Plant-Based Protein

What is plant-based protein?

January 25, 2020/ By Bella Del Medico, Dietetic Student at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

When the New Year hits, you know New Year resolutions begin! So, let’s add plant-based protein to your diet as 2021’s New Year Resolution. 

Before we explore plant-based protein, I want to make it clear that eating food from plant-based protein sources does not mean that you are necessarily vegetarian or vegan. Nowadays, these are common misunderstandings with the incorporation of plant-based protein into diets. Anyone can enjoy these foods, regardless of the diet you consume.

What is plant-based protein?

In simple terms, plant-based protein is a food source of protein derived from plants. 

What is protein?

Protein is a macronutrient essential to building muscle mass. Protein can be found all over the body ranging from muscles to skin to hair; this protein has to come from the diet. When the body digests protein from food intake, it breaks them down into amino acids. The body cannot produce nine of these acids, called essential amino acids. Most plant proteins are incomplete, which means that they are missing at least one of the essential amino acids. However, some plant-based foods, such as quinoa and buckwheat, are complete sources of protein. Therefore, in order to reduce protein deficiencies, it is important to be aware of the sources of protein you consume.

Plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic effect than animal proteins. Anabolic effect refers to the maintenance of bone density, the growth of muscle, and rapid recovery from injury. This is due to their lower digestibility, lower essential amino acid content, and deficiency in other essential amino acids. Plant-based protein is less digestible because of the different structure of plant versus animal proteins. 

What are examples of plant-based protein?

All of these foods contain protein; however, as we’ll see below, the protein content varies greatly: Tempeh, Lentils, Edamame, Hemp Seeds, Tofu, Plant-based burgers, Plant-based Protein Powder, Pea Milk, Quinoa, Black Beans, Peanuts, Peanut Butter, Nut Butters, Oats, Oatmeal, Chia Seeds, Chickpeas, Brussel Sprouts, Asparagus, Artichokes, Broccoli, Barley, Ezekiel Bread, Green Peas, Hemp Seed, Lentils, Legumes, Soy milk, Spirulina, Sweet Potatoes, etc. 

Most of the foods highest in protein are as listed. 

  • Tempeh (31 grams/cup)
  • Plant-based Burgers (22-29 grams/patty)
  • Protein Powder (22 grams/ scoop)
  • Lentils (18 grams/cup)
  • Edamame (17 grams/cup)
  • Hemp seeds (9.5 grams/ 3 tablespoons)
  • Tofu—including soy milk (8 grams/cup)
  • Pea milk (8 grams/cup)
  • Quinoa (8 grams/cup)
  • Black Beans (7.6 grams/cup)
  • Peanut Butter (7 grams/2 tablespoons)

Vegetable Protein

As you can see from the list, some of the plant-based sources of protein I mentioned before didn’t make the cut in terms of being high in protein. Most vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, barley, etc. are not considered high sources of protein. Most vegetables have lower amounts of protein per cup compared to other sources of plant-based protein. For example, broccoli only has 3 grams of protein per cup compared to 31 grams of protein per cup of tempeh. This lower protein value per cup of broccoli suggests that one would need to eat larger amounts of broccoli in order to consume a significant amount of protein from this source compared to other plant-based protein sources. This is why vegetables are generally not considered main sources of protein in a daily diet. 

Soy Protein 

Soy protein is found in foods such as soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso, soy sauce, etc (Click here to check out the RDNs who created the soy protein article cited above @megmetro_rd). In fact, soybeans are one of the only vegetable foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Plus, they are a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, zinc, and B vitamins. Eating soy protein in place of animal protein may lead to reductions in “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease. One serving a day, for example, one cup of soy milk, may be effective for cancer prevention because the phytochemicals in soy may prevent tumor growth by inhibiting certain proteins that cause tumor growth. 

Nut Protein 

Nuts are a good source of fiber and healthy fats and can also be a good source of protein. Let’s discuss the different nuts and their nutritional benefits. 

Almonds are loaded with antioxidants; specifically, the brown layer of skin on the outside of the almond contains the highest concentration of antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from free-radical-induced oxidative stress, which can lead to aging, heart disease, and some cancers. So, it’s best to eat almonds with the skin for most health benefits.

Walnuts are a source of heart-healthy fats and contain more omega-3 fatty acids, in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), than any other nut. Studies have linked ALA intake to a lower risk of heart disease.

Compared to most other nuts, pistachios have a higher ratio of essential amino acids relative to their protein content. In fact, they contain as much protein as an egg per serving.

Cashews contain not only protein, but also an essential mineral as well known as copper. A 1/4-cup of cashews provides about 80% of the Daily Value (DV) for copper. Copper supports immunity and aids the creation of red blood cells and connective tissue.

Pine nuts are glorified for their buttery texture, which comes from their high fat content. Although they have a lower protein content than most nuts, their fat content has excellent health benefits. The fat in pine nuts mostly comes from unsaturated fats, which help reduce risk factors for heart disease. One of the fatty acids in pine nuts may also exhibit anti-inflammatory effects and help prevent cancer from spreading.

Brazil nuts provide healthy fats, fiber, and an assortment of micronutrients. In fact, they are one of the best food sources of selenium, an essential mineral that supports thyroid health and protects the body from infection.

Peanuts have the highest protein content out of all commonly consumed nuts. Peanuts are also one of the best food sources of biotin, a vitamin that helps convert food into usable energy in the body.

Lastly, studies have also found that adding hazelnuts to your diet may help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease.

For lots more information about the nutritional value of nuts, check out this post on nut butters. 

Plant-based protein powder

Protein powders are a quick and convenient way to increase your protein intake. The protein in the protein powder is usually sourced from peas, sprouted navy beans, sprouted lentil beans, sprouted garbanzo beans, and cranberry seeds. In addition protein powder comes in many different flavors depending on the brand. However, you need to be careful of the protein powder you purchase because some contain harmful chemicals and genetically modified organisms(GMOs), which some people choose to avoid. One brand that is all natural and vegan is KOS Organic Protein Powder. Check out the link for more details. 

Plant-based burgers

Plant-based burgers have been created to compete with beef and poultry gram for gram. They are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. For example, impossible burgers have the same amount of zinc and vitamin B-12 as meat burgers contain

So, why is plant-based protein important?

As hinted above, we need to consistently consume protein in order to grow, maintain, and repair our tissues, hormones, and immune system. Furthermore, if you are fighting viral or bacterial illnesses, it is even more necessary to consume a sufficient amount of protein to boost the immune system. Eating a plant-based diet improves gut health so you can absorb the nutrients from food that support your immune system and reduce inflammation more efficiently.

In addition, plant-based protein foods contain dietary fiber, which is an indigestible carbohydrate. Fiber can be soluble or insoluble. Most fiber in fruits and vegetables is soluble fiber, which means it dissolves in water. Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar control. On the other hand, insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and can aid constipation. In addition, fiber can also increase feelings of fullness, which may help with weight control. In other words, be sure to get enough fiber! Some of the benefits of fiber are highlighted in this recent post on why fruits and vegetables are good for you.

Besides our own health, plant-based protein improves planetary health as well. With more investments in plant-based protein, there will be lower investments in meat and dairy protein sources. A lack of meat and dairy protein consumption will curb climate change by reducing greenhouse emissions. In addition, plant-based protein protects endangered species and other animals from going extinct, such as wild salmon. 

Lastly, according to recent studies diets that are more plant-based are linked to better health. A 2013 study published by Diabetes Care found that vegetarians have the lowest average body mass index (BMI) and meat eaters have the highest BMIs. A high BMI past a certain cutoff indicates obesity; obesity is associated with a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, diverticulitis, heart disease, and other illnesses.

Another study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine showed that vegetarian diets were associated with a 12% lower risk of death from stroke, cancer, and heart-disease. These benefits were especially prevalent in men. Furthermore, studies suggest vegetarians tend to have a lower body weight, lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure levels. Therefore, incorporation of plant-based protein into your diet will likely benefit your overall health. 

I would like to emphasize how eating a plant-based diet may help you lose weight. According to a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, 65 overweight adults who followed a whole-food, plant-based diet for one year lost 9.25 pounds on average. Whole grains and vegetables are relatively low on the glycemic index, which means they’re digested more slowly, and this likely played a role in the weight loss. In addition, fruit contains antioxidants and fiber, which helps prolong fullness, so people do not want to eat as often as usual. However, it’s important to note that weight-loss occurs because of a healthy, reduced caloric intake. Weight loss will not occur if you have caloric intake exceeding your needs. 

A plant-based diet not only strengthens your physical health, but also may have a favorable effect on mental health. As published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience,  eating an extra 100 grams of fruits and vegetables per day (about one-half cup) led to a 13 percent reduction in the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. This may be because fruits and vegetables are rich in polyphenols, which may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and help reverse cognitive decline. The authors note, however, that while the study supports the concept that the regular intake of fruit and vegetables is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, additional studies are needed to establish a causal relation. 

How Can I Incorporate Plant-Based Foods?

You’re probably thinking that moving to a plant-based diet sounds like a great idea, but you don’t know where to start. Here are some tips on how to get started, including how to incorporate plant-based protein:

1.) Eat lots of vegetables. Vegetables can be an easy snack and easily fill the volume up of your dinner plate and stomach!  

2.) Change the way you think about meat. Use smaller amounts of meat and replace it with other sources of plant-based protein.  

3.) Include whole grains for breakfast. Start the day off with a bowl of oatmeal or quinoa and add nut toppings of choice. 

4.) Go for greens. It’s easy to steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry leafy greens to preserve their flavor and nutrients.

5.) Choose good fats. Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados are healthy choices.

6.) Build a meal around a salad. Base your salad with leaves such as spinach or kale. Add vegetables and plant-based protein as toppings such as tofu, beans, quinoa, etc. 

7.) Eat fruit for dessert. A refreshing slice of watermelon or bite of an apple may satisfy your sugar craving more than you may think. 

You need to remember it may take time to adjust to new eating habits, and that’s perfectly ok! It is important to be realistic with yourself in order to achieve consistency. You can start slowly by incorporating “Meatless Mondays” or “Tofu Tuesdays.” Another method could be adding around 1,000 calories of whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables to your everyday meals. Starchy foods keep you full and satisfied, so you’ll naturally eat less of the animal products and processed foods that you are trying to avoid.

What are quick and easy plant-based snacks?

  • Carrots and hummus
  • Avocado and toast 
  • Apple and nut butter
  • Cucumber, tomato, and kalamata olives with balsamic vinaigrette   
  • Cashewmilk yogurt and berries 

I also know almost everyone has a little sweet tooth. Whether it’s with your morning coffee or late-night dessert craving, you will feel guilt free eating these chocolate chip cookies because they are made from natural and plant-based ingredients. This recipe uses no eggs, no grains, and no dairy. They also incorporate that wonderful source of plant-based protein mentioned above, almonds. Check these cookies out (@dadaeats). You will want to make this recipe on repeat! 

Questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!

2 thoughts on “What is plant-based protein?”

  1. Thank you for all this information! I can’t wait to make changes in my diet by. Eating plant based food. Is there any of your books I can get?

    Thanks a bunch for health tips!

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