"The key to a healthy, animal-free diet," according to a nutrition expert

Salon Food spoke with Noah Praamsma, MS, RDN, about the most delicious ways to round out a vegan diet

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published March 27, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

A healthy vegan/vegetarian lunch bowl of salads, grains, seeds, vegetables, avocado slices and a rich peanut-miso sauce. (Getty Images)
A healthy vegan/vegetarian lunch bowl of salads, grains, seeds, vegetables, avocado slices and a rich peanut-miso sauce. (Getty Images)

Protein is an often contested element of the suggested daily diet. While for many, the notion of protein automatically conjures images of meats and dairies dancing through your head like sugarplums, there are legions of people who get their protein intake from anything but those items. Furthermore, there are others who intend to transition to an entirely plant-based diet, but may be somewhat hesitant in doing so because of concerns about protein consumption.

Salon Food recently spoke with Noah Praamsma, MS, RDN and a Nutrition Education Coordinator at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., who outlined the important of plant-based and vegan cuisine protein intake, the often forgotten unsung heroes of the protein world, the importance of protein at large and the simplest (and most delicious) ways of getting more protein in your diet. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

For those who don't consume any animal products whatsoever, what are the best foods to eat to ensure proper protein intake?

To start, it's important to acknowledge a few myths around protein requirements. The average need is between 45 and 46 grams per day of protein, but most Americans consume much more than that. High-protein diets increase the risk of cancer, kidney malfunction and calcium loss from bones.

There is also some misunderstanding about "complete proteins." Our bodies need essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) from our diet and for a while it was thought that someone eating a vegetarian or vegan diet needed to carefully choose foods that would complement each other and deliver all the essential amino acids. We now know, however, that there is flexibility when it comes to getting these essential amino acids; a diet that includes a diversity of plant foods will easily give your body what it needs.

When thinking about a diet that meets your protein needs, start by looking at your whole plate. Protein can be found in all four food groups: fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. The obvious one is legumes, which include any type of bean, lentils and peas; nuts and seeds are also excellent sources of protein. But protein can be found in the other food groups, too. Whole grains like teff, quinoa and wheat are great sources of protein. Even vegetables and fruit have protein: Blackberries have two grams per cup and a surprising 30% of calories in broccoli comes from protein.

For those who abstain from any and all animal products, what are the best foods to focus on to ensure a holistic, complete diet? 

The key to a healthy, animal-free diet lies in eating a diversity of foods in all four food groups: fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Filling your plate with foods from each group will ensure you're getting a mix of nutrients that supports your overall health. Within these food groups, a few are worth highlighting. Berries are incredibly health and delicious and are packed with antioxidants and fiber. Both cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens are fantastic sources of vitamins and minerals.

Are items like plant-based milks and/or lab-grown meat safe to consume on a daily basis?

For someone transitioning to a plant-based diet, plant-based meat alternatives might help say goodbye to old favorites like burgers and sausage. Compared to meat, meat-alternatives have the benefit of avoiding cholesterol and cancer-causing compounds. Choosing minimally processed meat alternatives will be the healthiest option long-term, however. There are countless delicious, flavorful recipes to discover that use whole grains, recognizable vegetables and unprocessed beans. Homemade bean burgers, mushroom "bacon," and carrot dogs are just a few examples.

Plant-based milks tend to be minimally processed. Anyone with a sturdy blender could make almond milk at home! Commercially available nut and plant milks sold in grocery stores benefit from having added nutrients like vitamin D and calcium. Whether you add oat milk to your coffee or pour soy milk on your cereal, plant milks are absolutely something people can healthfully consume daily. Of all the plant milks, soy is naturally highest in protein and contains important B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, calcium and other nutrients.

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For those looking to pursue a plant-based diet without consuming soy, what are the options? 

There is no shortage of great sources of protein out there. Let's start with beans: black beans, lentils, chickpeas, pinto and kidney beans are all excellent sources of healthy protein, low in fat and high in fiber. For those who are able to eat gluten, seitan is another impressively high-protein food that goes great in many recipes. Other high-protein foods include nutritional yeast; whole grains like teff, quinoa and oats; nuts and seeds; and a diversity of fruits and vegetables.

It's important to point out, however, that there is a lot of misinformation about soy and estrogen-like compounds found in soy. These are called isoflavones and even though they look like estrogen, they don't have any noticeable effect on our bodies. Soy isoflavones bind to different receptors than actual estrogen and actually reduce the risk of breast and other types of cancer. Soy does not cause early onset of puberty in girls, it doesn't cause fibroids or thyroid disease and it does not affect male hormones. For just about everyone, soy and soy products are excellent sources of protein, fiber and other healthful nutrients.

For those who are already vegetarian and looking to begin a vegan diet, what is the most seamless means of transitioning? 

Vegetarians who want to switch to a vegan diet can start by exploring alternatives to any regular cheese, dairy milk and egg consumption. These days there are so many alternatives out there that make it easy to get the same or a very similar taste. And, likelihood is, whatever reasons motivated someone to become a vegetarian can also motivate them to become a vegan. Dairy still has a high environmental impact, requires unnatural and often cruel treatment of animals and is not a healthy food to eat. Eggs also are high in cholesterol and harmful to your health. Becoming vegan is a great opportunity to explore new recipes and to modify old ones. Let your creativity run wild and if you need some inspiration, there are many incredible cookbooks out there and recipes online. Just make sure you're taking that B12 supplement.

Beyond protein intake, what else is important to be mindful of when undertaking a vegan diet?

The most important nutrient to keep in mind is vitamin B12. Everyone, vegans and meat-eaters alike, should probably take a B12 supplement, but they are especially important for vegans. Supplements should be taken anywhere from once each day to once each week, depending on the dose. 

Omega-3s are another nutrient commonly misunderstood as only available from fish. Plenty of plant foods include omega-3s and many vegans are easily able to meet their needs. In fact, a single tablespoon daily of chia seeds (ideally ground) or ground flax seed has all you need for the day.

Is there a difference between vegan and plant-based diets?

The definitions of vegan and plant-based has become fuzzy lately, with more and more products coming on the market that want to label themselves that way. Generally speaking, "plant-based" is mostly focused on food, diet and health and refers to a food or diet that is only made up of plants. Plant-based may also imply that the food is minimally processed, though "whole-food, plant-based" makes that part more explicitly clear.

"Vegan" has a lot of overlap with plant-based, but it can extend to nonfood products, like cosmetics and clothing. Someone who calls themselves a vegan has probably committed to not using, eating or wearing anything that came from an animal. Vegans might also be more likely to include ethical treatment of animals and environmental sustainability as reasons for living the way they do.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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