The protein myth

Thursday 22nd November 2018
If you're concerned you're not getting enough protein on a veggie or vegan diet, you may be reassured to discover that this important nutrient is abundant in many everyday foods and you don't have to try too hard to hit your RDA.

The protein myth

Anyone who is veggie or vegan has been asked the question at some point. 'But where do you get your protein?' It's a common misconception that vegetarians and vegans will not be getting enough protein in their diet without eating meat, fish or dairy products, when in reality most of us get far more than we need – without even trying. While carbohydrates have become the 'enemy' in recent times, protein has become the good guy – and everything from sliced bread to porridge and yogurts are being branded as 'protein' foods to make them attractive to health-conscious consumers. Yet most of these products have no more protein than they did before – and often have plenty of (perfectly healthy) carbs in them too.

Am I getting enough?

'Protein has gone mainstream in the last few years, thanks largely to research suggesting that it may help us manage our weight,' explains Anita Bean, VL's nutritionist. 'Protein promotes satiety, making us feel fuller longer, as well as suppressing our appetite. This means that eating protein is one way to make us feel less hungry and less tempted to snack on unhealthy foods. This isn't actually the primary role of protein in our diet – protein is needed mainly for building and repairing body cells, and making enzymes, hormones and antibodies – but rather a healthy 'side effect'. Food manufacturers have seized this research (which, incidentally, is still in its infancy and not yet conclusive!) and used it as a marketing opportunity to sell us more products enriched with protein.' If you're concerned about your protein intake, imagine a typical day's menu. It might include Greek or soya yogurt with fruit and oat-based muesli for breakfast; lentil and vegetable soup with hummus on wholemeal toast for lunch; and homemade egg-fried brown rice with broccoli and edamame beans for dinner. You may be reassured to hear that this menu of normal, everyday foods will easily satisfy your daily protein needs.

Plant-based vs mock meats

While many plant-based foods naturally contain protein, there's a growing interest in vegan and veggie-friendly meat-replacement foods, which often appeal to flexitarians, families and those who enjoy the taste and texture of meat but have chosen to reduce their intake or give it up for health, ethical or environmental reasons. In the past, the choice was mostly limited to products like tofu, veggie sausages or nut cutlets, but with a growing interest in the health and ethical benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, companies are launching exciting new products enhanced with meat-style ingredients with a really authentic look and taste, from pies to pizzas, kebab fillings to ready-made meals. However, although many of these products may be designed to replace the 'traditional' protein element in a dish – whether that's beef mince in a lasagne or pulled pork in a taco – it's worth remembering that some alternatives don't actually provide very much protein, and may also be highly processed. 'While meat-replacement products can be an interesting addition to your diet, and may be helpful in the transition to becoming veggie or vegan when it's comforting to be able to enjoy familiar dishes such as "sausage" and mash or "chicken" curry, ready-made – and sometimes homemade – meat replacements can also be high in salt, fat, sugar and additives too, so do check labels carefully,' says Anita. 'It's not a good idea to rely too much on processed mock meat products and I recommend you ensure your diet is also rich in natural and unprocessed protein-rich foods, including dairy or soya milk and yogurt, beans and pulses such as chickpeas and lentils, nuts and seeds, and quinoa. These foods also have numerous other nutritional benefits, including fibre, vitamins and calcium.' Focusing on plant-based sources of protein has ethical advantages, of course, but also may improve our health and wellbeing, as many plant sources of protein are naturally lower in saturated fat and calories than meat products, and may also have other benefits such as being higher in fibre. 'However, while vegetarian-friendly foods such as soya, quinoa, hemp seeds and eggs are complete proteins, most plantbased foods don't contain all the essential amino acids we need,' says Anita. 'This is why it's particularly important if you're veggie or vegan to enjoy a balanced diet with a wide variety of protein-rich foods.'

This article continues inside issue 100 of Vegetarian Living. To read more, download a copy of issue 100 in just a couple of clicks.

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