The Pros of Meatless Protein

Cutting back on animal products doesn’t mean eliminating all your essential amino acids.
Non-meat sources of protein abound, and more and more health experts say
that you can’t go wrong with a diet built around vegetarian cuisine.

By Susan Weiner

November/December 2005

Whether you’re in the throes of holiday cooking and envision out of the ordinary fare or just want to try your hand at a vegetarian meal, you can rest assured that meat-free dishes are anything but protein-free. So-called “peasant foods” like rice and beans, polenta, vegetable stir-fries and hummus are proof that cultures around the globe have thrived for centuries on plant and grain-based diets. In fact, it’s easier than you think to get all the protein you’ll ever need without eating meat.

Just ask anyone from countries such as Italy, Greece and Turkey, since the Mediterranean Diet is considered the gold standard when it comes to eating right. The customary diet boasts high daily intake of olive oil, fruits, vegetables, pasta, breads, cereals, grains, nuts and seeds, and moderate intake of wine, cheese and yogurt. Fish and poultry are consumed weekly, while eggs and red meats are eaten in small quantities only a few times a month. It turns out that residents of the Mediterranean region have the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world and the highest adult life expectancy, despite limited medical services.

In stark contrast, dietary staples in the U.S. include hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, barbeque and eggs, while prevailing “vegetables” are potatoes, corn and ketchup. Just take a look at any restaurant menu, cookbook, supermarket flyer or fast food sign; each contends that the centerpiece of your plate should be a large serving of meat, chicken or fish.

“Why I Went Vegetarian”:
Two Perspectives

Harold Brown, a fifth generation beef farmer, ditched his meat-based diet—and walked away from the family business—due to health concerns that included high cholesterol. Brown also cites the decline of traditional farming communities and the explosive growth of factory farms where thousands of animals are confined as compromising both animal health and meat quality. “Most cattle that come out of a feedlot and go to slaughter are just days and weeks away from dying because of liver tumors,” says Brown. Ironically, “that’s because cows can’t convert corn and wheat into protein for digestion.”

Today, Brown is in excellent health with a blood workup any person would envy. His newfound protein sources are whole grains and vegetables, along with tofu, tempeh, seitan and soy-based meat and chicken substitutes, complete protein foods that provide all the essential amino acids in one meal. This holiday season, Brown and his wife Linda have several high-protein, meat-free dishes on the menu, including basted and baked chicken-style wheat meat smothered in gravy, stuffing and tofu skins, riblets simmered in barbeque sauce served on organic whole-grain buns and apple pie.

Gene Bauston, who holds a masters degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University and has visited hundreds of farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses, maintains a high-protein diet and has avoided animal proteins for most of his life. “I don’t miss animal products at all. I prefer to eat healthy food produced in a sustainable, non-violent manner,” says the founder of Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue and outreach organization that distributes complimentary materials on healthy meat-free eating. “I like all kinds of high-protein vegetarian foods, ranging from veggie burgers and hot dogs to tempeh and tofu.”

Bauston expresses concern about the care of farm animals, which are routinely crowded and confined. “Stressed animals are more susceptible to illness and disease. If Americans are consuming the flesh of sick and diseased animals, how high-quality could the protein really be?”

The end result is that the typical American consumes more than twice the government recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein. Many Americans also suffer from a range of health conditions commonly linked to an overabundance of protein, such as plaque buildup in the arteries, high cholesterol and increased risk of cancer, especially breast, prostate and colon cancer. As it turns out, a lentil-walnut burger, a bowl of tofu corn chowder and a Moroccan orange walnut salad just might do a body better.

A Tale of Two Proteins

One of the key differences between animal and vegetable protein lies in amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins. There are 22 amino acids, divided into essential and non-essential categories. Our bodies naturally synthesize 14 of these, but the remaining eight are referred to as essential because they must be obtained from the diet. Complete proteins, which contain all the essential amino acids, are found in meat, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs and milk. Incomplete proteins contain some of the essential amino acids and are found in a variety of foods including grains, beans, legumes and leafy green vegetables.

When Frances Moore Lappe revolutionized the concept of eating meat-free and wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, she popularized the notion that, in order to balance all the essential amino acids, a variety of foods needed to be combined at every meal. We now know that this is unnecessary: Mutual supplementation enables anyone to consume partial-protein foods at one meal and other partial-protein foods at another meal, creating a complete protein by supplying all the essential amino acids.

“There’s no need to combine grains and beans to get complete protein. If you want an adequate non-meat source of protein, almost anything except fruit provides protein,” says George Eisman, RD, MA, MS, a nutrition educator and author of The Most Noble Diet: Food Selection and Ethics. “You’re not going to get a protein deficiency from eating just grains and vegetables.”

Animal foods may offer the convenience of all the essential amino acids in one sitting, but they come with unwanted byproducts, including fat, hormones, antibiotics and chemical pesticides. The Unified Dietary Guidelines, developed by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics, call for a diet based on reduced meat intake and an increased variety of plant foods, including whole grains, vegetables and fruits, to reduce risk of major chronic diseases.

Plant Power

A diet of plant-based proteins can make you look as good as you feel: In addition to lower rates of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and prostate and colon cancer, individuals who eschew meat have smaller waistlines and an overall lower body mass index, reports the American Dietetic Association. Simply put, it’s too difficult to get fat, or stay fat, on a plant-based diet.

Those who favor plant proteins also endure far lower rates of osteoporosis. “Excess protein has to be eliminated by the kidneys, and a high-protein diet puts excess strain on the kidneys,” says Eisman. “Excess protein, especially animal protein, winds up leaching calcium from the bones, causing osteoporosis.” A diet high in protein may also cause deterioration of the nephrons, the kidney’s filtering system, resulting in an increased risk of developing kidney stones.

A well-planned vegetable, soy and grain-based diet can supply enough nutritional benefits for all stages of the life cycle through infancy, childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and breast-feeding. It easily meets the current recommendations for protein and all these key nutrients: vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids and iodine.

Where’s the Soy Beef?

Preparing high-protein meatless meals can save both time and money. Quick-to-prepare dishes can use whole-grain noodles as a base, such as buckwheat, udon noodles or whole wheat spaghetti; most cook in just eight to 12 minutes. Toss with sautéed tofu, tempeh, beans or stir-fried vegetables, and season with fresh herbs and tomato or soy sauce.

Filling in Nutritional Gaps

If you think getting adequate nutrients on a meat-free diet is difficult, consider this: Meat-eaters may actually be more prone to nutritional deficiencies. Since animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs are so filling, those who eat them are less likely to indulge in vegetables, grains and fruits—making it possible they’ll come up short on plant-based vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Still, non-meat eaters have their own nutritional concerns. When it comes to zinc, vegetarians may need as much as 50% more than meat-eaters because of lower absorption from plant foods. Oysters, red meat and poultry provide most of the zinc in the American diet, while non-meat eaters get much of their zinc from beans, nuts, whole grains and fortified cereals. As luck would have it, some of these same foods contain phytates, which can decrease zinc absorption, so a zinc supplement is essential.

For folks who eschew dairy, or those who are lactose intolerant, calcium may pose a problem. In addition to a quality supplement, foods such as Chinese cabbage, broccoli and kale are good alternative sources, and though grains are not particularly high in calcium, unless fortified, they are consumed frequently. Calcium-fortified juices, soy milk, tofu and cereals are also good choices.

Those who shun dairy products and eggs may also come up short on vitamin B12. Essential to nerve and red blood cells, B12 is found in sublingual form, as well as fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast, cheesy flakes that taste great sprinkled on soups, pasta, vegetables and grains.

There are actually two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in red meats, fish and poultry, nonheme in plant foods such as lentils and beans. Although essential to oxygen delivery and cell growth, too much iron can result in toxicity, so consult with a health practitioner if you’re considering an iron supplement.
Teens who forgo meat should avoid the pizza rut and get into the habit of chomping on nuts, beans, tofu, lentils and meat alternatives. Every teen should also add a high-quality multivitamin to his or her daily routine. The same goes for pregnant women and women who are nursing; vegetarian or not, extra supplementation is a necessity during these nutritionally taxing times.

Fast-cooking whole grains include couscous, quinoa or quick brown rice. Or, keep a pot of conventionally cooked brown rice on hand for up-to-the-minute cuisine. Whole grains can be used as beds for salads, pilafs, and bean and vegetable dishes, or stuffed into peppers, tomatoes or squash. With so many meat analogs on the market, including mock bacon, burgers, hot dogs, chicken, turkey, kielbasa, sausage and ground “beef,” you’ll never notice anything missing. Simmer veggie “meatballs” in sauce and serve on crusty Italian bread, or sauté “meat” crumbles in olive oil for tacos, nachos, Sloppy Joes or pasta sauce. 

If you’re trying to convert finicky kids to a plant-based diet, you can still give them their favorites, but in more nutritious forms. Try adding layers of vegetables or mock meats to homemade pizzas, or serve up soy hot dogs and burgers with their favorite fixins’. Bean burritos are always a favorite, as are oatmeal with fruit and pancakes. And who could forget the old standby, peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread?

Finding the right balance of animal and plant proteins can be an important step towards better health and a more manageable weight. The coming of age of vegetarian cuisine, coupled with a passion for ethnic cookery, unlocks an endless range of delicious, plant-based dishes that are bound to please. Today, high-protein, meat-free cuisine, such as pasta with stir-fried asparagus and tofu, French green bean and fennel ragout, saucy Asian noodle salad and baked tofu-peanut vegetable croquettes, is the new, healthy way to eat.

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