How do you get enough protein when only eating vegetables and fruits?
This is a really great question, and one I love answering. We know that protein is a vital nutrient to life, without it life ceases. We have also been told that the best way to consume adequate amounts of protein, for optimum health, is by eating animals. Yes animals do contain protein, but one type of animal is not enough to supply your recommended amount of protein. You would have to eat a variety of them. While I have ate more than my share of animals in the past; that behaviour left me feeling not well. I have decided to choose a different source for my dietary protein, plants. Understandably, I am frequently asked the question “How do you get enough protein when only eating vegetables and fruits?”
Allow me to answer that question now.
I like to say that protein is code for amino acids. Rather than asking, “How much protein is in this food,” we should be asking, “What amino acids are in this food?” Proteinogenic amino acids, most commonly referred to amino acids, are the building blocks for proteins. These amino acids come together in a specific order forming a chain that is read as genetic code. These amino acids are extremely important because they are responsible for the expression of one’s genes. Proteins are made with three main ingredients: amino acids, minerals, and vitamins; there are other factors but these three are the foundation ingredients.
There are 9 essential amino acids. This means they are essential to our body functions and most are from sources outside of our bodies. These essential amino acids are as follows: tryptophan, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine (which can be produced by the body or sourced from food if needed). There are another 13 non-essential amino acids. These are made inside our bodies by use of the essential nine along with the help of minerals and vitamins. These are as follows: cysteine, glutathione, tyrosine, glycine, thyroxine, serine, taurine, carnitine, aspartic acid, glutamine, glutamic acid, asparagine, pyroglutamate. Also there are 7 important neurotransmitters for healthy brain function: tryptamine, serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, noradrenalin, adrenalin, and GABA. (1) Debate exists on how many amino acids there actually are, some resources have that there are 23, 22, or 20 proteinogenic amino acids. In a way, I like that this number varies because it emphasises the differences in opinions of what science has found. It should also make you feel less intimidated to learn about amino acids since the opinion varies among degree holders and most of us don’t possess an organic chemistry degree, yet. You never know!
The Important Relationship between Amino Acids, Minerals, and Vitamins
We are all familiar with the truth that minerals and vitamins are very important for the health of our bodies, but we haven’t heard the full story. Minerals and vitamins are important, but this is because they combine with amino acids to build proteins for completing vital bodily functions. You can be diligent in eating your daily recommended amount of minerals and vitamins, but without pairing them with an equally important amount of amino acids – progress is slow.
Easy explanation for why amino acids are important…
The human body is essentially one giant blob of chemical reactions. It’s pretty fascinating to think about. To only view the protein gram amount for a food, and not it’s amino acid profile is similar to this…
“I want to make a cake, I’ll get the ingredients.” But you never looked at the recipe to examine the ingredients list. Knowing that flour and water are commonly used to make a cake, you get those two ingredients. You have left out several other vital ingredients to make a complete cake; perhaps a leavening agent, sugar, a binder, extra flavors. Instead of adding these necessary ingredients, you mix the flour and water together, pour it into a pan and bake it. This renders a deficient, non-complete, flat, bland cake – if it even resembles a cake. Do you see why it is important to examine the amino acids profile of a food, rather than the ubiquitous word protein?
Complete and Complimentary Proteins
This is what leads to the term complete protein. Have you heard of the all popular quinoa? If you have, I bet you’ve also heard that it is a complete protein. That is because it contains eight essential amino acids. How about hemp, dandelion greens, avocado, and cashews? These are all plant-based complete protein foods. The other term, complementary proteins, refers to foods that combine together making the complete set of essential amino acids. This would be foods like rice and beans; a salad with cabbage, kale, onion, tomato, and avocado; chickpeas and sesame seeds as hummus.
There are many more foods that you can combine, and foods that are complete proteins which I have not listed. It is not necessary to consume the full spectrum of essential amino acids in each meal. (2) If you are eating a diet with a variety of vegetables and fruits you are most likely consuming all essential amino acids over time. To be sure, the website Nutrition Data can help you with determining the protein quality of the foods you eat to ensure you are receiving all of the essential amino acids.
For further reading in book format I suggest, “New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind: Expanded & Updated” by Patrick Holford. This book is not specifically about protein or amino acids, it is a great resource for people wanting to improve their mental health. Beginning on page 53 with an amino acid chart, Holford covers the importance of amino acids for our health. And lastly, check out Pinterest, one of the best places for sharing information on the web. My account is here, I have pinned a few good articles on amino acids and other natural health resources.
The recipe for this beautiful salad featured at the top of the article, Alkaline Diet Complete Protein Salad.
- Holford, P.; New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind: Expanded & Updated, Basic Health Publications, Inc.; Expanded, Updated ed. edition (Sept. 1 2009)
- MediLine Plus, Amino acids, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002222.htm