When we think of protein, our natural tendency is to think of meat. Many believe that without animal protein we are unable to get “high quality” or complete proteins. This however is not true. I’ve also laid out a great protein-rich recipe with quinoa to tempt your taste buds.
I want to take us back to basics and cover how proteins are made and what a “complete protein” really means. Protein, is made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that can build a protein, 9 of which the body cannot produce on its own. These 9 amino acids are referred to as “essential amino acids”. In order to be considered complete, a protein must contain all 9 of these amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
Do you remember those candy necklaces some of us used to wear as kids? The necklace would represent one complete protein, while each candy would represent one amino acid. The entire necklace can represent a complete protein. It’s a good visual to understand how a protein is created.
Why We Need Regular Protein Consumption
Humans do not need to have every amino acid in every meal we eat. A varied diet will create a pool of amino acids that the body can use. It’s important that each day, we consume enough of the right amino acids to produce proteins.
That is because there is no reservoir of protein stores in your body like there is with carbohydrates (glycogen) or fats (grab your love handles). So if there is a deficit in amino acids in your diet, your body has to break down your existing stores – namely your muscles – to get access to amino acids. As you can imagine, that is not a good short-term or long-term solution.
For some non-meat eaters it is often more about peace of mind to know that each meal has complete proteins in it. You may question if there are non-meat complete proteins? Yes there certainly are! Eggs and dairy certainly fit into the complete protein category for those who want meat free but still enjoy eggs and dairy in their diet.
Complete Non-Meat Proteins
Let’s take a look at 7 other complete non-meat sources of protein from either single foods or food combinations.
1.) Quinoa: This versatile grain that can be consumed as a breakfast with fresh fruit and yogurt or in the place of rice for a dish at dinner time. It also makes a great base for veggie bowls with avocado, roasted vegetables, edamame and veggies of your choice. At 8 grams of protein per cooked cup of quinoa, this grain is a great staple in the diet. Quinoa also contains anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, antioxidants and valuable amounts of heart healthy fats.
2.) Hempseeds: These crunchy salad or breakfast bowl toppers are not only complete proteins, but they also contain a healthy dose of Omega 3 essential fats, making them a quality food choice. With 10 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons, you can see why hempseeds are a great addition to your meal plan. They also happen to contain a healthy dose of magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc.
3.) Soy: Whether it be edamame, tempeh or tofu, soy is a complete protein most of us are familiar with. I’m a huge fan of edamame beans mixed into salads, rice bowls and stir-fry recipes. Or edamame in a bowl with sea salt as a snack. Tempeh is a great option and less processed than tofu. There are endless soy recipes from burgers to stir-fries to smoothies. A ½ cup serving of firm tofu has 10g of protein, ½ cup of edamame has 8.5g of protein and a ½ cup of tempeh has 15g of protein.
4.) Rice and Beans: Being from a Dominican background, I love rice and beans! What an economical way to get complete protein too. On a budget? This will be your new go to meal. Rice is low in lysine and high in methionine while most beans are high in methionine and low in lysine. Pair them together and they complement one another perfectly. Not to mention this is also a great choice for vegans. 1 cup of brown rice has anywhere between 5-7 g of protein while 1 cup of beans can have anywhere between 10-15 g of protein depending on the beans. Beans are also an excellent source of soluble fiber which is great for helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels, reducing cholesterol and supporting a healthy colon. The other bonus here is that this meal is also high in carbohydrates, a great win-win for endurance athletes.
5.) Chia Seeds: These little black seeds pack a punch of nourishment. Not only a good source of protein but also a great source of Omega 3 essential fatty acids and fiber. I love making chia seed pudding. Let 2 tbsp of chia seeds soak in ¾ cups almond milk, add a bit of vanilla and some chopped dates and let it sit until they expand. They also go well into smoothies once soaked. With 4 g of protein per 2 tbsp, chia seeds are a great way to add to your daily protein intake. They are also quality source of iron, calcium, antioxidants and zinc.
6.) 100% Whole wheat pita and hummus (or rice crackers and hummus): This Middle Eastern cuisine can offer you great protein options. Falafels in a whole wheat pita with some fresh cucumber, tomato and hot sauce would be a great meal to get your complete protein from. As would a snack of brown rice crackers and hummus. Wheat is only lacking in the amino acid lysine, but chickpeas are rich in lysine, as are many beans. Put them together and you have a perfect pairing. Falafel on rice would also work if you are not eating bread. Again you have the fiber from the beans and the B vitamins and fiber, manganese, copper and magnesium from the wheat.
7.) Amaranth: Not as popular as oatmeal or other grains, amaranth is a power house of a food. High in protein and a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamin C, we should start experimenting with it more often. Naturally gluten free for those with celiac, it can be another option other than rice. It can be added to baking, used as a breakfast option for porridge or to make polenta or breads. A ½ cup of amaranth has 13 g of protein.
Do Not Fear a Plant-Based Diet
Plants contain such a wide variety of amino acids, you would be amazed how easily you can succeed in reaching your protein requirements each day without meat protein. Previously in Pez I wrote about protein needs and how to determine your needs. If you were to journal a day of non-meat food consumption, you may just surprise yourself how high your protein intake will be, assuming you are making quality food choices like some of the ones mentioned above, plus produce.
Start to pay closer attention and you will realize the huge potential that lies within a more plant based diet. Not only do plants, grains and legumes contain proteins, but they also come with a high nutrient density, adding many phytochemicals, antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals to our diets that we cannot get from meats.
Keep an open mind and remember, there’s more to quality complete proteins than chicken and meat and there are many world class athletes in all disciplines to prove that you can be a strong healthy athlete without animal meat in your diet.
On a side note, if you are removing all animal protein from the diet including eggs and yogurt, you should take care to make sure you are getting enough B12 and iron either by supplementing with brewer’s yeast, consuming fortified almond milks etc. or taking quality supplements.
Here’s one of my favorite non-meat recipes that’s been on my plate a few times this spring!
SPRING QUINOA BOWL – By Anne Guzman
1.5 cups of either lentils or chick peas cooked
1 cup quinoa – boil 2 cups water and bring to a boil, add quinoa for 15 min)
2 tsp fresh mint
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1/2 cup feta or goat feta
1 tomato diced
1/3 cup red onion diced
1/2 cup kalamata or black olive, you choose. I like the taste of Kalamata
1 diced red pepper
2 cloves garlic chopped
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice -you could use lime in its place as well for a different taste
2 tsp dried dill
Pepper to taste
1 stalk minced Celery
Optional 2 tbsp. olive oil
Get a LARGE bowl out before you start chopping. Make the quinoa and let it cool. No other cooking required. Mix it up and refrigerate and eat when you are ready. This recipe has a lot of great flavour. The mint is a great touch and it makes a wonderful leftover kept covered in the fridge.
Anne Guzman has a passion for helping athletes unlock their top potential through Sports Nutrition. Anne is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Kinesiology major and Sports Nutrition Consultant. Anne raced in the professional women’s road circuit in both North America and in Europe from 2008-2012 on 2 Canadian UCI road teams. Previous to this Anne was a provincial champion and Canadian Champion medalist as a varsity freestyle wrestler at UWO.
Anne has worked with endurance athletes ranging from beginners to masters racers as well as World Champions and full time Professionals. Based on her own experiences, Anne is truly able to understand the intricacies of the endurance sports athlete and relates well to her athletes. Whether it’s understanding exactly what it feels like to race for 5 hours in the heat, to race for 6 days in a row, to race a criterium or to compete in a cyclocross race, she can relate.
Anne is a big believer that each athlete is their own individual and that the best sports nutrition program is the one customized for each athlete and their specific needs.