Motivated to ascend as high as possible in a sea of saw-toothed sierras, my body will need calories and plenty of them. As a rock climber, caver, long distance hiker and raw vegan, I often get asked the protein question. That very question is what sparked my plunge into the world of nutrition over 8 years ago. I wanted to stay strong, gain lean muscle mass and stay fit for intense days on the rock, high above those little dots in the distance resembling cars. The athlete in me definitely needs energy to get me there.
Now where to get this energy from. We’ve been told our whole lives that we eat to gain protein for strong muscles and calcium for strong teeth. The fact is, we don’t eat to gain protein, carbohydrates or fats for that matter, we eat to gain energy. Unfortunately, many of us are disconnected from our food and from farm to plate, little do we know what goes on in between. Sometimes I think that if we saw the whole process, we would begin to question what we choose to fuel our bodies with. Have we forgotten why we eat? Who said it’s good for you? How about the bioavailability of these nutrients?
Dr. John McDougall, MD believes that T Colin Campbell, PhD, “has been the most influential nutritional scientist of the past century [and that] his work has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” In his new book, Whole; Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, Campbell shares how we no longer think food is important [and that] we are only concerned with the nutrients contained within so we extract them and concentrate them into supplements. We think of nutrition in terms of the elements that we need – calcium from milk, vitamin A from carrots, etc.” Where these nutrients come from have been influenced by those with money and power. Why is it that the FDA is both funded by agribusiness and are also the ones who regulate “recommended daily allowances” and the entire structure of the food pyramid? I would call this a conflict of interest. Creative advertising helps out the big corporations that have big money to gain if you buy their product and they don’t want to tell you the whole story. The big agribusiness wants us to associate protein with beef and calcium with milk. Surely if that is what our body needs, then we must need to eat animals in order to get these nutrients. But, unfortunately, we have been duped.
The most common argument in favor of eating meat is that it is necessary to build and maintain strength, yet the strongest animals in the world (elephants, oxen, gorillas) eat only grasses and fruit.
It is Dr. Campbell who has done a 27-year, extensive, large-scale population study on the effects of animal protein in diet and cancer rates. His work is published in The China Study and shows through science how the growth of cancer can be turned on and off with the consumption of animal proteins. He also believes strongly that “what you eat everyday is a far more powerful determinant of your health than your DNA or most of the nasty chemicals lurking in your environment. The foods you consume can heal you faster and more profoundly than the most expensive prescription drugs, and more dramatically than the most extreme surgical interventions, with only positive side effects. [Your] food choices can prevent cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, macular degeneration, migranes and arthritis – that’s the short list. A whole-foods, plant-based diet can reverse those conditions.” The human body builds protein from the 8 essential amino acids and the original source of these amino acids is not animal flesh – it’s vegetation and that’s where the animals get theirs from. Skip the middle man and go straight to the source.
Brendan Brazier, former professional Ironman triathlete, bestselling author and formulator of the award-winning plant-based Vega nutritional products has researched plant-based protein to the nth degree. In support of the environment, he has discovered that “producing animals for food uses more resources than producing plant foods. Very little food energy is returned from meat; on a calorie-for-calorie basis, plant-based proteins require less fossil fuel energy, water, or arable land to produce than any animal protein. Because both your health and environment matter, the nutrient-to-resource ratio considers the micronutrient gain from the food and the natural resource expenditure required to produce the food. By far, plant-based foods require the least amount of resources to produce and deliver the most nutrients.” If you look at this research from a purely scientific point of view, it can’t be refuted. In regards to both health and the environment, plant-based protein sources are the way to go. Brazier’s research in his book The Thrive Diet concludes that “choosing a plant-based diet is the single biggest possible environmental impact you can make as an individual. Aside from the significant health benefits, a plant-based diet can reduce your carbon footprint (CO2 emissions) more than changing your daily commute.”
But, organic, free range meats that are sustainably raised are much better than factory farmed fodder, right? This is true in so many ways, but even organically raised and ‘happy’ animals are hard to digest and are higher in toxins than any plant food. Let’s compare ourselves with a well known carnivore, the Lion. Lions have sharp teeth, powerful stomach acid and short digestive tracts in order to chew, digest and assimilate all the animal protein that they need to survive. No way would our square molars be able to chew so much animal protein in a day as our jaws and teeth are more suited for grinding plant matter. Our stomach acid is not strong enough to fully break down animal proteins to their smallest particles in order for us to digest and assimilate this protein. When proteins do go undigested, there is a chance we may suffer an auto-immune response or allergic reaction as the body may see these undigested proteins as foreign objects to attack. This goes for plant proteins too, so chew your food. Sometimes these allergic reactions are delayed as well. Next time you are feeling ill, think about what you ate in the last 48 hours. Not only this, but truthfully, we could not live on protein alone.
Yes, we need protein, but we also need fats and carbs. In fact, a healthy diet consists of about 10% protein, 10% fats (nuts, seeds and fatty fruits such as avocado, yum!) and 80% carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes and fruit). Unfortunately we are so consumed with this idea of protein, most of us are getting too much protein. What’s wrong with that? Animal proteins are very acidifying for our bodies and too much acid causes our bodies to want to create a natural alkaline balance since our bodies are slightly alkaline to begin with. Our body, the miracle that it is, is left with no choice but to draw out the alkaline minerals (calcium and magnesium) in our bones in order to buffer the acid. There are studies that show counties who consume diets high in animal protein and dairy in fact have higher incidents of osteoporosis, a degeneration of the bones caused by calcium deficiency. Why then, if we are drinking so much milk do we have weaker bones?
The fact is, what we put in our mouths doesn’t entirely control our nutrition. Our nutrition is controlled by the efficiency of our digestive system and by what our bodies do with that food or how bioavaiblable this food is to us. Bioavailability is the rate at which your body can absorb nutrients and use it to benefit your health. Whole, plant-based foods are easy to digest and much more bioavailable than animal-based proteins. Without enzymes and a healthy digestive system, food cannot be turned into useable nutrients for the body. When a plant has a full spectrum of amino acids, it creates a complete protein. Sometimes, as Campbell believes, “plant proteins are somewhat compromised by their limitation of one or more amino acids. When we restore the relatively deficient amino acid in a plant protein, we get a response rate equivalent to animal proteins.” Even if you only ate one kind of grain, bean, potato, or vegetable as a protein source, and ate enough of that food, you could meet your protein and amino acid needs. Admittedly, it would be a very monotonous way to eat and you might miss out on other nutrients. By eating a variety of unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, the deficit that one food low in a particular essential amino acid will be made up by another food.
So, what exactly are the most amazing plant-based proteins?
1. Hemp Seeds
All seeds and nuts are high in protein, but with a perfect ration of omega-6 and omega-3 EFAs, hemp seeds are preferred over others. Containing all 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential, they are a complete protein. High in Vitamin E and trace minerals, hemp seeds do not contain phytic acid – which is abundant in soy and prevents us from absorbing nutrients. They are also high in phytonutrients that boost immunity.
How to eat?
Hemp seeds and hemp hearts (raw) are a simple and nutrient-dense addition to a multitude of dishes, from breakfast cereal to salads to smoothies to vegetables and sprouted grain dishes. You may also add toasted hemp seeds to salads for that special crunch, but when toasted, enzymes and vitamins are altered.
2. Pumpkin Seeds
According to nutritiondata.com, 138 grams of pumpkin seeds contains 34 grams of protein! That’s over two grams more than the same quantity of ground beef. High in iron and zinc, pumpkin seeds also boost immune function and help fight depression due to their high content of tryptophan which is converted into serotonin.
How to eat?
As a snack, pumpkin seeds are great for athletes after a workout. Throw them on salads, make vegan ‘cheeses’ and blitz in any smoothie.
3. Spirulina and Chlorella
A blue-green algae, both spirulina and chlorella are a complete source of protein containing all essential amino acids. At 70% – 80% bioavailable protein, it is the highest of any natural food. Grown in controlled, sustainable settings, it is also an environmentally friendly choice and can combat radiation and rid your body of unwanted toxins.
How to eat?
Sprinkle a teaspoon into in your morning smoothie everyday or add to salad dressings and even raw desserts. With a strong flavour and unique potency, a little goes a long way.
From South America, the Incas called quinoa “The Mother Grain” but it isn’t a grain at all. This mighty pseudo grain is an extremely high source of complete protein. This heart-healthy grain also contains anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids, especially omega 3s.
How to eat?
Quinoa may be eaten sprouted or cooked. I personally like to sprout it and toss it in a salad with celery, avocado, fresh dill, followed by a drizzle of olive oil, apple cider vinegar and agave with a pinch of salt and black pepper. As a high protein alternative to rice or pasta, it provides a good base for a veggie burger and is a yummy breakfast cereal when served with fresh almond milk and seasonal berries.
4. Sprouts (lentils, broccoli, clover, mung beans, alfalfa)
When sprouted, legumes and other seeds are crunchy and fresh, adding not only protein to your plate but a wide array of other vitamins and minerals. Dried seeds (lentils, mung beans, broccoli seeds) are incomplete proteins but when sprouted have an increase in all nine amino acids. To sprout your lentils, soak the seeds in room-temp water overnight. Rinse the lentils and store in a jar, turned upside-down (with mesh to hold them all in) in a cool place for a few days, rinsing twice a day. They’ll be ready when their sprout tails are as long as the seed.
How to eat?
Top on everything that goes in your mouth – salads, cooked dishes, veggies, even in smoothies!
5. Golden Berries (aka Incan Berries)
Indigenous to South America, these little berries have been cultivated in England, South Africa, Hawaii and many other countries. As a source of Vitamins A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B1, B2, B6 & B12, bioflavonoids, carotene, iron, dietary fiber, they are also high in protein, uncommon for a berry. By promoting eye health, these little guys are high in anti-oxidants and tout anti-inflammatory properties as well.
How to eat?
Just like a ‘sour raisin’, pop them in your mouth one by one, as a snack or mix with walnuts, lemon zest, chia and dates in a food processor and roll yourself a sweet and sour energy ball!
6. Beans (Black, Pinto)
Although not raw and harder to digest than hemp or algae, all sorts of cooked beans provide an abundance of protein for those looking to transition to a raw food diet or those who thrive on whole, plant-based foods.
How to eat?
Always rinse and soak beans overnight before cooking. Adding a few strips of kombu (seaweed) while cooking enhances their digestibility, just remove and discard before eating the beans. Beans go with anything! With quinoa, salsa and guacamole, you’ve got yourself a Mexican feast.
8. Chia Seeds
Best soaked in water or almond milk for 10 mins before eating, chia’s mucilaginous yet fibrous outer seed becomes jelly-like and will keep you full longer. The Aztecs and Mexican Tarahumara tribes used to use this superfood before battles and races.
How to eat?
Soak in water or fresh almond milk and eat with sprouted buckwheat, hemp hearts, cinnamon and sliced apples as a delicious breakfast cereal. You may also add Chia to sauces and spreads you wish to thicken. Sprinkle on salads too for a surprising crunch.
What about soy?
Tempeh is better than Tofu, being fermented and thus enhancing bioavailability and digestibility, but I personally choose to avoid all forms of soy considering the controversy around soy, the detrimental effects it has on the environment and possible links to infertility.
Make your own protein-packed salad booster!
- 1 cup hemp hearts
- ¼ cup chia seeds
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
- 2 tbsp spirulina
- 1-1½ tsp pink Himalayan salt (to taste)
Instructions: Mix together well and store in a mason jar. Sprinkle a tbsp on salads and all other savory dishes everyday. It will keep indefinitely in the fridge.
Brazier, Brendan. The Thrive Diet, 2007
Campbell, Dr. Colin T. Whole: re-thinking the science of nutrition, 2013
Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of The American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. J Am Diet Assoc 2009
Young VR, Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 1994
Photo credit: Alain Denis
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