“You are a vegetarian? How do Vegetarians and Vegans get their protein?”
If you’ve been a vegetarian or vegan for any length of time, this is a super common FAQ thrown your way by well-intentioned people. While most of us understand that protein is a major food group and a key element in our diet; a component of every human cell playing a crucial role in keeping us healthy, fighting infections, building muscle, and losing weight, we might not be the most informed about plant-based sources of proteins.
Vegetarian versus Vegan sources of protein
As a vegetarian, you eat dairy products along with plant foods. Some even have eggs and the occasional fish (Pescatarians, to be specific). It’s easy to meet your daily quota of proteins with this kind of diet, even exceed it.
Life for vegans, however, is not that straightforward. Most plant proteins are incomplete as they may lack an amino acid or contain inadequate quantities. If you’re new to a vegan diet or a subscriber of fast food culture, chances are you’re not getting enough of protein from the best sources available.
Can Vegans get enough proteins from plant food?
In the war between nutritionists over best sources of protein, meat tops the food list. Vegan foods are seen as unsatisfactory sources. Contrary to this popular belief, many plant foods provide as much protein as meat or dairy. Plant protein sources like nuts, legumes, grains, and selected vegetables have more nutrients and fiber, lower levels of fat, and fewer calories.
An analysis of 800 research studies by WHO showcased other health benefits of plant-derived proteins. From a lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes to increased protection from certain types of cancer and respiratory diseases, consuming plant protein is beneficial for you.
In fact, adding nuts to the food list is one sure-fire way to get a quick and sustainable protein boost! Nuts are great sources of plant protein and healthy fats, not to mention fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like vitamin E. The nutrient profile varies depending on the specific nut, but they all contain the good stuff, plus they are Dehlicious!
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Which brings us to an important source of vegan protein – Nut butter!
Walk down the aisle of any supermarket and you’ll find jars of alternative butter jostling for shelf space with the usual suspects- dairy butter and ghee . This rich and creamy paste made with dry roasted nuts is considered to be a nutritional powerhouse, and rightly so.
A significantly healthier snack option, nut butter makes a healthy swap for jam and other sweet spreads. Nutritionists concur that this is a ‘one bite-sized’ product you should keep handy. Pure vegan butter contains healthy fats and fiber that reduce cravings, keep you satiated, and help with weight management. Folate, B vitamins, trace minerals, and other vitamins found in nut butter enhance the nutritional value of your plant-based meals and snacks.
Is vegan butter just another food trend like breakfast cereal?
There is more to this story, and a historical prevalence than a simple yes or no response. While dairy butter has held power over the millennia, nut butter has been lurking in the background.
Natural nut butter is made with roasted nuts and a bit of salt. Today, you’ll find plant butter with unique flavors derived from natural foods like cocoa, berries, and coconut.
The much-loved peanut butter has a long history of consumption behind it. Albeit in a simpler avatar. While ancient Americans like the Incas and Aztecs were the first to turn peanuts into delectable pastes, it’s been used in traditional cuisines from China to Africa. For this delicious, modern miracle food you find in grocery and wellness stores, credit goes to these three inventors:
- Marcellus Gilmore Edson who won a patent for peanut paste in 1884. Dr. John
- Kellogg (of the cereal house fame) who patented the process of creating peanut butter in 1895
- Dr. Ambrose Straub (from Straub Foods) who got a patent for a nut butter making machine in 1903
How does nut butter fit into a protein-rich vegan diet?
All nut butters contain decent amounts of protein ranging from 4-8 gm per serving (two tablespoons). When you combine them with other plant foods, you get the associated health benefits from complete proteins. For example, an apple with 2 tbsp. of nut butter is an ideal snack pairing; protein from the nut butter, carbohydrates and sugars from the fruit.
Types of Nut butter :
- Almond butter: Nutritionists consider almond butter to be the healthiest of the lot. You get 6.7 gm of protein and 12 gm of healthy fats per serving along with vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, and other vital nutrients
- Peanut butter: with 7.8 gm of protein per serving, is considered an economical, low-calorie, and high-protein plant food. With generous amounts of oleic acid and antioxidants, this butter aids in weight loss and helps balance blood sugar levels
- Macadamia butter: although macadamia nuts don’t come cheap, the butter version contains fewer carbs, more fiber, and healthy fats. Eating macadamia butter regularly could protect against inflammation and heart disease
- Pistachio butter: it has a higher calorie count, but its protein content matches that of almond and peanut butter. If you need an electrolyte boost, spread some of this butter on your toast or diced fruit
- Brazil nut butter: acts as an immunity booster given its high selenium content. Expensive and difficult to find, this nut butter is a decent source of zinc, iron, and B vitamins
- Hazelnut butter: much like peanut butter is a low-calorie, high-fat butter. A good choice for those on a keto diet
- Nut butter mixes: if you can find them, offer a greater variety of proteins, good fats, fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
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Are nut butters healthier when compared to dairy-based butter?
Valid question. Nutrients found in raw nuts are equally accessible in their butter form as well. Some well-understood facts about the nutritional content of nut butter include:
- Peanut and almond butter provides 7-8 gm of protein per serving, almost 15% of recommended daily intake
- Walnut butter is rich in ALA or alpha-linolenic acid. This Omega-3 fatty acid is primarily found in fish oils, and in a teeny-tiny number of plant-food sources
- Almond butter contains 52% of the daily value of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that boosts immunity reduces blood clots and has anti-aging properties
- Cashew butter contains good amounts of magnesium, a vital mineral in sleep promotion, and generous amounts of copper, a mineral that helps absorb iron.
Nut allergy and health restrictions – What should you do?
Many people are allergic to tree nuts, particularly peanuts. If you’re allergic to a particular nut, don’t let that stop you from using another variety.
Your body doesn’t tolerate any nut butter? No sweat! Hello, Seed Butters!
Prepared from sesame (Tahini anyone?), pumpkin, and hemp seeds, these kinds of butter are an excellent vegan alternative to nut butter.
Seed butter stacks up well when compared with nut butter. They provide you with similar amounts of protein, good fats, fiber, and other nutrients. Remember our seed triumvirate - hemp, chia, and pumpkin? These complete protein foods retain the benefits in their butter form.
While a diet rich in foods with soluble fiber like nut butter can help heal stomach ulcers, avoid them on a restricted-fiber diet. People on a renal/kidney-friendly diet should also stay away from the nut butter as they have higher amounts of phosphorous and potassium.
How do you choose the best nut butter?
Always opt for quality products that have been approved by local or exporting country’s food safety and quality departments. Check product labels to ensure you’re buying natural nut butter with little to no salt, zero sugar and trans-fat, and no artificial chemicals.
Do you love your butter flavoured? Look for products with natural ingredients like cacao, and healthier sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit.
A word of caution: Nut butter is healthy for sure but addictive. As with protein shakes, it’s easy to go overboard and consume more. Remember that nut butter contains a fair amount of fats and calories. Indulge in more than two tablespoons a day and this will add up quickly.
How do you enjoy the benefits without worrying about calories? Use nut butter as a complement or as a side note rather than the main dish.
Are you wondering how much food-based protein we need?
Okay, so nut butter is an excellent source of protein! But, how much protein do we actually need to live a healthy life?
Our body can create 11 of the 20 types of proteins (amino acids) required for numerous bodily functions, but the remaining nine, essential amino acids, come from food sources. The body isn’t good at stocking up on protein either, unlike fat or carbs.
The National Academy of Medicine recommends a daily protein intake of 50-60 gm for the average person. For active adults or those looking to build muscle, this increases to 70-90 gm a day.
Interested in building muscle the vegan way, but not sure how it all adds up?
Look at the protein content in some of these plant foods. A cup of beans or lentils provide 10-18 gm of protein depending on the type. One cup of tofu or tempeh offers a whopping 20-30 gm. That’s 30% of your protein quota in one meal!
Add a handful of nuts to the mix, and you receive 4-8 gm of this hunger-busting nutrient.
Need a quick fix? Here are three sure-fire ways to make sure you get all the essential amino acids:
- Preparing recipes that include legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, and vegetables
- Pairing different plant foods in a meal (combine whole grains and legumes to create a complete protein)
- Eating a variety of protein-rich snacks throughout the day
All proteins are not created equal. Meat and dairy are considered complete proteins for a good reason. They contain all the nine essential amino acids.
Vegans and vegetarians, worry not! For there are plant-sources like amaranth, quinoa, soy, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and buckwheat along with the Nut and Seed butter, that are complete sources of protein. Allowing you to check the boxes of getting your required dose of protein in a variety of forms, daily, without compromising on your dietary choices.
When Mother Nature serves you nuts, you just make butter out of it. That’s’ what we did! We would LuhOve to know about your preferred nut/seed butter and food pairing in the comments section below- and we will feature a few of the choices in our recipes section!
This article was written by the Fitday Nutrition team. For any questions, comments and clarifications please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.