Nowadays, people are becoming nutrition savvy and choosing healthier foods. Particularly during menopause, the quest for a healthy lifestyle is driving more and more women to a vegetarian and vegan diet but not many vegans know much about protein and its role in the body function as well as the required daily amount of protein needed for the body to function properly and the best plant based sources of protein.
Every day women are prescribed estrogen pills or patches as the ultimate cure for hot flashes, heart and bone protection. Just few women are aware that there are dietary steps and other lifestyle changes that can also make menopause symptoms manageable.
It has long been known that menopause is much easier for Asian women than it is for most Westerners. The most likely explanation is that throughout their lives, Western women consume much more meat and about four times more fat as do women on a typical eastern diet.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein is one of the most talked-about subjects when it comes to health and nutrition.
Some of the most common questions regarding veganism are nutrition related:
“Where do vegans get protein?”
“How do vegans get B12?”
“Where do vegans get calcium if they don’t drink milk?”
What most people don’t know is that a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, complex carbohydrates, and some fortified foods or a multivitamin are all a vegan needs to satisfy their nutritional requirements. People have been lead to believe that protein is such an essential nutrient that one must actively eat foods that contain high amounts of it, even when those foods, such as meat and diary compromise our health in so many ways.
We have also been lead to believe that only animal-based foods contain sufficient amino acids.
Truth is, that almost all foods contain at least a small amount of protein. Whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds are all great sources of protein. A simple peanut butter and banana sandwich on two slices of wholegrain bread contains 18-22 g of protein. By eating a variety of plant based foods, a vegan diet can not only meet but exceed recommended protein intakes.
ANIMAL VS PLANT PROTEIN
Animal protein is considered to be a complete protein, containing all amino acids necessary for the body in order to build muscles. But this being said, since these amino acids are build up in a complex protein strains, your body needs to break it all down into separate amino acids before utilizing them. This significantly slows down digestion and forces your body to work harder than it should have to.
Incomplete proteins (the ones not containing all the essential amino acids) – like whole grains, nuts or green leafy vegetables – can join together and produce a complete protein, packed with all the amino acids and they offer ready to use, easily absorbed amino acids. When you fuel yourself with foods that are easy to digest, your body can use more energy for healing and other processes.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
How much protein do you need to be healthy? The exact RDA (Recommended Daily Amount) changes with age:
Babies need about 10 grams a day
School kids need 19-34 grams a day
Teenage boys need up to 52 grams a day while teenage girls need 46 grams a day
Adult men need about 56 grams a day
Adult women need about 46 grams a day (71 grams if pregnant or breastfeeding)
Now let’s have a look at the top plant based protein sources to incorporate daily listed in a comprehensive plant-based protein chart.
sources of plant protein
- Tofu, tempeh and edamame – contain between 10 -15g of protein per 1/2 cup
- Lentils – contain 8.9g of protein per 1/2 cup and they are rich in iron and potassium
- Chickpeas – are very versatile for cooking, most used in hummus and with a content of 7.25g of protein per 1/2 cup
- Chia-, hemp- and flax seeds contain 10-12g protein per 1/2 cup
- Peanuts are protein-rich, full of healthy fats and contain around 20.5g of protein per 1/2 cup
- Almonds offer 16.5g of protein per 1/2 cup and are a great source of vitamin E
- Spirulina algae contains around 8 g of protein per 2 tablespoons. It is also rich in iron, B vitamins and manganese
- Adzuki, cannellini, mung, kidney and black beans contain between 15 and 18g of protein per 100g cooked product.
- Quinoa, amaranth, oat, millet, bulgur contain between 7 – 8.5g of protein per 100g cooked.
- Collard greens, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and spinach contain between 3 to 5g of protein per 100g cooked.
WHAT TO BE AWARE OF ON A PLANT BASED DIET
People eating a plant based diet should monitor their intake of iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Let’s have a look at these 4 essential components and see how you can increase their intake.
Many plant foods are naturally high in iron and some ways to help increase iron absorption are to:
eat sprouted grains and seeds
soak beans before use
choose roasted nuts over raw nuts
eat fermented foods
Some foods naturally containing iron are baked potatoes, chickpeas, cooked lentils, almonds, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds (all these are also great sources of phytoestrogens). Try to include them in your daily diet by either cooking them on their own or adding them in salads, smoothies or soups.
Including calcium in a vegan diet can be achieved either by eating a balanced diet full of nutrient dense foods, by incorporating calcium fortified foods or by supplementing it. Some of the foods naturally containing calcium are kale, chickpeas, almonds, figs, oranges as well as molasses.
In case of vitamin B12 vegans must rely exclusively on fortified foods or supplements. Make sure that you consult your doctor or pharmacist if you are on a vegan diet and make sure that you get the necessary daily amount of this vitamin.
Few foods actually contain vitamin D. During the darker winter months, getting adequate amounts of vitamin D can be an issue for all vegans especially those living in the northern hemisphere. For sufficient vitamin D absorption, just 15-45 minutes of unprotected sun exposure to the face and arms can provide enough pre-vitamin D to be converted to vitamin D. It may be also necessary to eat vitamin D fortified foods or to supplement in order to get the recommended daily intake of this vitamin.
Laura Peischl, BA, INHC
Laura is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Holistic Menopause Health Specialist and Certified Hormone Health and Wellness Practitioner. She is the founder and owner of Feel Good Menopause.