Once upon a time, the term “vegan” conjured up images of the sallow-skinned “98-pound weaklings” featured in comic book advertisements from the 1950s. But a lot has changed since then. Just witness MMA fighter Mac Danzig, a proud—and supremely buff—vegan.
Unfortunately, many people still cling to the notion that vegans cannot possibly get sufficient protein for good health. Or that it must be impossibly complicated and annoyingly inconvenient to ensure adequate protein intake on a diet consisting solely of plant foods. And yet nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the key to a healthy vegan diet is pretty much the same as the key to any healthy diet—a varied array of well-chosen, fresh foods that taken together provide all the nutrients we need.
When it comes to protein, we’re talking about amino acids really—20 of them, the building blocks of protein. Of those, nine cannot be synthesized by our bodies and must be obtained from food sources. Since these “essential” amino acids are fully present in sufficient amounts in animal products such as red meat, eggs, and dairy, it is often assumed that an absence of these foods in a vegan diet equals an inadequate supply of usable protein. Not true!
All nine amino acids are present in varying amounts in staples such as nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and grains and legumes, including all sorts of soy products.
Here’s the trick: make sure that your daily diet includes contributions from all of these categories, and your body will maintain an ample store of amino acids to use as needed to build the proteins it needs.
For example, legumes will give you plenty of the amino acid lysine, grains will provide a generous dose of methionine, and nuts and seeds will furnish more than enough tryptophan.
For that matter, soybeans, quinoa, and spinach are all nearly complete foods in and of themselves, so be sure to enjoy them often.
And with the aisles of your local health food store offering an ever-increasing selection of vegan options, eating well and enjoying a vegan lifestyle has never been easier or more gratifying.
Tempted By Tempeh
A confession: until I started cooking for a client who was strictly vegan, I had never tried tempeh. Imagine my surprise to discover that it's actually a versatile and delicious source of protein. Tempeh is soybeans that have been cultured and fermented to form a firm, flattened cake. It can be sliced, cubed, or grated, and thus will happily lend itself to soups, stews, salads, wraps, stir-fries, chili—and more. Its spongy texture allows it to absorb all of the flavors around it, making it a perfect choice for multiple preparations.
Greek-Style Quinoa Pita Pockets
Serves 6 This fresh-tasting luncheon provides a considerable protein punch.
2 cups cooked quinoa
3/4 cup chopped fresh tomato
3/4 cup diced peeled cucumber
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup plain non-dairy Greek yogurt (try So Delicious)
Salt & pepper to taste
3 pita pockets, cut in half
Place quinoa, tomato, cucumber, onion, dill, lemon juice, and yogurt in glass bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and mix lightly with a fork until combined. Spoon equal amounts into pita pockets and serve with green salad.
PER SERVING: 177 cal; 6g pro; 2g total fat (<1g sat fat); 34 carb; 0mg chol; 177mg sod; 4g fiber; 3g sugars
Southwestern Tempeh Soft Tacos
Serves 4 Tempeh and black beans power this hearty dish to the top of the protein profile.
3 Tbs. canola oil
1 small red onion, halved and sliced
1 small red bell pepper, sliced into strips
4 roma tomatoes, quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ancho chile powder
16 oz. tempeh, cut into ¼ inch-strips
1/4 cup organic vegetable broth
3/4 cup organic canned black beans
2 tsp. Cholula hot sauce (optional)
4 flour tortillas, warmed
1 avocado, chopped
Handful cilantro leaves
PER SERVING: 526 cal; 31g pro; 27g total fat (4g sat fat); 45g carb; 0mg chol; 231mg sod; 16g fiber; 4g sugars