Plant powered? Here’s how to make sure you’re getting enough protein
B.C. authors looks to bust myth that plant-based diets lack protein.
Author of the article: Aleesha Harris
Published Jun 09, 2023 In the Vancouver Sun.
Gado Gado from Plant Powered Protein: by Brenda Davis, RD, Vesanto Melina, MS, RD and Cory Davis, MBA, PAg.
There’s been a lot of buzz around plant-based eating in recent years. But, plant-forward diets aren’t exactly new. “Plant-based lifestyles have been around for centuries,” Cory Davis, a B.C.-based environmentalist and agrologist says. “Buddhist monks, Taoists, Sikhs and many others with diverse cultural backgrounds were practising predominantly plant-based eating successfully before it ever became mainstream.
“When we look back at our early ancestors, diets were almost entirely plant-based for the first 80 per cent of the Paleolithic period and were still plant-heavy thereafter. Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden, back in the 1850s, predicted that humanity would slowly transition away from eating animals, along with many others.
“As we reflect as a society, continue to increase our circle of empathy, recognize the importance of health, and reconnect with the ecosystems that sustain us, a natural progression to a plant-based agricultural system is a clear path toward our goals.”
Plant-based eating, Davis stresses, is here to stay. “Rather than being a fad, it is the logical way forward for modern society,” the bioresource scientist explains. “The vegan boom is driven by decades of solid scientific evidence that supports its health, environmental and ethical advantages.”
According to a 2019 poll by Statista, an increasing number of Canadians are interested in eating more plant-based diets, with 69 per cent of British Columbians responding to the poll that they view a plant-based shift as a positive one. ADVERTISEMENT
This growing interest, combined with a desire to address nutritional questions surrounding plant-based dining, prompted Davis to co-author the book Plant Powered Protein: Nutrition Essentials and Dietary Guidelines for All Ages alongside Vancouver dietitians and authors Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis (Davis’s mother). In the book, Davis lends his expertise to chapters dedicated to the link between dietary choice and climate change.
Together, Melina and Brenda have co-authored 14 books, boasting more than a million copies in print in 10 languages, according to Melina. Their latest effort tackles the truths and misconceptions behind the question of protein levels in plant-based diets.
“We thought about the many myths surrounding animal-versus-plant protein and the weight of the evidence that quickly puts these myths to rest,” Melina explains of the early planning processes behind the book. “We had long been frustrated with the politics of protein and the subsidies that favour animal protein sources. We reflected on the common narrative around animal protein being of ‘higher quality’ than plant protein, and why the time has come to redefine protein quality by weaving in its impacts on risk of death and disease.”
The book uses scientific studies, tables, charts and in-depth nutritional analyses to break down the topic of protein and plant-based eating for a variety of diets. “Plant Powered Protein is for everyone who wants to improve the quality of their diet and diversify their protein sources,” Brenda says. “It is for all those striving to minimize their dietary environmental footprint. It is for people who wonder if it is possible to get enough protein from plants during pregnancy and lactation, for growing children, for seniors and for competitive athletes.
“This book is also for those who are already plant-based and want to increase their depth of understanding or would like support in articulating it to others. It is for health professionals including physicians and dietitians who want an evidence-based resource on every aspect of plant protein.”
According to Melina, deficiencies in plant-based diets are largely a myth — yet are misconceptions that continues to linger even as more people make the shift to plant-based or plant-forward picks.
“All whole plant foods contain protein and all whole plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids,” Melina explains. “People need about 10-to-15 per cent of calories from protein and most plant foods — with the exceptions of most fruits and some starchy vegetables — exceed this amount.”
Legumes and non-starchy vegetables such as asparagus and beans, she points out, provide about 20 to 40 per cent of their calories from protein.
Brenda Davis, RD. PHOTO BY BLAKE GARDNER
Vesanto Melina, MS, RD. PHOTO BY BLAKE GARDNER
Cory Davis photo. Cory Davis
“So, if people eat a variety of plant foods, and ensure sufficient calories, they get enough protein,” Melina says. “Studies from North America and Europe consistently demonstrate that vegans get plenty of protein, including vegan children. “In Plant Powered Protein we make sure that readers have the information they need to guide them safely through pregnancy and the growing years. We also address the need for protein among athletes, including those who are building muscle. Many top athletes have found their performance to actually improve when they went plant-based.”
The book also addresses the shift in protein needs associated with aging. “The one area of possible concern is among seniors, whose protein needs can be higher due to somewhat decreased absorption,” Melina says. “While the official recommended intakes in North America for seniors have not been increased over those of younger adults, those in Europe and Australia have been raised. We show people how to reach the higher intake levels, to limit muscle loss and avoid sarcopenia (gradual loss of muscle mass) — and have it taste great.”
Brenda admits the lingering misconception regarding protein imbalance in plant-based diets can be frustrating. “The assumption that plant-based diets can’t be balanced or are lacking in protein is an unfounded perspective from the 1970s that is out-of-touch with our modern understanding of nutrition,” Brenda says. “Fortunately, we have so much evidence in our favour that national and international health organizations agree and are recommending plant-predominant diets.
“It is interesting to note that Health Canada, in their latest version of Canada’s Food Guide (2019), tells consumers to, ‘Choose protein foods that come from plants every day. Plant-based protein foods can provide more fibre and less saturated fat than other types of protein foods.’ ”
When it comes to the single-most important element to consider for a balanced plant-based diet, Melina points to diversity. “First and foremost, eat a diverse array of whole plant foods. Don’t limit yourself to a few food sources,” Melina says. “Include a mix of legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and seeds and nuts as shown in the Vegan Plate. Legumes — foods that grow in pods — are the food group that may be challenging for people. However, 20 kinds of beans, peas and lentils are commonly used around the world in ways that are very appealing.
“We can start the day with toast and peanut butter — peanuts are legumes — or use soy milk, the relatively high protein plant milk. We can cook batches of lentil or bean-based soups and keep portion-sized containers in the freezer. We can learn tips from other cultures that rely on legumes.”
In order to ease the search for balanced, plant-based recipes, the authors assembled 30 simple dishes for people to try making at home.
“Providing recipes, practical tips, menus, and a food guide provides a higher level of support for those wishing to take the next step on their journey,” Brenda says. “Plant protein sources offer a wide range of options that cater to different dietary preferences and restrictions. By showcasing a variety of delicious recipes, we hope to inspire readers to diversify their diets and explore new culinary possibilities. Our view is that delicious, protein-rich recipes will be shared by our readers with a broader audience that will become more of an option for plant-based possibilities.”
As for what the authors hope readers take away from the informational guide, they pointed to proving — and once and for all — that plants are an optimal source of protein.
“For people of all ages and stages,” Brenda stresses. “Plant-protein sources provide impressive advantages over animal protein sources when it comes to health, ecology and ethics.
“We also hope that consumers are inspired to share recipes and information with friends and family so that plant-based eating is seen as an essential part of the solution as we attempt to move towards a healthier, more sustainable, more compassionate way of living.”
Gado Gado is one of Indonesia’s national dishes. It consists of vegetables that are raw or steamed until tender-crisp, plus tofu or tempeh and topped with a spicy peanut sauce. We give a health lift by baking rather than frying the tofu or tempeh and omitting the oil in the sauce. Get creative with the vegetables and include local and seasonal choices. You may put the items on a large platter or individual dishes, and let guests assemble their own plates. Serve with Gado Gado Sauce.”
Tofu or Tempeh
12 ounces (360 g) firm tofu or tempeh cut into 3/4-inch (2 cm) cubes
1 tbsp (15 mL) tamari
1 tsp (2 mL) seasoning blend of your choice
1/2 tsp (2 mL) turmeric
2 sweet potatoes, cut into 3/4 inch (2 cm) cubes, steamed 10 minutes
2 cups (500 mL) green beans cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces, steamed 8 minutes
2 cups (500 mL) broccoli florets and pieces, steamed 6 minutes
4 cups (1 L) finely chopped leafy greens (e.g., bok choy, kale, collards), steamed 3 minutes
2 cups (500 mL) mung bean sprouts, steamed 1 minute
2 cups (500 mL) finely shredded red cabbage
2 carrots, shredded
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, sliced in strips
1/2 cup (125 mL) sliced green onions
1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped cilantro, lightly packed
1/4 cup (60 mL) crushed peanuts
1-2 limes cut into wedges
Preheat oven to 350 F. Place tofu or tempeh in a medium-sized bowl. Coat with tamari, seasoning blend and turmeric. Transfer tofu or tempeh onto a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes or until crispy. Transfer to a bowl.
Steam the vegetables in two batches. Start by steaming the sweet potatoes; after 2 minutes add green beans, and after another 2 minutes add broccoli, and steam for another 4 minutes. Remove these and place on a platter (or individual plates). With second batch, cook greens for 2 minutes then add bean sprouts and steam for another minute. Arrange these steamed vegetables, the raw vegetables and tofu on the platter. Serve with optional toppings of your choice.
Makes 4 servings.
Gado Gado Sauce
3/4 cup (185 mL) very hot water
1/2 cup (125 mL) peanut butter
2 medjool dates or 6 deglet noor dates
2 tbsp (30 mL) lime juice
2 tbsp (30 mL) tahini
1 tbsp (15 mL) tamari
1 tsp (5 mL) tamarind paste (optional)
1 tsp (15 mL) chopped fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1-3 small hot peppers or 1/2 tsp (2 mL) hot sauce
Put the water, peanut butter, dates, lime juice, tahini, tamari, tamarind paste, ginger, garlic, and hot peppers in a blender and process on high speed until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Makes 1 1/2 cups.