A few weeks ago, I was in a major food rut. The problem was one of boredom.
You see, for the past two years, I’d had the same mindset when it came to getting protein as a vegetarian, and it had served me well: add something relatively high in protein to every meal or snack, and you’ll be fine.
I’m not talking huge amounts here. Small additions like lentils to pasta sauce, tofu to stir fry, or almond butter and ground hemp seeds to smoothies make it pretty easy to get 12 to 15% of your calories from protein. And that’s about what I aim for, based on how I feel, how I recover from workouts, and what I’ve gathered from talking to vegan endurance superstars like Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier.
But there was a problem here. It was subtle, but over time, it started to eat away at the love for cooking I once enjoyed. The problem was the word “add” — the idea that to get what the protein you need as a vegetarian athlete, you need to supplement your meals with foods that don’t quite belong.
Thanks, Dr. T. Colin Campbell
My epiphany came while I was watching Forks Over Knives for the third time (nerd alert!). Somehow I had missed it in the first two viewings, but this time it jumped out at me .
While arguing for a vegan diet, China Study author Colin Campbell points out that you could take the lowest-protein whole foods in nature — something like potatoes or rice, he says — and see that they’re about 8.5 percent protein, which he says is the proportion of protein you need. (Side note: upon looking into this, I found most fruits to have significantly less protein than 8.5 percent.)
Now, I’m not here to argue whether or not 8.5 percent really is “enough” protein. At the very least, we should consider that as athletes, we have a greater need than others to repair muscle tissue, and so we might need more than that. But like I said, that’s not the point.
What hit me was the idea to start looking at the protein content in all the foods I ate — not in terms of absolute numbers, like 20 or 40 grams, but in terms of percentages.
Risotto, how I have missed you
Good old cheesy, creamy, nutritionally-worthless-but-wonderfully-comforting risotto is one of those foods I’ve missed cooking since becoming vegan. You can make it without butter or cheese and it’s pretty good, though it won’t win any awards this way. But even so, a dish based on refined arborio rice and vegetable broth won’t do much for your health (with the possible exception of its use as quick-carb, post-workout food if you’ve got it already made up).
So I started fooling around with barley risotto, and it’s not too far from the real thing. (You can “barley” tell the difference? Ouch, couldn’t resist.) You can still cook the barley to that nice al dente texture, and it releases its starch to add creaminess to the dish in much the same way the arborio rice does.
And yet still, risotto was not a food that really fit into my diet. Mostly, it was just barley and the vegetable du jour, with no real room to add beans, tofu, nuts or any other go-to protein source.
Until I looked more closely
To figure out just how much of a carbohydrate bomb my plate of asparagus risotto dropped on my “a little bit of protein in every meal” diet, I checked out the nutrition facts on a half cup of uncooked barley:
325 calories. 68 grams of carbohydrates. 12 grams of protein.
But those are absolute numbers. To calculate percentage protein, multiply the number of grams by 4 (the number of calories in a gram of protein) to get 48 calories. 48 out of 325 total calories equals…
14.7 percent! Just what I aim for.
Then consider the fact that asparagus, by the same calculation, is 42 percent protein (lots of vegetables do surprising well by this measure), and this meal is an even better protein source.
So all of a sudden, barley risotto is no longer a carbohydrate-laden splurge, but a meal that’s right in line with what I try to do protein-wise.
What about pasta?
Another favorite carb source that’s gotten a bad rap is pasta. Granted, most of it is made from wheat, which is something I try not to eat every single day, but let’s just talk about protein.
Mostly, I go for spelt pasta — it’s lower in gluten and slightly higher in protein than standard whole wheat pasta. But I had no idea that when I ate a plate of it, I was getting more protein per calorie than the total I aimed for — spelt pasta comes out to almost 17 percent protein. Even plain old white pasta is 14.5 percent protein!
As for other foods…
Just to give a point of reference, I looked up the vegan foods that I considered my main protein sources.
Lentils are about 25 percent protein. Almonds, 18 percent. Hemp protein powder can be anywhere from 35-50 percent, depending on the brand. Tofu, 20 to 25 percent.
So these are higher than what we usually consider the carbohydrate foods, but not exceedingly so in most cases. One interesting consequence of this is that when you add tofu to your vegetable stir fry, you might not be increasing the protein percentage by much, or even lowering it, depending on which vegetables you’ve got in there. (But since vegetables aren’t very dense in terms of calories per unit volume, you can pack in more protein with beans or tofu before you fill up than you can with most vegetables. So tofu probably does add to the protein you consume in a plate of stir-fry.)
But (as always) there’s a catch
We haven’t yet talked about one food that’s in every meal I’ve mentioned today, and it’s a big one, calorically-speaking.
I’m talking about oil. Pure fat. And in any risotto, pasta, or stir fry dish I’ve ever made, it’s in there.
Sure, the right fats are great for you. But when we’re looking at percentage-protein figures, we’ve got to account for the fat, which contains 9 calories per gram.
Let’s go back to that asparagus risotto. Before considering the oil, we were at about 15 percent protein for the meal. But add just one tablespoon (14 grams = 126 protein-devoid calories ) of oil to that single serving of risotto, and now you’re looking at 48 protein calories to 451 total calories, leaving you at slightly more than 10 percent protein. Not so good anymore.
Fat certainly has its own merits, and many of us consider several types of pure oil to be health food. But here we’re just looking at protein, and you can see how cooking your food in a lot of oil can crush the percentage protein in your diet — a compelling reason to consider the strongly anti-oil viewpoints of people like John McDougall. Remember, oil is not a whole food, and isolating it allows us to abuse it (albeit without a whole lot of processing, in the best cases).
The other buzzkill here is that when you eat, say, a banana for a mid-morning snack, you’re doing essentially the same thing, in terms of the effect on the protein level in your diet, since most fruit is low in protein. You’re adding a bunch of calories that, though useful for something else, contribute very little to your protein intake and therefore drag down what you get from higher-protein sources.
What to do with this
Honestly, this is way more in depth than I’m comfortable thinking about protein, long-term. Day-to-day, food and numbers don’t mix for me. And besides that, protein is just one thing to consider when you’re looking at the nutrition in your diet. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting exercise, and it’s a pretty good argument for a whole-food based diet.
This week, try it out. Think about what you eat in terms of percentages instead of absolutes. To do so, simply multiply the protein calories by 4 and then divide by total calories to get the percentage protein in a food or meal. (Same for carbohydrates, but for fat you’ll need to multiply by 9 instead of 4.)
So rather than saying “adding black beans to this meal boosts my protein by 15 grams,” think about what it does to the protein percentage of your meal. You’ll likely find, like I did, that the foods you think of as carbohydrate-only sources are a lot closer than you realize to your target protein ratio, and that your “high-protein” foods aren’t contributing quite as much as you think. And just as importantly, you’ll gain an appreciation for the prominent role that tablespoon or two of oil plays in diluting the protein content of your meals.
And, if you’re bored with your cooking like I was, it could be just what you need to get out of that rut.