I can't tell you how many people I have met who have told me they used to be vegetarian or vegan, but they had to go back to eating meat because they didn't feel healthy or were hungry all the time.
In actuality, it can be quite easy to get all of the nutrients you need, including protein, if you just know what nutrients your body requires and where to find them. Plant-based foods are extremely high in complex amino acids and can provide quality protein as well as other nutrients.
Legumes are one of the best sources of protein for a vegan diet. The health benefits of legumes, which most of us know as beans, peas, peanuts and lentils, are that they are high in fiber, amino acids (which are the chemicals that combine to create proteins), folate (vitamin B9), zinc, iron and magnesium. Just make sure that all legumes are well cooked.
Here are the best protein sources to choose from:
Beans: When beans are rich in color, then they are high in antioxidants as well, because the antioxidants are found in the color pigment. Black beans have the highest number of antioxidants. Beans also help prevent blood sugar levels from rising too quickly after a meal, making them a good food choice for people with diabetes or low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Lentils: Lentils are edible seeds—they come in black, red, brown, green and orange varieties—that belong to the legume family. They can help improve digestion, control diabetes, and contribute to heart health and weight loss. Plus, they're one of the oldest known sources of food, dating back more than 9,000 years.
Lentils have an incredible amount of protein for a plant-based food—up to 35 percent of the content of a lentil is made up of the complex amino acids (the building blocks of protein) your body needs—which is comparable to levels in beef, poultry and fish.
Nuts: Nuts are also perfect foods because they are a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. However, nuts also contain delicate polyunsaturated fatty acids that can become rancid shortly after being shelled. To avoid this, store them in a tightly sealed container (preferably glass) in the refrigerator.
Almost all nuts contain enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid, which can prevent the body from absorbing some nutrients. To help diminish the levels of these compounds and make the nuts more digestible, place them in a glass or steel bowl and soak them for 12-18 hours. When buying nuts and seeds, look for products that are sprouted or have been soaked.
Cooking advice: taking care with lectins
Most legumes contain lectins, proteins that can bind to different carbohydrates in your body. They can also cause a leaky gut wall and can be inflammatory in susceptible individuals. You can minimize these effects by cooking legumes well. Make sure to:
• Soak beans for at least 12 hours before you cook them. Change the water and even add baking soda to it, which will further neutralize the lectins. Be sure to throw away the water you use for soaking—don't cook with it.
• Opt for using in a pressure cooker, which can destroy the harmful lectins better than ordinary boiling.
• Don't cook beans in a slow cooker, which can increase toxicity levels. Cooking normally on low heat also increases toxicity.
• Start out cooking on high heat for at least 15 minutes and then reduce the heat and cook for as long as possible.
• Consider sprouting beans, which reduces lectin levels.
The optional seaweed in this recipe adds nutrients and helps make the beans more digestible. Serve them on top of a salad for a light lunch.
1 lb (450 g) dried beans (any variety)
Water for soaking and cooking
1 tsp pure coconut oil
2-inch (5-cm) square of seaweed (optional)
Unrefined sea salt to taste
1) Check beans and discard any that are shriveled or discolored. Also, make sure there are no little stones or foreign matter mixed in with the beans.
2) Sprout the beans so they are more digestible (see box, page 44). Beans contain phytic acid and lectins that prevent them from being digested easily. Sprouting the beans makes them more nutritious as well. Soak beans overnight or for a couple of days (depending on the size of the bean—large beans need to soak at least 2 or 3 days to sprout) in pure water. Make sure the dish is large enough for beans to double or triple in size and still be covered by at least two inches of water. Check daily and add more water as needed. When you see a tiny split or sprout, they are ready to cook.
3) Discard the water the beans were sprouted in.
4) Put the sprouted beans in a large pot and fill with enough new, purified water to cover
the beans by about two inches. Add salt, coconut oil and seaweed, if using. Bring water to a boil.
5) Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook beans until tender, 45 minutes to an hour, depending on their size. Larger beans will take longer. Add more water if it gets too low, and the tops of the beans are showing.
6) Remove from heat, and they are ready to serve.
Add a little extra virgin or pure coconut oil for additional richness.
Nutty Sweet Rice with Lentils
I also add some coconut oil for the savory flavor it adds to the recipe. In addition to making the dish taste more satisfying, coconut oil increases energy levels, improves skin health, helps in stress reduction, increases good cholesterol, eases asthma symptoms and can aid in preventing liver disease and help control blood sugar.
2 cups (380 g) medium-grain, sprouted brown rice
¼ cup (50 g) sprouted lentils (To sprout lentils, soak them overnight in pure water and then drain off the water before cooking in fresh water. This removes the phytic acid.)
¼ tsp unrefined sea salt
6 cups (1.4 L) non-chlorinated water
1-2 organic vegetable bouillon cubes
1 Tbsp extra virgin, pure, organic coconut oil
½ cup (62.5 g) pecans or walnuts, finely chopped
½ cup (75 g) raisins
¼ cup (19 g) raw coconut flakes
Ghee to coat (optional)
1) Rinse the rice and lentils in a small-weave sieve until the water runs clean.
2) Dissolve bouillon cube(s) in the water in a large pot.
3) Add rice, lentils, sea salt, coconut oil and half of the nuts and raisins to the pot.
4) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
5) Cover the pot and do not disturb for 35-40 minutes. Do not stir.
6) When it looks as if all the water is absorbed, then the rice and lentils are ready.
7) Add ghee, if using, to the rice and lentil mixture and gently toss.
8) Gently scoop out the rice and lentils and add the coconut and remaining nuts and raisins.
Add a little sautéed onion after cooking for a richer flavor.
This is an easy, rich, savory snack or appetizer that's vegan, gluten-free and raw. You could also serve this with crackers or with chopped vegetables as a dip. Just be sure to start this recipe a day ahead of time, so you can soak the nuts in water to remove the phytic acid, or buy already sprouted nuts.
2 cups (250 g) sprouted pecans (If your pecans are not sprouted, soak them for 12-18 hours in water. Then drain them and dry them in a dehydrator or in an oven on low heat.)
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
2 large celery stalks, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp unrefined sea salt
Dash of mesquite powder (optional)
1) Combine all ingredients in a food processor, adding a little water if necessary.
2) Transfer to a serving dish, and it's ready to eat.
Nancy Addison is a nutritionist, health consultant and author of six award-winning nutrition and cookbooks.
For more information, visit her website: www.organichealthylife.com