Alternatives to Meat

Meat-free meals for tofu haters

I said in a previous post about how some people are picky about veg. Well, one of the reasons that I’ve struggled with vegetarianism is that I’m picky about meat substitutes. And when I say meat substitutes, I’m not just talking about foods that have been developed to look and taste like meat, I mean any sort of protein that meat can be swapped out for, so that includes things like tofu and mushrooms – basically anything that you use as a vegetarian alternative to meat. I mention tofu and mushrooms because they seemed to be the most common (as in, the only) vegetarian alternatives when I was growing up. Things is, I just plain don’t like tofu. Yes, I know it doesn’t have any real taste of its own and it takes on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked with. For me, I think it’s more of a texture thing. I’ve had it cooked a variety of ways and I haven’t found a way that I like. Mushrooms are also a no-go – my partner has a mild phobia of them (something about the fact that they’re made of a single cell freaks him out…) whereas I just think they taste yucky.

But never fear, because there are so many plant-based protein options out there now that you’re bound to find some you like. It’s just a case of trying different ones to find which you prefer.

A crash course in plant protein

When I first started looking into plant protein I quickly got information overload, so I’ve pared what I found out down enough so that it makes sense to me, meaning that it’s basically right but I’m leaving an awful lot of detail out. First off, here’s a quick reminder about why protein is important. Basically, proteins are made of amino acids, which loads of different systems in your body – your brain, your muscles, your immune system – need to function properly. Some of these amino acids, called ‘essential’ amino acids, can’t be produced by the body, so the only way we can get them is through what we eat. How much protein you should eat depends of things like your age and how much you exercise, but as a guide, the UK Reference Nutrient Intake is 0.75g protein per kilogram of body weight – so for a 60kg woman that would be 45g of protein a day.

Proteins that come from animals (like meat, fish and dairy) are known as ‘complete’ proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids your body needs. Where plant proteins differ is that a lot of them don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, so they’re ‘incomplete’ proteins. However, eating different combinations together can form a complete protein – for example, beans lack some of the essential amino acids that rice has (i.e. methionine) and rice lacks some of the ones that beans have (i.e. lysine), but together they contain all of the essential amino acids you need. You don’t even have to eat them at the same time, just include them both in your diet overall.

In short, if you’re choosing to eat less meat, you need to get your protein from other sources in order for your body to have what it needs to function properly. Just be conscious that not all plant proteins will contain all of the essential amino acids, but you’ll be fine and get everything you need if you eat a variety of them.

Types of plant protein

There are a whole host of different options out there – the world is your oyster (or the vegetarian equivalent, whatever that may be!) Here are some of the main ones:

Pulses

This is a really broad category and includes lentils, all types of beans, and chickpeas. It also covers your average frozen pea which, surprisingly, has around 5.5g of protein per 100g. Pulses are an excellent source of protein, and have the added benefits of being low in fat and really cheap. Bonus!

Soy

Soy is a technically pulse but it’s so versatile that I felt it needed its own section!  It’s long been a vegetarian source of protein and stands out in that it’s one of the few that is actually a complete protein. It comes in a variety of different forms, including tofu, tempeh and edamame beans (I may hate tofu but I love edamame beans so much! I tend to cook with them a lot).

Nuts

Nuts are packed full of all sorts of goodness. Almonds are particularly nutrient-filled, containing a healthy amount of calcium, vitamin E and magnesium, among other things. Nuts do tend to have a high fat content and although some of this is the good-for-you type of fat rather than the saturated type, this varies between different kinds of nut. Also, some nuts can be quite pricey considering how little they are, but I suppose that’s a reflection on how difficult they are to produce. If you’re just not a fan of whole nuts, you’ll be pleased to know that peanut butter also counts as nuts!

Seeds

There’s a huge variety of seeds, including chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, to name a few. Like nuts, they are little powerhouses of nutrients, with some seeds, such as sesame, containing high levels of zinc, magnesium and calcium as well as protein. Also like nuts, seeds seem a little expensive given how tiny they are, but you don’t need a lot of them – a portion size for both seeds and nuts is about 2 tablespoons’ worth (28g). They can be eaten on their own as a healthy snack or easily incorporated into things like smoothies and soups or even sprinkled on your cereal.

Grains

They may not necessarily be the first thing that springs to mind when talking about protein, but some grains that are already staples in our diets, like rice and pasta, contain a surprising amount of it. Like I mentioned earlier, having a meal comprised of a grain and a pulse – like rice and beans, or pitta bread and hummus – can be a great way of making sure you get all of the essential amino acids you need.

Veg

Although not the best source of protein, some vegetables contain more than you might think. Sweetcorn contains around 2g per 100g, and spinach and broccoli both contain around 3g.

Egg, milk, cheese, yoghurt

These are all excellent sources of complete protein, but it kind of depends on where you land on this because they could be considered animal proteins. Whilst it’s true that we need to consume less dairy, if you’re just starting out with changing the way you eat to reduce your meat intake then there’s enough to think about without excluding this too. It all comes down to personal choice and, personally, I’m not quite there yet – it’s an ongoing process for me.

Meat analogues (fake meat)

The market for stuff that tastes like meat but isn’t meat is huge, and more and more brands seem to be cropping up all the time. And some of them really do taste very similar to meat – biting into a jackfruit burger that tastes just like pulled pork is a very strange sensation! Meat analogues are derived from a variety of sources. Quorn, for instance, is made from a fungus called mycoprotein, whereas Beyond Meat uses pea protein and Linda McCartney’s range has products made from soya mince.

The issue with a lot of these meat analogues it that there are highly processed foods, meaning that a lot of them will be high in salt or have additives that make them a less healthy choice than they might initially seem.

So it’s all a balance of different factors like protein content, cost, how much processing is involved, and so on. Also, just to complicate things further, the amount of protein that something contains can be affected by how it’s cooked – a shiitake mushroom contains six times as much protein raw as it does when cooked.

Feeling slightly overwhelmed by information and choice?

Me too. So here’s a handy plant protein comparison table to help take the edge off of it!

Protein content data taken from Food Databanks

I hope you find this helpful. One thing the table doesn’t include is information about how to make sure you get enough nutrients like omega-3 and vitamin B12, which is an important factor to consider if you’re cutting down on meat. Also, it doesn’t take into account personal taste. No matter how full of protein it is, I don’t think I will ever like tofu!

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