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How to Get (and Use!) Protein From Plants

Every active vegetarian fields the same question over and over: “But how do you get your protein?”
We also get, “What exactly do you do with tofu?” a lot, for the record. My personal answer: Not a lot! I use it pretty rarely, because I’m able to get the bulk of my protein from plants — and that’s something Heather Nicholds, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, knows all about. In fact, she (literally) just wrote the book on it!
Nicholds helps clients reconnect with food as a positive source of nourishment and energy. She’s known for the attention and care she puts into each and every meal plan, each and every class or workshop, each and every recipe. Her new book aims to offer a full understanding of protein, including how much you actually need and how to get more than enough from plant foods. It’s part nutrition resource and part cookbook, bridging the gap that normally separates knowledge from practical steps.
And she’s letting us share a excerpt from her book with you today! Below is her advice for how to best utilize protein, but if you’re hungry for more information, you can pick up your own copy or enter the giveaway she’s hosting (which ends July 31).
protein from plants book

Tips for Utilizing Protein Like a Boss

When people think of nutrition, their first thought is about how to get certain nutrients into their diets. This is a big part of making sure that your body has everything it needs to be healthy, but putting things in your mouth is really just one part of the process.
There is a whole sequence of events and reactions that need to happen inside of your body after food goes in your mouth for it to be fully absorbed and used.
This is true of any nutrient, but it seems to be especially misunderstood when it comes to protein. You can eat 200 grams of protein a day if you want, but if your body isn’t able to break that down into the parts it needs to function, you’re basically just flushing it down the toilet.
Protein Digestion
One of the biggest obstacles in protein utilization is digestion. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and they need to go through two main steps to get broken down into the individual amino acids that the body can use.

  1. The first step happens in the stomach, with stomach acid and stomach enzymes. If there isn’t enough stomach acid produced, the proteins won’t start to break down, and then the second step won’t be effective.
  2. The second step happens in the small intestine, where various enzymes break the proteins into amino acids. The small intestine is designed to allow amino acids to pass through its lining directly into your blood stream.

If either of these steps aren’t fully completed, the proteins will only be broken down to chunks of three or more amino acids.
These chunks of three or more amino acids (called oligopeptides) aren’t meant to be absorbed into our bodies. Most of the time, they just get passed along from the stomach to the intestinal system and out as waste (as I said, down the toilet).
There’s also a growing problem called leaky gut syndrome. What happens when the gut is “leaky” is that the small intestine allows these oligopeptides to pass through to our blood stream. They can’t get broken down once they pass into the blood stream, and they can’t be used in that form. Furthermore, the presence of oligopeptides in the blood stream causes all kinds of problems, including allergic reactions, because the body treats them as toxins.
It could be that your system just needs a chance to get back in shape. Leaky gut syndrome can have a lot of causes, but often heals very well if you eliminate your trigger foods for a few weeks. You should then be able to listen to your system and figure out what it can handle and what it can’t.
Meal Timing & Composition
If you’re having trouble with digestion, try simplifying your meals for a little while. Some people have no problem, but others get symptoms like gas or bloating when eating meals that are too heavy or complex.
Proteins in particular need stomach acid and the stomach’s enzymes to be properly digested. Waiting until you feel hungry between meals means your stomach has fully emptied, and built up enough stomach acid to break down proteins. Eating something slightly salty and/or acidic (like a pickle) before a meal can also help stimulate stomach acid production.
Another thing to keep in mind is that fat slows down the digestive process, so having too much fat in a meal holds up the protein from moving on to the small intestine and allows it time to create gas or indigestion. That’s not to suggest avoiding fats; just to consider having foods rich in fats at a different meal from foods rich in proteins.
Proper Cooking
Cooking can start the process of breaking down some of the more complex proteins, which means your digestive system has less work to do. This is particularly important with beans and legumes, which I think we all know can cause some issues in the digestive tract.
Beans are much more easily digested if they are soaked, and then boiled without salt until they are soft and fully cooked. Salt prevents beans from cooking properly. Adding a bit of seaweed to the water can infuse minerals into the water that help with bean digestion.
Sprouting makes beans, grains, nuts, and seeds even more digestible, plus it uses up some of the carbohydrate content and consequently boosts the relative protein. Fermentation has the same effect, since the fermentation culture eats the carbohydrate content. 
Proper Chewing
Most people don’t think about the importance of chewing, but it is the crucial first step of digestion. It is particularly important when eating raw plant foods because you need to break down the cell walls. Plants have a cell wall made of cellulose, which is broken down by cooking or by chewing. The nutrients won’t be properly absorbed unless the cell wall is broken down.
Foods That Help Protein Assimilation
There are some foods and nutrients that help the protein you eat get broken down and used by your body. Pineapple and papaya have enzymes (bromelain and papain, respectively) that work directly on breaking down amino acid chains, which is my excuse for sneaking pineapple into dinner. Some people even take supplements of these individual enzymes if they have difficulty digesting proteins.
Beta-carotene, or provitamin A, is a nutrient that the body needs in order to use protein properly once it gets into the body. Carrots are most famous for their beta-carotene content, but you can also find it in any yellow or orange vegetable (like squash, bell peppers, and sweet potato), in leafy greens (like spinach, kale, or chard), and in spirulina (micro algae).
Foods That Hinder Protein Absorption
Nuts, seeds, beans, and grains are all coated in something called phytic acid, which our digestive systems can’t process and prevents the food from being fully digested. Soaking these foods in water for at least a few hours will break down the phytic acid. Cooking also breaks it down. The contradiction is that there’s a good side to phytic acid, as it helps cleanse your body of toxins. So while it’s usually good to have the phytic acid broken down, it can actually be beneficial to get some.
Stress and Exercise
Stress reduces the amount of stomach acid that you produce. As you now know, proteins are digested by stomach acids, so stress reduces your ability to break down the protein you’re eating. Stress also interferes quite a bit with the function of your thyroid gland, so it will throw your metabolism out of whack.
Aerobic exercise stimulates your metabolism and oxygenates the cells that turn your food into energy. Strengthening exercises help to build muscle mass, which also stimulates your metabolism. Exercise in general releases hormones that reduce stress and calm you down, making your body much more capable of breaking down and absorbing nutrients.
Alright — do you feel fully prepped on protein? I know I’ve got some more science to back up my typical answers! —Kristen

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