As a nutritionist, I often get asked about protein and how to get more of it in the diet. I am not exactly sure why everyone is so obsessed with protein these days. I think it’s mostly the persisting notion from Atkins’ times that protein-rich diets help you lose weight.
While protein is certainly a very important part of the diet, it is definitely not something most people living in the West should be too concerned with getting more of. Americans eat a lot of protein, too much if you ask me, mostly in the form of meat and dairy that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
According to nutrition science, animal protein is more “complete” as it provides all essential amino acids. While this is certainly true, it is important to note that there are a variety of plant foods out there that too are rich sources of complete protein: green peas, quinoa and soybeans to name a few. Not to mention, plants are much better for your heart health and waistline and provide a variety of essential nutrients and phytochemicals.
My advise for those wanting to eat a more protein-heavy diet is to try to keep it well balanced. Too much of anything will cause more harm than good. The human body does not have the ability to store amino acids like it does with carbohydrates or fat. Therefore, everything you don’t use gets broken down and converted to fat, and no, it does not magically become muscle unless you are a body builder. Additionally, amino acids contain amine groups which the body has to work extra hard to convert to ammonia, a highly toxic compound, and excrete through the urine cycle.
I typically suggest that you have most of your animal proteins (if you choose to have them) at lunchtime when digestion is strongest and your body can efficiently metabolize heavier foods. Try to stick to a more plant-based diet at dinner when your GI tract naturally slows down and digesting a steak becomes a more difficult task. You really don’t want to have meat sitting undigested in your belly overnight, trust me! This is how inflammation starts.
Know that if you eat a primarily plant-based diet which contains a variety of nuts, seeds and legumes, you will meet your body’s daily demand for protein. One of my favorite things to do is mix my favorite cooked grains and legumes along with some fresh or lightly steamed veggies to make a nutritionally balanced meal that is also very satisfying and full of flavor.
Here is a gorgeous salad recipe rich in plant-based proteins for you to try. You can always experiment with the ingredients and make this even more colorful and fun. I called this Mish-Mash as in Eastern Europe, where I come from, this is the name of a traditional summer dish, a mixture of colorful veggies and lot’s of other good stuff.
Have fun and enjoy the recipe!
- 1 cup of dry quinoa (rinsed)
- 1 can (BPA-free) of cooked chickpeas
- 2 cups water
- 1 clove garlic (minced)
- 1" fresh ginger root (grated) - optional
- 1 large tomato
- ½ cup fresh cilantro or parsley
- ½ head red onion
- 1 pitted avocado
- 2 Tbsp EVOO
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- pinch of black pepper
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice
- sea salt to taste
- In a small pot bring the rinsed quinoa to a boil in the water.
- Add in 1 tbsp of EVOO and a pinch of sea salt. Lower the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the quinoa is soft and uncoiled. Turn off heat and let it cool for 10 min.
- Meanwhile in a large salad bowl, chop up tomato, parsley and/or cilantro, avocado, red onion. Add EVOO and 1 Tbsp lemon juice and let the veggies marinate for a few minutes
- Rinse chickpeas and toss in a frying pan. Add 1 Tbsp EVOO, turmeric, pepper, minced garlic and ginger. Sautee for 5-10 minutes on low heat while stirring to make sure the chickpeas don't burn or get too mushy. Turn off heat and let cool off for a few minutes.
- Toss cooked quinoa and chickpeas in with the salad veggies, add more EVOO, lemon juice and sea salt to taste. Mix well and serve fresh.