Tell someone you are a vegetarian, and the first thing they will ask is, “But where do you get your protein?” While that question is a good one, it is important to first point out that the U.S. is a nation of protein overachievers. We consume way more protein than is necessary for good health, putting ourselves at risk for kidney disease, osteoporosis, cancer, and kidney stones. There needs to be a balance, with simple ways to get all the nutrients you need, including protein. For chronic pain patients, this is even more important. An imbalance of needed nutrients could lead to more pain later on. However, there are a few easy ways vegetarians can make sure they’re getting the protein they need.
Why do vegetarians need to focus on protein?
As research on the benefits of a plant-based diet grows, more and more people are exploring vegetarianism. Making a dietary change can be difficult, and with so much information out there, beginning vegetarians can struggle to find out how to plan meals that are healthy, delicious, and nutritious.
Vegetarians in particular need to focus on what is considered a “complete” protein. There are 20 different amino acids that form proteins, nine of which our bodies cannot make. In order for a protein to be considered “complete,” it must offer us those nine amino acids.
We don’t need all nine amino acids in every meal, but we need to get them in recommended amounts throughout the day. While animal-based protein is generally considered complete, vegetarians may need to look a little more deeply into their diet.
Are there benefits of a vegetarian diet for pain patients?
A vegetarian diet can have significant benefits for pain patients including:
- Weight management: Plant-based diets often help people lose weight, which can be especially helpful for pain patients with joint pain.
- Lowered risk of heart disease: Traditionally farmed meats contain high levels of saturated fats that can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. Eliminating this protein source lowers this risk substantially.
- Helps with inflammation: A vegan diet in particular (no animal products at all) can significantly reduce inflammation in the body due to dairy or eggs. Vegetarians and vegans following an anti-inflammatory diet may see reduced swelling in the joints.
- Reduce pain through food: There is some indication that pain levels decrease with a vegetarian diet simply because an increase in leafy greens, anti-oxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and the elimination of animal protein offers pain-relieving benefits. This may be that meat makes the body more acidic, which can trigger pain, while plant-based foods keep the body’s pH more neutral.
When you are ready to give it a try, here are ten ways to build a diet with complete vegetarian proteins to help tip the scales back to good nutrition.
1. Become a weekday (or Monday) vegetarian
Still love meat but want to do your part for your pain, your wallet, and the planet? Consider becoming a weekday vegetarian. This Monday-through-Friday strategy may be just what you need to get more vegetarian proteins in your life without completely giving up your beloved burgers.
Or, go even slower than that. No one says that you have to erase every possible trace of meat protein in your diet overnight. A great way to start your journey to a vegetarian diet is Meatless Mondays. The Meatless Mondays campaign was started in 2004 to help people make small, healthy changes in their diets. The idea was to lower the amount of saturated fats in the diet by simply removing them in an effortless way once a week.
Take one day out of the week and cook a delicious, meat-free meal. Weeknight meals should be quick, so try one of these 30 meat-free recipes that can be made in 30 minutes for a quick, homemade family meal.
2. Lean into the bean
Black beans contain 42 grams of protein per cup, right on par with hamburger at 65 grams per serving. Since healthy men and women only need 56 and 46 grams of protein per day respectively, this portabella and black bean quesadilla is a satisfying way to get nearly all the vegetarian protein you need.
3. Look to the experts
There is a ton of information on health and nutrition, so much that it can be overwhelming and hard to determine what’s best. Look to folks who are already doing it right on blogs, Pinterest, and other online sources before diving into the sea of internet resources. Bloggers, for example, are the backbone of the internet for beginning vegetarians, providing tested recipes, beautiful photos, and shopping tips and tricks. Some of the best vegetarian food blogs include the following.
Oh She Glows is a vegan cooking blog that also throws in a few gluten-free recipes for good measure. Angela’s Valentine’s Day menu alone is reason enough to subscribe to this blog. Who wouldn’t love a roasted beet salad with hazelnuts and balsamic reduction, creamy avocado pasta, and a raw chocolate pudding? Her recipes focus on easy-to-access ingredients (so no trips all over town for one odd type of spice) and can also be adapted for those who can have dairy.
Although you can find a few meat recipes in the archives, Naturally Ella has been vegetarian for quite some time now. This site focuses also on easy, seasonal, fresh vegetarian recipes. Erin’s recipes can sometimes use exotic spices (like za’atar) but she also offers a weekly meal plan for vegetarians that features hearty, soul-warming dishes for cold winter days and nights. She does all of the work, planning breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the week. This would be a great way for beginning vegetarians to get a jumpstart and start figuring out what they love to eat. In addition, Naturally Ella has a great search tool by ingredient, category, season, and diet.
With recipes that are delicious and writing that offers tons of tips and background information on ingredients, My New Roots is a great place to start for transitional recipes. Start with Deluxe Butternut Mac-n-Tease, and you may never go back to the boxed, powdered stuff again!
Those are just a few blogs to start with. When you have some time to feel inspired, take a look at 50 more blogs curated by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
You could get lost in Pinterest boards of vegetarian recipes and articles, but two of our favorite boards are Vegetarian Times and VegNews.
- Vegetarian Times: With just over 1,800 pins on boards like Cocktail Hour and 7 Ingredients or Fewer, Vegetarian Times has plenty of inspiration, tips, and tricks to help you make delicious food. They also have weekend projectsfor some recipes that may take a little longer, so if you’re up for a project they have you covered.
- VegNews: If you are ready to go all-in and completely remove all animal-based foods from your diet (including dairy, meat, and fish), this Pinterest board can help you on your way. The board features things like gluten-free vegan dishes and a section called “I can’t believe it’s vegan!” Neither can we!
4. Start with the basics
The building blocks of complete vegetarian proteins are very simple: soy, beans, oatmeal, brown rice, and nuts. Start there, master those, then think about branching out.
5. Know your nutritional needs
As stated above, people in the U.S. get carried away with protein. Unless you are an Olympic athlete or champion body builder, you often need way less protein than you think.
But what, exactly, do you need? Bone up on your nutrition information, especially if you are living with chronic pain.
6. Shop seasonally
The most nutritious food, vegetarian protein or not, is the food you purchase fresh and in season.
Take advantage of new spring potatoes and tender green beans with this delicious recipe for green beans and potatoes in broth. If you are a weekday vegetarian, omit the bacon Monday through Friday, or just save this recipe for a bacon-y weekend lunch. Bonus tip: swap olive oil for the butter for a healthier fat or to make the dish vegan.
7. Don’t miss the essential six
Becoming a vegetarian is more than simply cutting out meat and fish. There are six essential nutrients present in a healthy diet, and yes, protein is one of them. Round out your meal planning by knowing the other six.
It is important to not substitute one set of unhealthy eating habits with another, so when switching to a vegetarian diet (or cutting out red meat or eating less meat), it is important to make sure you are eating a diet full of nutritious whole foods and not just lots of extra pre-packaged food.
Meat is an easy source of protein, which is vital for developing muscle mass and supplying the body with energy. Vitamins such as B12 are also plentiful in meat. If you eat less animal protein, make sure to add in plenty of foods that will provide these two important parts of a healthy diet. Leafy greens and some legumes will supply the B12, but many eating a plant-based diet also supplement with vitamins. Protein in the form of nuts, legumes, and tofu is critical. If you aren’t sure how to incorporate more plant-based proteins, take a look on Pinterest for entrée ideas for easy vegetarian meals.
8. Get to know (and love) your crockpot
Making a dietary change can mean more meal planning for awhile. The time this takes could deter some people from sticking with the change. Don’t be that person. Vegetarian proteins in the crockpot work just as well as a large cut of stewing beef. For chronic pain patients, a healthy, hot vegetarian meal waiting at the end of the day can be a tremendous comfort.
9. Stick with anti-inflammatory foods
Even as you think about getting enough vegetarian protein in your diet, focus also on selecting anti-inflammatory foods for pain management and relief. There are tons of delicious ways to help your body fight inflammation with a vegetarian diet, and you might as well take advantage of them.
10. Focus on what makes you feel best
Maybe you feel like you need the protein of fish but are okay with cutting out all red meat, poultry, and cured meat products (e.g. bacon and sausage). Become a pescatarian. Maybe you like a piece of roasted chicken every now and then but want to incorporate more vegetables and whole grains in your diet. Focus on delicious, versatile grain bowls that utilize eggs and tofu for proteins to start. Your body will tell you what feels best. Your job is to listen to it and respond accordingly.
Have more questions about a pain-healthy diet? Contact our office today to set up an appointment with a pain specialist.