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Manuel's Top Five: Healthy (and Historical) Vegetarian Protein Sources

By L.K. Regan

Last week, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, gave us a list of his top five lean, healthy meats. This week, Manuel is talking to the vegetarians and vegetable protein-loving crowd, with five healthy, non-meat ways to get the full spectrum of amino acids.

Mix and Match
Villacorta is going to talk us through vegetarian protein options, but he is at pains to clarify that these suggestions are for everyone, including meat-eaters. "These grains," he says, "give you tremendous benefits from vitamins and minerals, but also the super-food properties of anti-oxidants, phytochemicals and fiber, making them anti-inflammatory foods." And vegetarians in particular, as is well-known, have to be careful to vary their protein diet. "Plant sources of protein don't contain all of the essential amino acids," Villacorta says, meaning the amino acids we humans cannot synthesize and therefore must obtain from our diet, "so plants are incomplete sources for protein." Meat is a complete protein—it has all the amino acids. "You could eat chicken only," Villacorta explains, "and you'd get all the essential amino acids—but that is not true of vegetable proteins." Take a famous example: beans are low in methionine and rice has little lysine. So, if you only eat rice, you won't get lysine. But eat beans with your rice, and you make a complete protein.

That doesn't need to be as complicated as it sounds. Villacorta continues, "People used to think you had to combine the different proteins at a sitting in order to get all of them—but in fact that's unnecessary." Why? Well, Villacorta explains, our bodies break down the proteins in food into the various amino acids, and these are stored in the liver. "The liver functions as a sort of pool of amino acids, held as single molecules," he says, "and as the body needs these they are called up to make new cells or for the immune system. So, as long as all of the amino acids are in your liver—as opposed to on your plate at any given time—you have all you need." The problem comes, however, "if you never vary your protein sources," Villacorta says. "Then you are likely to be lacking one or more of the amino acids." But you don't have to eat all the amino acids together; instead, Villacorta advises thinking in terms of a week at a time. "If you eat the beans on Monday and the rice on Friday, you're okay for your complete proteins," he says. "Think of making complete proteins and varying your vegetable proteins within a week."

Now, some protein experts will know that a couple of plant protein sources (quinoa and soy) have all of the essential amino acids. But, Villacorta says, "With vegetable proteins, even the ones that are complete are not necessarily digestible. Fiber blocks absorption of some amino acids, and there are other chemicals naturally occurring that may block absorption." Oops. In fact, he says, "You may only be absorbing 60 to 80 percent of the amino acids in these foods. So, even though they're technically complete, you may not be absorbing all the acids in them." The upshot: even if you eat quinoa and soy, you still need to mix up your plant protein sources across the week, and, when eating these two, eat more of them.

Five Plant Proteins
With these parameters established, Villacorta offers us five grains that, aside from having a high protein content, have vitamins, minerals, fiber—and history. All have been cultivated for thousands of years.

  1. Quinoa: This is an ancient grain used by the Incas—in fact, it was a staple of their diet. A cup of cooked quinoa has eight grams of protein. It is high in protein, calcium and iron, as well as being a good source of Vitamin E (an anti-oxidant) and several B-vitamins. Quinoa has high lycine, methionine and cystine—the proteins the other plants largely lack. So, Villacorta says, "It's a great grain to combine with any other grain—with beans, or with wheat; it will make the proteins complete."
  2. Farro: An Italian grain, farro sustained the Romans as they conquered the world 7,000 years ago. It also has eight grams of protein per cooked cup. "It's Europe's quinoa," Villacorta says. In addition to protein, farro is an excellent fiber source, with magnesium, zinc and iron.
  3. Barley: Barley is the world's oldest grain, coming from ancient cities of the Middle East and North Africa. Cultivated for about 8,000 years, it is now the world's fourth largest cereal crop. Barley beer was probably the first drink developed by neolithic humans. One cup cooked barley has four grams of protein, though it is incomplete, so you will have to mix it with other protein sources during the week. Even so, Villacorta says, "It is considered a whole grain, and is loaded with minerals, vitamins and soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as phytochemicals. It is a very good food."
  4. Amaranth (or kiwicha): Kiwicha is the archaic name for this grain believed by pre-Columbian Aztecs and Incas to have supernatural properties. It was therefore incorporated into their religious ceremonies. "Archaeological records show it first appearing in Mexico in 4,000 BCE," Villacorta says, "so this is a very ancient grain." Amaranth is higher in protein than most grains, with nine grams per cooked cup. An additional benefit: Villacorta tells us amaranth is very high in calcium, making it an excellent choice for vegans.
  5. Kasha: This is a cereal commonly eaten in eastern Europe; it is called buckwheat groats in the US. It provides six grams of protein per cooked cup. "Kasha is full of B-vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, iron and calcium," Villacorta says. It is also a good source of fiber.

Acquiring and Cooking
Where can you find these exotic grains? Villacorta says that Whole Foods and Trader Joe's both carry them, though you may have to go to more than one store if you want to get all of them at once. For those who like food delivered to the front door, Bob's Red Mill sells all of these grains—and others as well—over the internet.

Once you have the grains in your cupboard, cooking is a simple matter, since all cook about the same amount time with roughly the same amount of water. So, to take care of the mixing question, Villacorta recommends putting two or three of the grains together in a rice cooker with water or vegetable broth (he tells us he does this himself every week!). Cook the grains fully and store a big batch in the fridge to use as the week progresses. Another idea: cook a large batch of quinoa and keep it in the fridge to mix in with other grains to complete proteins as the week goes on, since mixing quinoa with any other grain completes the proteins. Over all, Villacorta say, "Explore new things! It is always good to change your diet, and cooking your own is the best plan." Words to live by.