This post has been reviewed by our registered dietitian Celine Maetti
If you’re asking the question “what is a complete amino acid profile on a plant based diet?”, then this post is for you. The building of muscle, and the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters both rely heavily on a supply of full spectrum amino acids on a continual basis, therefore you need to be sure you are getting your quota of protein on this otherwise healthful lifestyle.
There are 20 amino acids in all, and they come in the three different categories of essential, conditionally essential, and non-essential, and here in this post I will be concentrating on the amino acids specifically pertaining to a plant based diet.
What are Essential Amino Acids?
There are 9 essential amino acids, and they are called so because the body cannot produce them itself, so they therefore must come from outside sources in the form of either the foods you eat or supplementation. They are as follows:-
Conditionally Essential Amino Acids
There are 6 of these, and they are readily produced by the body in most people, but the exception to this may be in circumstances such as sickness, extreme stress, and premature babies whose bodies may struggle to make their own. They are as follows:-
Nonessential Amino Acids
There are 11 nonessential amino acids that your body is perfectly capable of producing itself from the other essential amino acids. You will notice some of them on the list above, and this is because the body cannot make some of the below ones under the circumstances of sickness or stress as described previously. These are as follows:-
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
How do I obtain enough Amino Acids?
If you’re eating a non-plant based diet, then you can obtain all the amino acids you need quite easily through meat, fish, eggs and dairy, because all animal products are already complete proteins that are easily absorbable by the human body.
However, too many animal proteins can be acidic and contribute to chronic inflammation, so it’s a good idea to eat your animal proteins alongside lots of plant based foods just to keep things on a more even keel, and to also to help you obtain a more diverse gut microbiome.
What are Plant Based Proteins?
Contrary to popular belief, there are an abundance of plant foods that contain good amounts of protein, though not all of them are ‘complete’ proteins, which is why it can be harder on a plant based diet plan to achieve your needs. And it can be especially hard when you are doing lots of exercise; even more so muscle building, but it’s definitely NOT impossible.
Once you understand proper food combining, it will be a breeze for you to obtain all the protein you need, and that’s why it’s so important if you are thinking of heading towards a plant based or vegan diet to learn how to put a nutritionally complete meal together.
High Protein Plant Foods
- Beans and Pulses
- Plant Based protein Powders
- Pearl barley
- Brown Rice
- Brussel Sprouts
Some plant foods are higher in certain amino acids than others, the trick is to know what to combine with what to obtain a ‘complete’ profile. For instance, you should mix legumes, beans, or lentils with wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, barley, spelt or freekah. OR, mix wholegrains with nuts and seeds, OR, vegetables and grains with nuts/seeds, OR, corn and legumes.
Complete Amino Acid Profile Meal and Snack Examples:-
- Chickpea curry with wholegrain pilau rice and a side dish of steamed spinach.
- Sourdough toast with tahini, mashed avocado, grated carrot, and squeeze of lemon juice.
- Hummus with rye crackers or oatcakes.
- Oatcakes and sugar free nut butter.
- Mixed bean chili with quinoa or mixed grains.
- Tofu and vegetable stir-fry with buckwheat/soba noodles or brown rice.
Complete Plant Proteins
There are 5 plant proteins in nature that have a complete amino acid profile naturally, and these are buckwheat, soy, hemp, amaranth and quinoa. Now, I know I bang on about these a LOT on my blog, but this is for the simple fact that they are just such vital components to my diet, and should indeed be vital components to any healthy plant based or vegan diet.
Benefits of Quinoa
Quinoa (which is a seed not a grain) is especially nutritious as it not only contains a full spectrum of those vital amino acids, but it’s a superfood in its own right. Along with protein, it also contains a myriad of other healthy nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, folate, copper, and also lots of gut friendly fiber.
It is also low GI, so great for weight loss and blood sugar balance, and is completely versatile, so can be eaten as a substitute for rice or other grains, as a side dish accompliment to any meal, as a protein OR a carbohydrate due to its substantial amounts of both of these, or can also be eaten alone as a complete food in itself. It’s great in sweet deserts such as quinoa pudding, and makes an awesome start to the day in the form of a tasty and wholesome quinoa breakfast bowl.
Why do I need Protein?
Protein is something that everybody needs in amounts of roughly 1-2 grams per kilo of body weight, per day. Some people may require more than others, but this depends heavily on activity levels and other reasons, such as being diabetic or needing to lose weight. You will find the amounts of protein in a food in this easy to understand protein list.
If you are doing a lot of exercise (specifically muscle building) then you will need to be extra vigilant with protein, and make sure you’re getting your full spectrum amino acids from either animal products (if you eat them), or plant foods. You may also require a protein supplement if you wish to build muscle, but don’t over do it – most people who eat lots of other proteins don’t actually need a protein supplement if they are exercising for under an hour, OR if they are not lifting heavy weights.
Protein and Weight Loss
A high protein diet can be your best friend on a weight loss plan, for the simple fact that protein is filling, low GI (so helps you to burn belly fat), and it helps curb sugar and carb cravings. It will also keep your muscle mass up, as calorie restriction dieters notoriously lose muscle mass along with fat when cutting calories – which is a very bad thing, because muscle mass keeps your metabolism stoked and your body in continual fat burning mode.
You can eat up to 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight on a weight loss diet and not have any ill effects, providing at least half of this protein does in fact come from more alkaline plant foods, and not just meat and dairy. You will also feel and look better for upping your plant food intake, as a highly plant based diet will give you some of these other amazing benefits, along with being great for the waistline. These benefits include:-
- Glowing skin – and I mean seriously glowing skin. People will comment!
- Potentially lower risk of diseases due to higher intake of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
- More energy and vitality.
- Better mental health due to the higher intake of healthy fats from nuts, seeds and antioxidants.
- Better quality sleep.
- Some may dispute this, but I am definitely the fittest I have ever been on a plant based diet and I put this down to quicker recovery time from less inflammation.
- Less hormonal disruptions, such as PMS and menopausal symptoms.
Do I Need a Protein Powder Supplement?
Some people are all for protein supplements; some not so much. Me, I’m a fan (but only in moderation, and not every day) being as I’m pretty much a 100% plant based eater AND an exercise lover means I find they are an easier way to meet daily quota and avoid losing muscle mass. This of course may vary from person to person, but my advice would be to cover all bases and use a protein supplement at least every other day if you are training hard.
You will most definitely need extra protein if you are body building, doing lots of gym work, or wanting to cut fat and build muscle. Your body will need more due to the extra demand, however, over time you will become more efficient at recycling protein, so contrary to popular belief you may be able to cut down the fitter you get.
If you are not an exerciser, then you probably won’t need extra protein, just listen to and watch your body.
Last but not least, if you are wishing to lose weight, then a good quality protein supplement can help fill you up and help lower your blood sugar. Fluctuating blood sugar from eating too many refined carbohydrates can promote belly fat storage, so the more you can keep those tempestuous blood sugars on an even keel, the slimmer you will be.
Plant Based Protein Shakes
A protein shake can also make for a great snack; or even a meal replacement on a weight loss diet. There are some great protein powder companies doing all kinds of amazing things with amino acids these days, including adding green superfood powders, nutrients, enzymes, probiotics, and also making sure they are already full spectrum by blending different types together. This can make them a meal in themselves, especially if you blend them with a banana or an avocado; delicious!
Thanks for reading this post from zestforever. I hope you have learnt how to achieve your amino acid needs whatever your situation and current diet. I am happy to answer any further questions you may have on this topic in the comments thread, so feel free to fire away.
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