Protein needs are an important part of a healthy diet that everyone considers on both animal-based and plant-based diets. People eating meat, dairy, poultry, fish, and eggs typically eat one of these at each meal to meet their protein needs. This is largely due to how the food industry and our country’s culture have influenced our beliefs about food, and what’s normal in terms of meeting nutritional needs. There are nine essential amino acids out of the 20 total amino acids that exist to make up protein. Essential amino acids are not produced in the human body, therefore we have to eat them in order to get these critical amino acids into our systems. But first, why are amino acids important?
The Importance of Amino Acids in the Body
Think of your body like a building and amino acids as the bricks that make up the structural foundation (protein) to support your muscles, brain, skeletal system and entire metabolism. While you need healthy fats and carbohydrates in your diet, the body also depends on quality proteins to meet nutritional needs for that support system. Without a solid foundation, a building (or your body) will not thrive or last very long. Your brain, heart, muscle cells, and even your digestive system need quality proteins in your diet to function properly. And while you don’t need an abundance of protein, you do need to be sure to include some with each meal. Without these, the body will physically crave amino acids, which is its way of telling us that we need quality proteins in our diet. We also need to be sure that we don’t assume we can’t get these proteins without animal sources. Just because one type of plant-based protein doesn’t work to satisfy your personal body’s needs, doesn’t mean another isn’t worth trying.
Plant-Based Options to Choose to Meet Your Protein Needs Without Meat
If you’re looking for complete protein sources, choose: hemp seeds, sprouted grain bread like Ezekial bread, chia, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, spirulina, sacha inchi seed and pea protein. Also, be sure you look into trying plant-based protein powders made with raw, whole foods, which can also provide support in place of dairy-based whey proteins many people use in smoothies before or after their workouts. Here are some tips to make a great post-workout shake you can try too.
Instead of eggs, learn to make egg-free omelets, and instead of dairy yogurt, learn to enjoy coconut yogurt with oats for more protein. Emphasize protein-rich seeds and greens at your meals, and also consider how to add more protein to your meals and smoothies without using powders by using whole, plant-based foods.
Of course, many plant-based foods have amino acids that your body can use to form complete proteins. Here are some foods that still provide ample amino acids, though they aren’t complete sources of protein: pumpkin seeds, quinoa, lentils, black beans, leafy greens, avocados, almonds, and even the vegetable broccoli. Be sure you eat a variety of these in addition to other plant-based whole foods to ensure you’re able to get enough nutrients. This will fuel your muscles, brain, and your metabolism, helping you to thrive and feel nourished.
Many grains including oats, wild rice, and quinoa all have a wide range of amino acids you can enjoy, and some ancient pseudo-grains like teff, can also provide calcium support for your muscles that work with amino acids for complete support. Keep in mind that all leafy greens and green vegetables will also give you some protein that prevents inflammation in muscle cells.
How to Beat Cravings for Meat-Based Proteins
When your body receives amino acids from the above sources, the lesser the chances you’ll crave meat. And while sometimes we crave the flavor of old favorite foods, many times our body is just asking us for nutrients. So when it comes to protein, eat foods rich in amino acids instead of just reverting back to meat. With so many plant-based options, it’s worth exploring all your choices as much as possible. If you’re dealing with cravings, see Missing Meat: How to Battle Those Cravings in a Meat-Free Way and A Guide to Understanding Food Cravings.
The bottom line?
Don’t give up on a plant-based diet just because your body needs protein; meat isn’t the only choice to meet your needs, nor is any other animal food. If you’d like to learn more about protein on a plant-based diet and how to get enough, see our complete guide, A Green Monster’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition: Protein.
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