Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Do I Get Enough Protein?

Last summer I started experimenting with a mostly plant-based diet.  It’s been a gradual transition, and I’ve been somewhat half-hearted about it when traveling.  On my last trip, I even had a cheeseburger with one meal.  Spending more time at home has allowed me to prepare more of my own meals, and now I’m really embracing it.

Last September, I was asked, “How do you get enough protein?”  As it turns out, it can be surprisingly easy if you plan ahead.  It can also be surprisingly difficult if you don’t.  There are lots of plant-based sources of protein, but none of them provide protein in high quantities.

I set the bar pretty high.  Because I’m an endurance athlete, I try to get about 70 grams of protein per day.  When I ate meat, I could get half or more of that in one meal.  To get that much protein without meat or dairy, I need to make sure I’m getting protein with every meal.  If I don’t get much protein with breakfast or lunch, it’s hard to make up the difference at dinner.

Sometimes, I’ll notice that I’m low on protein for the day – because I obsessively keep track with a spreadsheet.  Then I’ll have a protein snack like whole grain toast with peanut butter.  While that meets my protein needs, it also means eating extra calories, which makes it harder to maintain my weight.

There’s another challenge.  You don’t just need to get enough protein; you need to get complete protein.  What does that mean?  It means you need to get all nine essential amino acids.  Your body needs 21 amino acids, but 12 of them are considered non-essential, because your body can synthesize them from other amino acids.  The nine essential amino acids are the ones that can’t be synthesized.  A source of protein is considered complete if it contains all of the essential amino acids.

Meat, eggs and dairy products contain complete protein.  Most plant-based sources of protein contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids.  To make sure you’re getting them all, you need to pay attention.

One of the reasons I like the recipes in Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run, is that they combine ingredients in ways that give you complete protein.

It would be nice to be able to buy a protein supplement that could be added to various foods – one that not only added protein, but added complete protein.  I’ve seen lots of protein powders, but most of them are made from whey, which is a dairy product.  Then I saw this at the grocery store.

When Deb and I were in Las Vegas for the Rock N Roll Las Vegas Marathon, Deb picked up some samples of a protein powder at the expo.  It was a hemp powder.  I found that I could add it to fruit smoothies without it significantly changing the flavor, although it did give them a greenish color.  The best part is that it’s a source of complete protein.  I didn’t know at the time if I could find this product in stores.  Now I do.

I saw this in the same section of the store that had various types of flour.  That made me wonder, “Can this be used in baking?”  As it turns out, it can.  According to the Red Mill website, you can use it in place of up to 25% of the flour in most recipes.  I’m a bit skeptical about using that much in baking, but I might try using it in smaller amounts.

I don’t plan to make this a staple of my diet.  One of the reasons I’m embarking on a plant-based diet is to force myself to diversify my diet.  I want to get away from my old dietary habits.  I also want to get away from a food supply that’s becoming increasingly homogenized.  Still, it’s always nice to find new sources of protein.  My diet is a work in progress, and I've added another tool to my toolbox.

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