DEBUNKING THE MYTH THAT YOU CAN’T BE STRONG ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
I’m not a spier tier. Ok, that goes without saying. I’m not a gym bunny, and I’m not into gym bunnies. But there’s a difference between pumping iron in front of a mirror for two hours a day and feeling strong – that is, young, virile and in command of your body – no matter what your age. Much of that has to do with your diet. And right at the top of the list of nutrients you need for strength is protein, which is why the plant-based movement gets so much flack. It is true, though, that as omnivores, when we embrace a plant-based lifestyle, we need to know what we’re doing. Making the switch – or cutting down on our meat and dairy consumption – takes a bit of education, and while I don’t consider myself a nutritionist, I work with food, and take it upon myself to learn as much as possible about it. With that in mind, I set out to lay the plant-based protein debate to rest… if only for my own sanity.
A slew of famous athletes and action movie stars have turned vegan (or partly vegan) over the years, of which Sarena Williams, Tom Brady and Jared Leto are only a few. Not everyone who embraces a plant-based lifestyle sticks to it rigidly, but to say there’s something to a “vegan” diet is an understatement. If you know what you’re doing, it can markedly improve your health, but many health experts have warned against a herbivore’s diet, mostly because protein is so much harder to come by without meat. The fact is, though, if you know where to look for it, plants contain more than enough protein, which if nothing else, reduces our need for animal proteins. But let’s rewind.
MEAT VS PLANT-BASED PROTEIN
In the world of nutrition, we’re told to look for protein in fish, dairy, eggs, red meat, poultry, and in rare cases, game. Not that long ago, plant-based protein was a side note in most self-help nutritional guides, like it was negligible. And yes, a sirloin steak or chicken breast is hard to beat when you’re a lentil, but the variety of protein sources in the world of plant-based nutrition is staggering. Although no one can comfortably digest enough lentils to meet the same levels of protein as a 250-gram steak in one sitting, you can eat lots of different plant-based food to meet that quota. And most experts are starting to catch on to the fact that it’s easy to meet the numbers, because there’s protein in everything. A healthy portion of leafy greens, for instance, packs about the same protein punch as an egg. One egg might not get you to your per-meal protein hit, but two or three will. So, if you’re having leafy greens, add a portion of beans and wild rice to the mix and you’ve ingested the same amount of protein as with three eggs.
PLANT-BASED PROTEIN AND WHERE TO FIND IT
But protein isn’t the only elephant in the room here. The difference between those three eggs and a bean and broccoli salad is the fibre you ingest in the process, which comes with a lot of other health benefits. When easing into plant-based food, though, easy does it. Don’t throw your system into overdrive by doing a complete 180 with no warning. Start by incorporating small portions of protein-rich plant-based sources into every meal. Here are some sources that give you about the same amount of protein per serving as an egg:
Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
DON’T BE SCARED OF CARBS
We’ve all tried the low-carb thing, but if I’m honest, it never really worked for me. Probably because I was so bad at sticking to it. Hey, I live in France! The idea of cutting out a food group that’s been with us since the days of the caveman never sat well with my boerseun sensibilities. Perhaps that is why a more plant-rich diet appeals to me so much more. So much of the stuff I love comes from the earth.
When stepping into the plant-based culinary realm, prepare to soup up your carb intake to about 50% – about a 10% increase from the generally recommended 40% carb, 30% protein, 30% fat ratio. If this makes you feel uneasy, consider that most of your carbs will now most likely come from healthier sources that are higher in fibre and lower in refined carbs, which is where carbs got their bad rep from in the first place.
THE LAST ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
“But you’re not even vegan!” you might say, “Why are you giving us the skinny on plant-based proteins?” That’s a fair question. I’m not vegan. I haven’t fully embraced a plant-based diet and my reason is simple. I don’t know how to do it yet without supplementing all the B-vitamins, amino acids, iron, calcium and vitamin D my body needs without popping more pills.
But I do know that we all need to think more sustainably. I no longer find the idea of eating a 1-kilogram steak to prove a point funny. If I’m honest, I don’t think I ever did. No one needs that much. By the same token, food remains one of life’s greatest joys to me, and that will never change. If anything, going deeper into the world of plant-based ingredients has only reinvigorated my love for food.