Plant Proteins: Your Questions Answered
Eating more plant-based meals is something I encourage everyone to do—even if you do not intend to become a vegetarian. Colorful plant foods are often the foods that people seem to have difficulty eating enough of and this is sometimes easier to plan if you are intentionally focusing on a meatless meal. But what should go on the plate where the meat used to be? Is it possible to meet nutrition needs without animal proteins? I wrote this article to answer some questions about dietary protein and protein supplements but want to spend a little time answering frequently asked questions about the importance and benefits of plant proteins.
But First, Remind Me What Exactly Is Protein?
The short answer? Protein is made from 20 amino acids, 11 of which the human body produces naturally and 9 of which you can only obtain through food sources, which is why these 9 are known as essential amino acids. To flesh this out a bit …
When we eat any dietary proteins, they are digested into amino acids. These amino acids form the amino acid pool that the body draws upon to synthesize specific proteins such as muscle, bone, digestive and other enzymes hormones etc. Proteins are a part of every cell in the human body. They can also be used for body fuel if other sources are not available to meet the demand. The body recycles proteins on a daily basis so it is necessary to eat an adequate amount and variety of protein each day to make sure the amino acid pool is replenished.
Is There A Difference Between Plant and Animal Protein?
Most foods (except fruits, sugars, fats, and alcohol) contain protein, some foods more than others. Well, actually they provide amino acids. Our body then uses these amino acids to build the proteins needed for various body functions.
Animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy provide all nine essential amino acids and are considered to be “complete proteins”. Plant proteins, like those from beans, legumes, nuts/seeds, grains and vegetables may have all of the essential amino acids, but in lower amounts and are therefore not considered “complete” proteins. Plant proteins vary in the amounts of each of the amino acids they uniquely provide.
But the amino acid profile is only one of the differences between animal and plant proteins. They each come with a different “gift with purchase”… so to speak. Most of us are familiar with the “gift with purchase” concept: buy this cosmetic and get a free handy makeup bag and so on. The same applies to proteins. You want the protein but what else are you getting?
Although animal protein can be a convenient source of protein, it is comparatively expensive and can provide lots of fat—the kind of fat is important. For example, a ribeye steak is expensive and all of that marbling (that I hear makes it taste so good …)is laden with unhealthy saturated fat making unsaturated fat the decidedly unhealthy “gift with purchase”. Alternatively, a piece of wild caught salmon might still be expensive but the healthy omega-3 fats that it comes with make it healthier choice.
Plant proteins offer a diverse array of “gifts with purchase”. Most plant proteins contain fiber and phytonutrients not found in animal proteins. For example, a cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein plus 15 grams of fiber, and it has virtually no saturated fat. And lentils are cheap. Really cheap.
Recent research suggests that in addition to providing important nutrients, eating plant-based proteins may provide benefits for appetite control… Say what? In other words, plant proteins might help make you feel more full and satisfied than animal protein. Why? Fiber.
Do I Need To “Combine” Plant Proteins To Make Sure I Am Getting All of The Essential Amino Acids?
No, this is an idea that was trendy in the 70’s but is not accurate. Eat a variety of foods every day to keep the amino acid pool well stocked and you will be fine. Variety really is the spice of life.
How Much Protein Do I Need (And Can Plant Proteins Provide Enough)
To answer the “how much” question I will refer you to the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): The average daily dietary nutrient intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97–98 percent) healthy individuals.
For most healthy adults the RDA for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (RDAs for protein in children are higher on a gram-per-body-weight basis than for adults. RDAs also are greater for women who are pregnant [1.1 g/kg/day] or lactating [1.3 g/kg/day]. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. Check out this handy DRI calculator for a math shortcut. It is generally recommended that protein make up roughly 10-35 percent of your total calories every day— but this will vary based on your unique needs.
In short, yes, It is definitely possible to meet these needs exclusively with plant proteins. Even if you don’t intend to convert to a totally plant based diet it would be a good idea to include plant proteins regularly to take advantage of their beneficial “gifts with purchase”. Meatless Monday, anyone?
One more thing…more (than the RDA) is not necessarily better. There are no apparent health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of some diseases. Quality is more important than (excess) quantity.
Can You Give Me Some Examples Of Plant Protein?
As I mentioned above, almost all foods contain some amount of protein. Including a variety of foods in your meals every day will help to ensure your nutrient and protein needs are met (by keeping the amino acid pool well stocked). The article I mentioned above includes a list with specific protein amounts if you are interested. Generally speaking, some plant protein powerhouses include:
- Edamame, Beans, Legumes
- Tempeh, Tofu, Seitan
- Nuts, Nut Butters, Seeds
- Grains like Quinoa, Wild Rice, Oatmeal
- Even spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts provide 2-3 grams protein per ½ cup serving.
A Few Tips To Add More Plant Proteins In Your Daily Meals
Plant proteins can substitute for animal proteins in most recipes. But here are just a few tips to help you start thinking outside of the meat aisle when planning your daily meals…
- Chia pudding with nondairy milk, chia seeds, cooked quinoa, a dash of vanilla and cinnamon – topped with fresh berries or other fruit
- Smoothies that include silken tofu, spinach, nuts, seeds
- Overnight oats with almond milk, and/or peanut butter, and or nuts, seeds and fruit
- Tofu and veggie Scramble
- Tempeh “bacon”
- Natural nut butters (with no hydrogenated oils or added salt and sugar) in sandwiches or served with apple slices
- Bean salad served over fresh greens, or bean salad spread for a sandwich
- Homemade hummus and veggies
- Quinoa, brown rice or other grain salad with beans and veggies
- Pasta salad with beans or peas and or nuts added
- Experiment with substituting tempeh, tofu, seitan in one of your favorite recipes
- Leftovers from dinner ideas below!
- Stuffed bell peppers, or mushrooms, or squash—modify any recipe calling for beef and substitute tempeh. These can be frozen and available for when you are having one of those days.
- When making spaghetti, add white beans or tempeh to the sauce (also can be frozen for later).
- Soup with beans and/or whole grains. Or add beans and or whole grains to your favorite soup recipe. (Also can be frozen for later)
- Tempeh Sloppy Joes …where healthy meets comfort food.
- A “veggie bowl” that consists of brown rice or other whole grain, baked tofu or tempeh cubes, veggies, beans, and a savory sauce or dressing … experiment!
- Homemade Bean Burgers or Lentil burgers
- Lentil Loaf
- Chili with beans
- Toasted Pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds or other nuts.
- Whole Grain Snack bars with nuts and dried fruits
What About Frozen Veggie Burgers, And Other Plant Based Convenience Foods?
Plant based convenience foods are convenient but…not without a price. Food manufacturers have stocked the grocery store with tons of plant based convenience foods—which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is important to remember that just because it is free from animal products does not immediately make it the healthier option.
All foods that have been packaged for your convenience are definitely more processed and are likely to be higher in salt, fat or sugar. I always try to have a convenience food on hand for when I have one of those days because life happens! But I also try very hard to make sure I am armed for those days by doing some planning ahead of time and stocking my freezer with my own convenience foods! Soup and lentil loaf are two things that I always make extra of for freezing. Convenience foods serve a purpose, but they were never meant to be the foundation of a diet — with or without meat.
Including More Plant Proteins In Your Diet Is A Win, Win Proposition.
Healthy, cheap, diverse and tasty. Are you convinced? What are your favorite plant proteins and how do you incorporate them into your menus?