Confessions of a veg-curious protein addict
I am a self-confessed protein addict! I workout and have a fairly muscular build for a woman. Eating for health and hormones is important to me and I feel an innate drive for good quality protein. Protein supplements don’t appeal to me: powdered shakes just seem too processed. I take protein, or fat, with every meal as I know this is best for hormone health. Plant based protein: nuts, seeds and dairy alternative yoghurt are great for breakfast and snacks I find. But the bulk of my protein with main meals will almost exclusively be a hunk of dead animal. Fish or meat.
My drive for protein is strong; even the idea of turning vegan makes me feel a little faint. But veganism does also have its appeal. I identify with the environmental reasons. I suspect that plant based proteins are healthier for the gut than their meat based equivalents. And since eating for health and hormones is my priority, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that plant based diets are a good choice to minimise problems during menopause. At 36 I hope I’m a good few years off that still but it’s never to early to start educating yourself!
Intuitively I find a little inner niggle that questions how good frequent meat is for the gut? Historically I’m sure it would have been typical to have rest periods from meat. Unlucky hunting, limited finances and unsteady supply of meat all would have contributed to this. I’m hungry to learn more about different protein options whilst eating for health and hormones. I’d love to gradually swap more of our family meals to include plant based proteins for better balance in our diet.
Protein and eating for health and hormones
Protein is the building block of the bodies cells which makes it essential in eating for health. When we eat protein it is broken down into amino acids. Our bodies need these for a number of critical functions like repairing damaged cells, and synthesising neurotransmitters and hormones. There are 20 different amino acids. 11 of these can be created by the body, but the remaining 9 can only be taken via diet. These 9 are known as ‘essential amino acids’.
Are all proteins made equal?
All 9 essential amino acids are available in meat and animal products in roughly equal amounts. These are known as ‘complete proteins’. However there are only a handful of plant based options which contain proteins which are ‘complete’. Quinoa is one of these. However it’s composition is around 4% protein compared to chicken which is around 31% protein. Other complete plant proteins include buckwheat at 13% protein, tofu with a maximum of 13% protein, and a rice and beans combo together providing around 2% protein. In general, it appears the vegan diet is much higher in carbs, and fibre, than I’m used to.
Some proteins are adaptogenic such as lentils and wild steelhead trout. Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to stress (sneaky protein bonus!). Conversely some proteins are known to over stimulate the immune system which can lead to chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions (potential protein problem!). This low grade chronic inflammation contributes to many health conditions, including hormonal imbalances and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Interestingly, foods in this category include grain-fed beef whereas grass-fed beef isn’t as problematic. And another common protein in this category is gluten. It is often suggested to avoid gluten when eating for health and hormones. Proteins can also contribute to hormonal imbalances and PMS by shifting the makeup of your microbiome either positively or negatively. This is important because the make-up of your microbiome, your gut bacteria, will affect your levels of oestrogen, and how your body uses it.
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Veganism vs. Vegetarianism?
It is recommended that protein makes up at least 25% of our diet. If relying solely on plant proteins the necessary essential amino acids must come from a variety of sources.
At the beginning of my journey to hormone health I learnt that the health of my gut was a big part of the problem. I was suffering with a condition known as ‘leaky gut’. I undertook an elimination diet to become aware of the foods that were irritating my gut and negatively impacting my health. For me, these foods included dairy and eggs. This is why my veg-curiosity here focuses on veganism rather than vegetarianism. Problem foods for me also included cereals like gluten, oats and corn. These cereals, although they aren’t protein rich or complete proteins, do still contribute to variety in a vegan diet. My problem is that coming from an already restricted diet, healthy veganism becomes more challenging.
Comparably, protein is much more available on a vegetarian diet. Cheese, for example, packs a considerable protein punch. Parmesan is one of the highest protein cheeses at 30% (almost 11g per 28g). Mature cheddar, the staple cheese for the less sophisticated tastes of my family, is 25% protein. But sadly for me, cheese makes me sneeze. Cheese makes me sneeze, milk makes me ache, and Dr Seuss gets put to good use… in occasional blog posts. Yoghurt and eggs, also great protein sources, make me bloat up so much that I end up looking like Humpty-Dumpty’s double. So for me, eating for health and hormones currently sadly excludes dairy.
In my quest for evermore mindful eating, will my veg-curiosity actually drive me to veganism any time soon? I am certainly keen to use my veg-curiosity to consciously include more vegan meals in our dinner repertoire. I think this is important for good balance in a healthy diet. And I intend to use that to further explore my own protein needs. But given my other dietary restrictions, I’m not intending to go cold-turkey from my hot chicken any time soon!
6 months later and I have reduced the amount of meat we are consuming as a family. Personally I have cut out red meat almost entirely (only my hangover cottage pie remains!). I have reduced my white meat consumption to only a couple of times a week. I am still eating quite a bit of fish but also relying much more heavily on plant proteins like lentils and beans. And I am happy to report that I feel just as satiated on this new diet, despite increasing my workout regime. Furthermore, in terms of eating for health and hormones I can report my gut is healthier than it has ever been. As with many addictions, I wonder how much of this hardcore protein addiction has been in my head.
The take away
The vegan diet, although restrictive, does appeal to me. With complete plant proteins being few and far between, variety of protein sources is important on this diet. If one has to restrict their diet in other ways it can be harder to get adequate nutrition from a vegan diet. Different protein sources have different impacts on the body. The health benefits of plant proteins should not be underestimated. Trialing different eating styles can really help us to identify what works best for us. Setting intentions on improving our diet and our health can be a very powerful tool. This is a tool that I highly recommend for hormone health, PMS and overall quality of life.