Plant protein: getting it right!

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina
with Mio Lainchbury and Arooj Hayat

Moving towards a plant-based diet can initially raise questions about whether you’re getting enough protein, especially if you’re not up on the science. If you’ve been on a plant-based journey for some time, you’re already aware of the many rich protein sources available, especially legumes: beans, peas, lentils, peanuts and soyfoods. These are also high in fibre, iron, zinc and B vitamins.

If you struggle with the less welcome effect of beans, such as gas and bloating, below are some tips to help you enjoy these power-packed plant foods.

What causes bloating?

Some discomfort and bloating is caused by small pockets of gas produced by gut bacteria when they feast on indigestible fibre – known as *oligosaccharides – found in beans. (*Oligosaccharidea is a carbohydrate whose molecules are composed of a relatively small number of monosaccharide units.) Though gas production is both normal and healthy, getting too much may push against your intestinal walls, causing an annoying, achy feeling.

Seven simple steps to avoid the gas crisis

1. Start with the smaller varieties: lentils and mung beans. Also, oligosaccharides have been removed from tofu so it’s an excellent choice. Tofu can reduce the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer so ignore those unfounded rumours that discredited soyfoods.

2. Increase your bean consumption gradually so your body can adapt by allowing more of the right gut bacteria to grow.

3. Try a variety of beans and lentils. Some may be more easily digested.

4. When you cook dried beans, add any salt after cooking. Salt can cause the outer lining to harden, making digestion difficult. Cook until beans are soft enough to mash on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. Then season.

5. Chew food thoroughly to break down cell walls before they enter the stomach. Chew soft foods 5-10 times and harder foods 30 times, before swallowing. Note that much intestinal gas is the result of gulped air.

6. Move around! Physical activity massages your insides; air bubbles break up then travel through your intestine and are released easily.

7. Remember that passing some gas is completely natural. In fact, medical journals discuss the healthful nature of passing some intestinal gas 12 to 25 times a day.

What if you can’t eat beans?

Allergies are a possibility, but note that a test may indicate “allergic to beans” when only two or three of the 20 types normally consumed have been tested and many others may be fine for you.

Abundant plant protein

All plant foods contain protein and some are particularly rich sources: seeds, nuts, mushrooms, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and leafy greens such as kale. Half the world’s protein comes from grains. To further boost your intake, you might add a vegan protein powder – based on hemp, pumpkin, rice, soy – to a smoothie.

If you haven’t already, check out the vast array of new, frozen vegetarian alternatives for meat, chicken and various sea foods. Enjoying a variety of plant based foods, including some legumes, will ensure you get more than enough protein to live an active, healthy lifestyle.

Quiz: How many types of legumes can you name? Write down the legumes you know, then check the list of 20 legumes below.

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and co-author of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition and other books. Mio Lainchbury and Arooj Hayat are third year dietetic students at UBC.

Twenty protein-rich legumes

1. Garbanzobeans/Chickpeas
2. Pinto beans
3. Black beans
4. Kidney beans
5. Lima beans
6. Cannellini beans
7. Navy beans
8. White beans
9. Red beans
10. Adzuki beans
11. Mung beans
12. Fava beans/Broad beans
13. Green beans
14. Wax/yellow beans
15. Peas
16. Snow peas
17. Black eyed pea
18. Lentils
19. Lentils, red
20. Soybeans

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