Lent-Friendly Protein Sources (that aren't Fish)
by Janelle Zakour RD
When it comes to nutrition during Lent, you don’t always have to trade red meat and poultry for fish alone! There are multiple ways of increasing protein intake that have absolutely nothing to do with seafood. Protein is made up of essential and non-essential amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that our body does not make its own and we must get them through foods. Most animal proteins naturally contain enough essential amino acids that allow them to stand alone as high protein choices. But many plant sources of protein have an incomplete amino acid profile. To compensate for this, when choosing plant-based proteins, you would need to combine certain foods together to provide an adequate amount of all 9 essential amino acids. In the Caribbean, we call this ‘The Multimix Principle’. Consuming incomplete proteins limits how well your body uses this protein. Food combining assures that your body can most efficiently and effectively utilize what you are eating for energy, muscle gain, maintenance or recovery.
Examples of complete protein food combinations:
Grains and legumes: e.g. black bean and quinoa burger or lentils and rice
Grains or vegetables with dairy or soy: e.g. cereal with milk or pasta with cheese
Legumes and nuts/seeds: e.g. hummus made with chickpeas and tahini
Soy protein: e.g. tofu stir-fry or baked tempeh with veggies
Bear in mind that some vegan and vegetarian products like veggie-burgers, nuggets, cheeses and meat alternatives are often highly processed and come with a long list of artificial ingredients, are often high in calories and often lack the protein, fibre and nutrients necessary for a balanced meal. Here are some whole foods that pack a super protein, nutrient-dense punch.
Eggs have been unfairly demonized in the past... they are nature’s perfect little package. Whole eggs are actually one of the most nutrient-dense, complete protein foods on the planet; they are loaded with vitamins, minerals, eye-protecting antioxidants (leutein and zeaxanthanine) and brain nutrients like choline and Vitamin D (one of the few rare foods to naturally contain Vitamin D). 35% of the calories in a whole egg come from protein alone, with each egg containing between 5 to 8 grams of protein. Egg whites are almost pure protein in the form of albumins, mucoproteins and globulins. Choose free-range 'yard fowl' eggs; they pack the biggest nutrient punch.
Soybeans - Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame
Most legumes are incomplete proteins. Soybeans are the only legumes that are considered a whole source of protein meaning that they provide the body with all the essential amino acids it needs. 1 cup of cooked soybeans alone contains 23 grams of protein and has evolved into different culinary forms; tofu, tempeh and edamame all originate from soybeans.
Tofu is one of the more popular vegetarian sources of protein made from soybeans and is usually the go-to for people transitioning to a more plant-based lifestyle. It is made by pressing bean curds into a mold in a process similar to cheese-making. Its mild flavour makes it the perfect canvas to be incorporated easily into breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert recipes. 1 cup of tofu contains about 18 to 20 grams of protein and it comes in different forms, ranging from silken (best for desserts) to extra firm (best for grilling).
Tempeh is a probiotic food made from cooked and fermented mature soybeans pressed into cake form. It contains a bit more protein than tofu with 1 cup of tempeh packing a whopping 30 grams of protein along with B vitamins, magnesium and phosphorus. It has a characteristic nutty, mushroomy flavour and makes a great stir-fry with vegetables and jasmine rice.
Edamame are immature soybeans with a sweet, grassy taste that needs to be steamed or boiled prior to consumption. They are commonly found as an appetizer in sushi restaurants tossed with rice vinegar and red pepper flakes. Apart from containing 10 to 19 grams of protein per half cup, edamame is rich in folate, vitamin K and fibre.
Lentils, Chickpeas and other Legumes
Lentils are such an underrated food source but they are secretly nutritional powerhouses. 1 cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein along with folate, manganese, non-heme iron and other health-boosting plant compounds. Lentils also have a type of fibre in them called resistant starch that feeds the good bacteria in our gut and help reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. They can be used in a variety of dishes from salads, to soups, to casseroles.
Legumes in general are health-promoting, protein-packed little superfoods that contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant compounds. Chickpeas (channa), kidney beans and other legumes have between 13 to 15 grams of protein per cooked cup. They are also excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, fibre, iron, folate, potassium, manganese and many others. Legumes can lower cholesterol levels, prevent or control diabetes, reduce obesity and lower blood pressure.
Remember the Multimix Principle: pair lentils with rice or black beans with a corn tortilla.
Greek-Style Yogurt, Milk Kefir and Cottage Cheese
Greek-style yogurt is a thicker, creamier version of regular cultured yogurt with a higher protein content than milk alone. Greek-style yogurt contains 18 grams of protein per 7 ounces and is rich in probiotics, which promotes gut health, improved digestion and enhanced immune function.
Milk kefir is a fermented drink traditionally made with cow’s milk than typically has a sour flavour. 6 ounces of milk kefir contains 6 grams of protein along with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and a more potent probiotic profile than yogurt with most kefirs containing about 30 different microorganisms including Lactobaccillus kefiri, which is unique to kefir. Those suffering from lactose intolerance may be able to tolerate milk kefir as most of the lactose is removed during the fermentation process. Plain, unflavoured options will have a much lower sugar content so it is best to choose these and then add your own fruit.
Cottage cheese is a mild-flavoured, low-calorie cheese made from milk curds. 1 cup of cottage cheese packs 28 grams of protein along with calcium, selenium, vitamin B12, riboflavin and many others.
While cow’s milk is a protein-rich food in its own right (1 serving of cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein), alternative milks are becoming increasingly popular and are now more widely available. Soymilk has one of the higher protein concentrations with 1 cup containing up to 9 grams of protein along with calcium and Vitamin D, but for those avoiding soy, there are other fortified plant-based sources like flax, hemp or nut milks (or ‘mylks’ as they’re colloquially referred to) that have protein added to them. Make sure to read the food labels as some alternative milks are void of protein. Enjoy with oatmeal or make a green ‘mylk’ smoothie with 1 cup pineapple, 1 cup of soy milk, 1 cup of spinach, 1 cup cucumber and some mint leaves.
Nuts, Seeds and their Butters
Nuts, seeds and their derived products are great sources of protein. Generally, 1 ounce of nuts or seeds contains between 5 to 7 grams of protein depending on the variety. They are also great sources of fibre and healthy fats, selenium, vitamin E, phosphorus, selenium and antioxidants. It is best to consume them unroasted, raw and sometimes even soaked slightly. Almonds and pumpkin seeds are great choices.
When it comes to nut and seed butters, slide over peanut butter, there are some new kids in town. Almond, cashew and hazelnut butters, sunflower and pumpkin seed butters and even tahini (sesame paste) are popping up in groceries all over the country. 2 tablespoons can contain up to 8 grams of protein! Smear some nut butter on wholegrain toast and top with ½ a sliced banana for a quick and easy breakfast. Opt for natural nut and seed butters made without hydrogenated oils and added sugars. Bear in mind that these butters are high in fat and should be enjoyed in moderation.
Seitan is made from gluten, the protein component in wheat. Unlike soy-based mock meats, it resembles animal meat in appearance and texture when cooked. It contains 25 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces, one of the richest sources of plant-based proteins that you can find. It’s a good source of selenium and contains some iron, calcium and phosphorus. Seitan can be treated the same way you prepare most meats; baked, pan-fried, grilled etc. You can make your own seitan at home using vital wheat protein and vegetable stock. NB This is not a suitable protein choice for those suffering with celiac disease.
Quinoa, amaranth, spelt and teff are complex carbohydrates that are currently making waves in the health industry. They are all versatile alternatives to common grains such as wheat and rice and can be used in many recipes ranging from baked goods to risottos. They are all excellent sources of fibre, non-heme iron, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese.
Quinoa and amaranth are not actually grains; they do not grow from grasses and are considered ‘pseudocereals’. However they are treated like grains and can be prepared in the same ways. Both provide 8 to 9 grams of protein per cooked cup and are a complete source of protein, a rare trait among grains and pseudocereals.
Spelt is a type of wheat and contains gluten whereas teff originates from an annual grass and is free of gluten. Both provide 10 to 11 grams of protein per cooked cup, which makes them higher in protein than other ancient grains. These will need to be combined with legumes to make them complete.
Chia and Hemp Seeds
Chia seeds are native to Mexico and Guatemala and come from the Salvia hispanica plant. They have a bland flavour but they are definitely a versatile little food. Their ability to absorb water and become gel-like make them handy as an egg substitute in baked goods and an easy addition to puddings and smoothies. Chia seeds contain 6 grams of protein and 13 grams of soluble fibre per 1.25 ounces along with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, calcium, selenium and magnesium.
Although not as well known as other seeds, hemp seeds contain 10 grams of easily digestible complete protein per ounce. That's 50% more protein than chia and flax! Hemp seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant, notorious for belonging to the same family as marijuana. They are a great source of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids in the ratio considered optimal for human health along with magnesium, calcium, zinc and selenium. They can reduce inflammatory responses in the body, and reduce the symptoms of PMS, menopause and certain skin diseases. You can add these seeds as a topping on yogurt or simply dip a banana in them.
Sprouted Grain Bread
Sprouted grain breads like 'Ezekiel' bread are made with whole grains and legumes and generally include sprouted wheat, millet, barley, spelt, soybeans and lentils. This is an easy way to sneak in some extra complete protein and still enjoy a sandwich. 2 slices of sprouted grain bread contain between 8 to 10 grams of protein, which is slightly more than average bread. Studies have shown that sprouting boosts the amino acid content of these foods, which in turn boosts the overall protein content (sprouting increases the content of the limiting AA, lysine) and reduces the 'anti-nutrients'. They are high in soluble fibre, folate, vitamin E and beta carotene. In keeping with The Multimix Principle, pairing grains with legumes allows them to complete each other’s amino acid profile.
Though not actually a rice (it is actually a grass that is unrelated to rice), wild rice contains 1.5 times as much protein as other long-grain rice varieties such as brown rice and basmati. 1 cup contains 7 grams of protein along with fibre, manganese, copper and B vitamins.
Though an incomplete protein, oats contain higher quality protein than other grains like rice and wheat. Half cup of raw oats will give you 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fibre along with zinc, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus and folate. You can ground oats into a flour to make a complete protein black bean brownie or use as a binder for bean burgers.
Called ‘nooch’ by long-time users, nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast sold commercially as yellow flakes with a distinctive cheesy flavour. Even though the vegan community heralds this fortified food as a cheese substitute, it contains 14 grams of protein per ounce, is high in fibre and is an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese and B vitamins including B12. Try it on air-popped popcorn or as a cheese replacement in mashed potatoes.
Protein-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables usually contain negligible amounts of protein but some contain more protein than others. Some of these include sweet potatoes, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts and pigeon peas. These contain roughly 4 to 5 grams per cooked cup. Fruits than contain some protein include guava, mulberries, bananas and custard apples.
This is a blue-green algae touted as a superfood among health enthusiasts. 2 tablespoons of spirulina can contribute 8 grams of complete protein along with iron, thiamin, copper and phycocyanin, a natural pigment in spirulina that appears to have powerful antioxidant properties that reduce inflammation and even prevent cancer. Studies have shown linkages to improving blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol and can improve immune function. Add spirulina to smoothies and oatmeal for some green food!
(This article was featured in the Propa Eats section of The Guardian newspaper on 21/02/18. Click here!)