods that can sit on my shelf for a while, and sold at bulk prices usually under $1.50/pound. Their dehydrated state means I simply need to add some water and I then have double the food in some cases. Have you ever cooked up a pound of dried lentils? It’s a lot. Also, not having to make sure I cook meat that might go bad saves me a lot of stress and wasted food.
You don’t have to be vegetarian to improve your diet. Meatless Mondays is great, but you can also try meat-free lunches, or even make sure half of your meals in a week are plant-based. While I tend to stick with similar meals for convenience, the variety available to me with plant-based protein sources is incredibly satisfying. Give yourself at least a week to try something different, and if you’ve added items to your pantry like I suggested, it’s very easy to accomplish.