Thursday, October 16, 2014

Obtaining Protein and Iron from Vegetarian / Plant-based sources

Today I was fortunate enough to attend a conference on alternative proteins called Ekomatsligan! The focus on every speaker's agenda was to reduce meat consumption as it is simply not sustainable. Here are some of the things that were pointed out today:
Environmental factors:
- 18 % of carbon emissions come from meat.
- Meat uses up copious amounts of water (raising and slaughtering).
- 26% of the earth is being used up for meat production.
Health factors:
- Meat and animal products such as milk and cheese are high in saturated fats which, if over-consumed, can lead to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
- Meat that is not organic is contaminated by growth hormones, among other things.
Animal rights:
- Animals are raised inhumanely. They gave the example of pigs in cages, stating that it is the most "sustainable" way to raise pigs because it fattens them up quickly, but that they don't have any possibility of moving around. They are raised solely to get fat and then slaughtered.

Alternative Proteins
The 7 alternative proteins that are going to be TRENDY in the near future were highlighted as:
- Mushrooms
- Insects
- Milk products
- Tofu
- Legumes (Beans, Lentils, Peas)
- Nuts & Seeds
- Snails!

After this background information, schools from various areas of Sweden got a chance to discuss how they plan on implementing more vegetarian dishes in school. The Meatless Monday organization was also present and offered implementation suggestions. There was even a debate on if it should be called Meatless Monday or Veg Monday but it was well-agreed by most that the term "vegetarian" is an ugly word!

What was great about this event is that schools around Sweden are really making an effort to incorporate more vegetarian food without calling it "vegetarian." And the Swedish National Food Agency, who was also present at the seminar, agreed that being vegetarian is totally possible and healthy as long as you know what to eat.


- Protein is not difficult to obtain as long as you eat a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), tofu, nuts, seeds and (also animal products like milk, cheese, eggs, poultry, seafood and meat).

- Dietary protein is made up of 9 essential amino acids. All foods have either some or all of these amino acids in them. Those foods that have all the amino acids in them are called "complete proteins."

- "Complete proteins" can be found in sources like soy and quinoa, and then there are "complementary proteins" which together create a complete protein in your body like rice & beans and daal & rice.

- But you don't have to worry about eating "rice and beans" in the same meal anymore, according to new research. As long as you eat a variety of foods, you will get enough protein!

1. The main sources of iron in a vegetarian / vegan diet comes from Legumes -- Beans, Lentils and Peas.  You can also find traces of iron in grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds but legumes are the largest and most reliable sources of plant-based iron.

2. SOAK your legumes before you cook them! Why? All legumes have a defense mechanism called phytic acid that prevents iron absorption. So in order to break down the phytic acid, one of the things you can do is soak your legumes! Most lentils are low in phytic acid so it's ok to skip soaking them! 

3. The other way to make the legume more nutritiously "available" to your body is by sprouting them and also fermenting them. That's why tempeh is such a brilliant product!

4. Once you know how to prepare your legumes, note the sources that prevent iron absorption:
- Calcium (dairy products such as milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, etc.)
- Coffee
- Tea
- Cocoa / Chocolate
- Too much Fiber from grains
While these foods have health benefits too, they are best consumed during other meals, or after a 2-3 hour gap of your iron-rich meal.

5. Friends of Iron: Vitamin C
- Vitamin C helps absorb iron. So if you eat a piece of fruit or vegetable high in vitamin C, then you can increase your chances of absorbing iron by 100mg per meal! A fresh, raw salad does the trick!

6. Friends of Iron: Fermented foods
- The bacteria found in kimchi and sauerkraut help with iron absorption. These products often also include some vitamin C so try adding them to your next iron-rich meal! My favorite way to eat daal (lentil soup) is with a dollop of kimchi on top. It may sound strange but it adds extra flavor and acidity PLUS I'm increasing my chances of iron absorption!
- Many grains have iron in them but also have iron inhibitors such as phytates and phytic acid. Sourdough bread is fermented for many hours, which means it has broken down the grains' phytic acid. So, sourdough provides a friendly "available" iron to your diet!

There was a brief period when I had low iron levels, but then I learned a lot through nutrition classes at university, my own research and also from conversing other dietitians. After my recent blood tests, I can attest that I am now well above the recommended daily intake levels (RDI for women in fertile age is 15mg and for men and women in non-fertile age is about 9mg) and all solely from a plant-based diet! So YOU CAN DO IT! :)

Good luck and please do let me know if this has helped you!



  1. Sounds like such an interesting conference! I'm surprised to see mushrooms listed as a source of protein, though -- really? I'm never satisfied by any of the supposedly "meaty" mushroom-based veg dishes, and the nutrition info I found says there's only .8 grams of protein per 54-gram cup serving. Or do they mean "protein" in the "thing to base an entree around" sort of way?

    1. Hi Eileen, nice to hear from you! Good question about mushroom! A lot of meat substitutes like Quorn use mushroom protein so I think they were referring to that and how one can create alternative proteins with them. I also think different mushrooms have different levels of protein, some higher than others, and perhaps when combined they offer a little more protein!

  2. Excellent informative article! Thank you for posting! ❤️

    1. Thank you lovely, really appreciate hearing that from you ♥



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