Saturday, May 8, 2010

10 vegetarian protein sources (for a long life)

Meat makes us happy. It must, or we wouldn't eat so much of it - 222 pounds a year per capita, not counting seafood. We are convinced it makes us healthy, too. Self-styled nutritionists (and the meat industry) urge us to ingest more protein in order to increase our strength, lose weight, cure cancer, manage diabetes ... well, you can find anything through Google.

But in real life, are meat-eaters healthier than people to follow a plant-based diet? For several years Dan Buettner has been researching the world's Blue Zones - areas where people "reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States, [and] where people suffer a fraction of the rate of heart disease and cancer than we do." Besides long lives, what do Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California have in common? In all five places, the local diet is heavy on plants, light on meats.

Clearly we don't need a lot of meat in order to be healthy. Perhaps we don't need any at all. For more than 60 years researchers have been studying Seventh-day Adventists (many of whom live in Loma Linda, America's bluest zone). Roughly half eat some meat; the other half eat none. The light meat-eaters, it turns out, live significantly longer than the general population, and the vegetarians live significantly longer than the light meat-eaters. In his June 25, 2009, summary article, "Adventist Health Studies: Past, Present, and Future," lead researcher Gary E. Fraser included charts showing that not only did less meat equal more years, it also equaled less diabetes and lower body weight.

But meat is an excellent source of protein. A 6-ounce steak, for example, may have more than 50 grams of it (check out the USDA chart that gives protein content for almost everything imaginable), while a block of tofu - a whole block! - has only 26. So what do Adventists (and Sardinians, Okinawans, Icarians, and residents of the Nicoya Peninsula) do for protein?

Well, they don't eat as much of it as American carnivores do. The thing is, they don't need to. That 6-ounce steak has more protein than an adult woman requires in an entire day, never mind the other foods she eats (you can figure out how much protein you need by using your own calculator and the information at WebMD). Almost everything we eat contains some protein. Some foods contain quite a lot.

Here's a list of protein sources for vegetarians and for people who just want to cut back on meat. I ate many of these - and no meat - when I was growing up. Yup, I was born in Loma Linda. I hope it helps.

10 vegetarian protein sources

1.    dairy: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese
2.    eggs: preferably from a family farm
3.    bread: preferably whole wheat
4.    beans: garbanzos, pinto, lima, kidney
5.    other legumes: lentils, peas, peanuts, peanut butter, soybeans
6.    nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans
7.    seeds: sunflower, sesame, cashews (yes!)
8.    grains: rice, quinoa, oats
9.    pasta: spaghetti, rice noodles, couscous
10.  plant-based meat substitutes: seitan, tempeh, tofu

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