Earth First

The Surprising Sources of Protein That Are Not Animal Products

Just because you don’t eat meat, doesn’t mean you have to miss out on protein. In fact, as the world’s population grows, more of us will have to turn to plant-based protein sources—or even insects—to meet our needs.

Why we need protein – and how much

Proteins are made up of long chains of compounds known as amino acids, which are often called the building blocks of life.1 Our bodies use amino acids to repair tissues, grow, break down food, and much more.

There are hundreds of amino acids, around twenty of which are used by our bodies. But there are nine amino acids the human body can’t make, so we have to get them through eating protein as part of our diets. These are called essential amino acids, and they are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.2

The recommended amount of protein to eat each day is between 0.80g and 0.83g per kilogram of your body weight. That goes for people of all genders with moderate levels of activity – children and those who are pregnant should be getting a bit more, depending on how old they are or their stage of pregnancy.

Pretty much all of the foods we eat contain some amount of protein. Meats like beef or chicken are the most well-known protein sources, and they contain a lot (17g or protein per 100g and 20g/100g, respectively).1 But people eating diets that don’t include meat can still get enough protein.

Plant-based protein

Nuts, seeds, and legumes are all high in protein. Nuts contain on average 17g of protein per 100g. Legumes contain around 22g of protein per 100g, depending on the variety. Lentils, for example, contain 25g per 100g.3  And seeds contain somewhere in the region of 23g of protein per 100g.

In the past, some have argued that because most plant-based foods don’t contain high amounts of all nine essential amino acids, they don’t count as “complete” proteins. But you don’t need to eat all of those nine amino acids in every meal – as long as you have a varied diet, you’re likely to get enough overall.4

Replacing or including more plant-based protein sources is one way to help relieve environmental pressure on our planet.5 But, it’s not the only way.

Edible insects

As the world’s population grows, and pressure increases on our planet to produce enough food to feed us all, another way to ensure we get our protein fix might be to widen the sorts of things people – especially those in rich countries – think of as acceptable food sources.

Edible insects might be one way we can meet our growing global need for protein.6 Insects (which technically are animals, although most people wouldn’t consider them as such) need less water and land to produce than more traditional protein sources like cattle and pigs, and in turn, emit less greenhouse gases too. A 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report found that eating insects, a practice known as entomophagy, could also tackle pollution as well as address world hunger.7

The report noted that 2 billion people worldwide already eat insects as part of their diet. Perhaps it won’t be long before those who don’t eat them are in the minority.

Meal replacements can up your protein intake

One protein-rich foodstuff has caught on in recent years. Several meal replacement drinks have been launched in the past decade, claiming to provide convenient and nutritionally balanced meals.

Much like existing meal replacement drinks, which tended to be designed for people wanting to lose weight rather than those too busy to cook a meal, these are ready-made shakes or powders to which you add water. The Silicon Valley favourites generally have a relatively high protein to calories ratio, with a combination of vegan-friendly protein sources, as well as all the vitamins and minerals needed to make them “nutritionally complete”.8

But dieticians have warned against using them for the long term, saying that we don’t yet know enough about what’s in whole foods to be able to recreate them accurately – suggesting that if you only consume these drinks, you could be missing out on something.9

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