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How to get enough plant-based protein

One of the most common questions I get as a vegan and as a nutritionist is “How do you get enough protein?” This question both excites me and annoys me, depending on the origin. There is a lot of emphasis put on protein in the mass media/health/fitness markets. Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, so they are no doubt hugely important, but the amounts that we need to survive and thrive vary greatly person to person.

You can easily calculate the amount of protein you need by multiplying your weight in kg by 1. The multiplier range is technically .7-1.3, depending on your age, level of activity and health goals. So, I like to stick to and average of 1 as the multiplier. If you have a very sedentary lifestyle, you will go lower on the scale and use .7 as your multiplier, but if you are very active and want to increase your muscle mass, multiply your weight by 1.3. Just to give you an idea, this gives us and average of 56g of protein for the average sedentary man and 46g for the average sedentary woman. These are very attainable numbers for most people, even those of us on a plant-based diet.

The quality of protein is just as important as the quantity, especially on a plant-based diet. We need to ensure that we are getting all 9 of the essential amino acids that are not made by the body. My simple rule for ensuring that you get all 9? Variety. I could break down what foods contain what specific amino acids and tell you to make meal plans designed off this information, but that’s daunting and overwhelming. Ironically, skittles said it best: “Eat the rainbow”. I always try and make sure I have at least 6 different vegetables throughout the day and 1-2 fruits. Add in a protein source at each meal and 1-2 grains and you’ve likely got yourself all 9 amino acids, adequate fiber and an abundance of other necessary vitamins and minerals. Luckily, we live in a day in age where recipes and inspiration are only a click away. I can (and do) spend hours surfing endless pages of food porn to get me excited about my next meal. Yes, I am a chef, so the creativity and skill set is there, but I too get in ruts of making versions of the same thing over and over again. But one thing I don’t tire of is 2018’s biggest food trend: The Bowl.

This, my friends, is one of my favorite ways to pack in the nutrition! Pick your grain: Any rice variety, quinoa, bulger, wheat berries ect, or opt for a grain free option and choose greens (wilted or raw) and then build from there! I personally like to do a combination of cooked vegetables like sweet potato, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, beets, mushrooms, cauliflower or broccoli and add some raw vegetables for freshness and crunch. These could be carrot, arugula, radish, sprouts, cucumber, avocado, scallion or tomato. Next comes your protein. Choose from lentils, chickpeas, black or kidney beans, edamame, hummus, fava beans or mung beans. Then you top it all off with a dressing or sauce. A zesty vinaigrette is always a good choice, but if you’d like to pack even more protein into your bowl, opt for a nut or seed-based dressing. There are many different recipes using cashews, almonds, tahini, peanuts or hemp seeds as the base. Dressings are a great way to incorporate fresh herbs and spices into your meal as well. Don’t forget, spices and herbs aren’t only flavor, they are medicine as well. Many help to reduce inflammation, prevent cancer and make other foods more bioavailable. So this spring, get that herb garden up and running! It will save you money at the grocery store and you can have an array of flavors at your fingertips.

Now I also want to touch on toppings for a minute. This is another super simple way to add in proteins and nutrients. Also, color, texture, flavor and fancy. Yes, I said fancy. If you want to up your food aesthetics, garnishing is key. Use them to top salads, bowls, soups, porridge's, pastas, and vegetable sautés. Here’s a great list of items to keep on hand that you can buy in the bulk bins to keep the cost down and not have Costco sized containers taking up your pantry (though if you have the space, Costco also has great prices on some of this stuff and it’s often organic). Hemp hearts, toasted peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts or pecans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pepitas, nori, unsweetened coconut and unsweetened dried fruit. I have a whole section in my pantry just dedicated to toppings and it’s the best thing ever! No digging around trying to figure out what something needs, I have clear, labeled containers holding all my magic. Ok, not all of it, but a percentage. I also love sprouting my own lentils and mung beans for protein add-ons. They are fresh, crunchy and super nutritious. Give it a try!

Another section in my pantry contains my power powders, as I call them. Here you will find plant-based protein powders (one that’s stevia sweetened and one that plain and can be used in savory applications), spirulina, maca, ground flax, turmeric, chia seeds, and a vital greens blend. There are so many more ground roots, plants and seed powders that you can incorporate into your diet, but these are just a few. Now, the first thing I mentioned was protein powder. If you are an athlete or active and finding that you can’t get enough protein with diet alone, I absolutely recommend drinking protein shakes. They help me a lot on the days I train or when I’m on the go and know I won’t have time to eat. I will also use it in place of coco powder in some of my treat recipes to up the protein content of my desserts (and decrease the guilt because then it’s healthy, right?) I opt to make my shakes with pea milk as well because it has 8 grams of protein per cup! Other plant milks may only have 1-2 grams per cup. I have the unsweetened plain powder on hand to sneak into creamy soups, breading or casseroles. I’ll also blend lentils or chickpeas into my creamy soups for some whole food protein as well.

Smoothies are an excellent breakfast to add protein and nutrition to fuel you for your day. This is where I get heavy usage of my power powders. You can add protein powder, spirulina, hemp hearts or nut butters to increase your protein content. I always try to make sure that I have one vegetable in my smoothies as well to balance out the sugars of the fruits. Spinach, kale, avocado, zucchini (yes, try it!) or carrot.

Hopefully, you feel more equipped to handle the daily goal of attaining the right amount of protein for your body. If you don’t know where you stand, try logging your food on My Fitness Pal or another food tracker for a week, just to get an idea of where you are. If you find you’re lacking, I hope my tips and tricks will help you to get on track!

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