How to get plant protein *without a crap ton of sodium
Before I begin, let me be clear: this article is not intended to shame vegan meat alternatives, vegan treat foods, or sing the praises of why a whole food, plant based diet is the be-all-end-all.
That sentiment wouldn’t be accurate or inclusive. This is an exploration and a reminder of some important components for us to keep in mind when selecting veg options, a presentation of some alternatives, and above all: a reminder to always take the big M into consideration: Moderation.
While I’m offering disclaimers, let’s also remember that according to the Consensus Action of Salt and Health, two servings of animal-based bacon can contain more than half the daily-recommended salt intake for adults. Select brands contain three times more salt than others. Even when we look at higher sodium vegan options, the sodium levels are still lower than their animal flesh counterparts.
When a lot of people come to veganism or vegetarianism, many assume that meat alternatives will comprise the majority of their food intake. These alternatives are implicated for almost every dish, especially for folks who were previously used to having a meat item at every single meal. Given the current prevalence of veganism and plant-based living within the mainstream, meat alternatives are now available in almost all grocery stores. Choosing them is as easy as stepping over to the next shelf in the cooler. Though price points vary depending on the brand and item, most are cost efficient and readily accessible.
Vegan meat alternatives are inherently a great source of protein. They’re easy to find, they’re a fantastic on-the-go option for traveling, and many of them are enriched to have higher levels of Vitamin B12 (which all folks, vegan or not, should be supplementing). Several of these alternatives also boast a macronutrient profile (higher protein, lower carbs), which is ideal for some folks with particular nutritional goals. This factor makes them a common choice for those looking to moderately or significantly increase their protein intake, for a wide variety of athletic, fitness and/or strength training endeavors. The catch? While they score an A+ on the protein side, they’re ridiculously high in sodium.
Before we set out to berate salt completely, there are some things we can agree on across the board. Salt tastes good. It helps with preserving foods, but above all: it makes many things taste more delicious than they do in their original form. The majority of table salts are made using sodium chloride, which is a mineral found in many foods. Sodium contributes to regular muscle and nerve functions. Usually, the salt used when preparing or flavouring foods contains sodium, and many practitioners will therefore use the terms interchangeably.
Health Canada recommends that (most) Canadians consume 1500 mg of sodium per day and do not exceed 2300 mg per day, roughly the equivalent of just over 1TSP of salt. Despite this recommendation, the majority of Canadians consume a whopping 3400 mg per day. An excess of sodium in the long term can lead to high blood pressure (one of the major risk factors for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease).
Let’s say I was to incorporate a different veg alternative into all of my meals, and let’s break down what that would look like.
This includes some “bac*n” with breakfast, a sandwich with some slices, and some artisanal veg sausages in my pasta sauce at dinner, I would be hitting 2,470mg of sodium in one day (170 mg over the absolute max as indicated by Health Canada.) This isn’t taking into account additional sodium sources, flavouring, or sauces I may be adding, or snacks throughout the day.
Furthermore, these calculations aren’t based on an increased protein intake, which is a major component of the majority of strength training goals, and/or fat loss goals. If I had strength training-related food goals around eating more protein, and I was obtaining it exclusively from these sources, it would be easy to assume I would be hitting (minimum) 5,000mg of sodium intake per day. This leads us to the main question: how do you ensure you’re hitting your protein goals, without getting a crap-load of sodium at the same time?
The answer is short and sweet: reduce the number of sodium-heavy meat alternatives, and go back to the basics. A lot of the staple items of a balanced vegan diet are protein-heavy, low in sodium, and cost efficient to boot.
When we’re talking about any group of foods, we want to remain cognizant of the highlighted word mentioned at the beginning of this article: Moderation.
There is no immediate need to clear out your fridge drawers and boycott the vegan alternatives section (unless you feel compelled to.) These products taste good, and they serve a crucial purpose in helping folks see what fantastic options exist when they step away from consuming animals.
You can get all the protein you need, through incorporating more whole-foods sources, which will kick almost all concerns around excess sodium consumption to the curb. Go ahead and keep that special package of veg ‘meat’ around, just don’t eat it everyday, all day. This is an opportunity to expand ingredients, dishes, save some money while you’re at, and help ensure your health and longevity with a few easy swaps.
Keep calm, and protein on!
The Spruce Eats
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