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To live fully plant based and maintain a healthy body, it is important to be aware of what amino acids the body needs to function properly and what combinations of plant foods need to be consumed to get them all in the right quantities.
There seems to still be some confusion out there as to whether a fully vegan or even vegetarian way of life is really enough for the body to not only maintain muscle mass but also to build it. We have all been taught for most of our lives that meat equals protein, and we need a lot of it if we want to bulk muscle. That has become so ingrained that we have forgotten that meat is not the only source of protein out there.
For those that don’t need to know all the science behind it, here is the simple breakdown. There are essential proteins and non-essential proteins. Essential proteins are essential because your body cannot make them on its own. They must be ingested. When a food is considered a complete protein, it is because it contains all nine essential proteins. Meat protein is the closest match to the protein found in your body, so it was the easiest choice to recommend for our daily diets. If that’s your choice, then carry on, but if you prefer to be more plant based or fully plant based, that is a healthy and sustainable choice as well.
Here’s a little science to put it in perspective. Protein is broken down by the body to access certain combinations of amino acids. Animal protein is composed of all the amino acids which our bodies need, and in the quantities we need them. Plants are made of varied amino acids, and though we can get what our body needs, it may not always come from one grain, legume, vegetable, nut or seed. To live fully plant based and maintain a healthy body, it is important to be aware of what amino acids the body needs to function properly and what combinations of plant foods need to be consumed to get them all in the right quantities.
Now we need to get into the heavy science. Amino acids are what our body uses from protein when it breaks it down, essential and non-essential, making up the twenty amino acids needed by our systems. The important part of this is the body can produce non-essential amino acids, but it cannot produce the nine essential ones, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. And if your children are eating plant based, they need arginine during the growing phase of life. We also need these aminos in certain percentages for our bodies to operate. For example, soy is a complete protein, but that doesn’t mean your body can function at its fullest potential only on soy because two of our nine essential amino acids are in very low quantities.
So how can anyone be sure they are eating the right combinations of plants in the right quantities to give their body what it needs to function properly?
Luckily in our world today we have access to wonderful supplements and fully plant-based protein shakes that ensure the body can fuel muscle development and repairs at peak performance. That definitely makes things easier. Next, it’s a matter of putting some basic knowledge into grocery shopping and meal prep.
First it is important to know all the plant sources that do provide a complete amino acid profile for the human body. Yes, the proportions will be off according to what we need, but they provide a good base to start with, and then we can add in foods that contain the additional aminos that our bodies need. It is good to keep quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina readily available.
Once you have a good base to work from, next start memorizing your favorites. Be aware of the two aminos that certain plant-protein sources are low in - methionine and tryptophan, and boost with plant foods higher in these two aminos, like sunflower seeds or oats for methionine and seaweed, spirulina and spinach for tryptophan.
It’s also important to have an idea of how much the body needs. For example, animal products are high in methionine, and that is one of the reasons animal products can cause cardiovascular disease. The body doesn’t know how to process the excess. Plant foods are lower in methionine giving the advantage of controlled intake levels. For most people, turnip greens and sweet potatoes are sufficient! The body only needs 6 mg a day per pound of body weight of both methionine and cystine combined. This is another reason why a plant-based diet can have such profound health benefits.
When a good set of basic, full-profile plant proteins are in place, it is time to look at food combinations that offer the complete spectrum of amino acids and in the right amounts! The most common food pairing that does this beautifully is beans and rice. This works well because beans are often at a disadvantage when it comes to methionine but they provide quite a bit of lysine. Rice is the complete opposite with low lysine but higher in methionine. Pack up a rice and bean burrito and the body gets a mega dose of complete protein!
Pack up a rice and bean burrito and the body gets a mega dose of complete protein!
This doesn’t restrict you to rice and beans. This little formula works for most legume and grain combinations, like peanut butter on whole wheat toast, corn in lentil soup, chickpea hummus on oat bran pita bread, alfalfa on a grilled veggie sandwich. The combinations and options are endless!
So now with a little bit of science and a whole lot of creative potential, a fully plant-based eating routine will not only provide the body with all the protein it needs, it will also protect it from too many animal products and surprise it with new and fresh flavor combinations.
On the off days, time crunches and on the go moments, grab a fully balanced protein shake, either ready to drink or ready to prepare to fill in the protein gap
Laura Manning, MPH, RDN, CDN The Low FODMAP diet is getting some well-deserved attention these days.