The grand equation, simplified
Whether you are an athlete or not, one of the biggest questions or concerns about a vegetarian or vegan diet is the issue of protein consumption. In short, plant-based foods are packed with incomplete protein and animal-based foods are packed with complete protein. That doesn’t mean that plants don’t have enough protein; on the contrary, most contain enough protein, just not all of the essential amino acids. Meat and animal products, however, contain all of the amino acids…hence the term “complete protein”.
So let’s look at amino acids and get an understanding of how they work and how we can plan a healthy vegetarian diet using them. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Your body makes a great deal of its own amino acids (11 of the 20), but there are specific ones that your body cannot manufacture on its own. These are called the essential amino acids, and you actually have to consume them.
Essential Amino Acids
The nine essential amino acids are:
*It was initially thought that it was only essential for infants, but longer-term studies established that it is also essential for adult humans.
Again, animal proteins, whether it is meat, dairy, or eggs, contain all of these amino acids. However, plants contain some of these amino acids as well, just not all of them. So the easiest way to get all of these is by combining the sources over the course of a day. Remember, no matter where the amino acid comes from, it will be processed and used the same way in the body. In short, amino acids from a pork loin or from a leaf of kale will be exactly the same after it is processed in the body.
For vegetarians, this is simple: if you eat eggs or consume dairy, you will get all of those essential amino acids. For vegans or strict vegetarians, a little bit of guidance on what amino acids are found in which plants may be necessary to research. Here are a few great pairings to create a complete protein. As a reminder, you do not need to pair these at the same meal, but pair them in the same day. Soy is one plant protein that actually contains all of the essential amino acids, though that seems to occasionally be under debate.
Pairings that work well together are:
Black beans and rice
Bean soup and crackers
Peanut butter on whole wheat bread
Peas and pasta
Hummus (chickpeas and tahini)
Lentils and almonds
A good rule of thumb is for every grain serving, have a legume serving. Nuts and seeds are complementary to each other, as well. If your diet is not balanced between the different types of plants, you may be missing out on a few essential amino acids. So a diet that is based completely on beans or completely on grains and cereals may be “vegetarian”, but definitely isn’t a healthy choice. And for those of us that are athletes…those amino acids are what will help repair and build our muscles and tissues to become stronger. As always, a little bit of knowledge can pay huge dividends in the end!