With 2016 behind us, many are looking ahead to 2017. We want to know what’s coming. What’s the next big “it” workout or wellness promoting food we’ll all be clamoring for in the coming year? According to the Washington Post, one macronutrient will continue to shine: protein. But, this time, with a twist. Plant protein is expected to take center stage in the coming year.
While plant protein is nothing new, the attention it’s receiving as we move into the new year certainly is. You can expect to see companies and chefs incorporating it in novel ways.
Whether you’re looking for a more environmentally friendly way to meet your protein needs, could use some variety in your diet, or want to get in on the health benefits of plant-based protein sources, this article will give you the info you need.
Plant Protein vs Animal Protein
Typically when someone thinks of protein-rich foods, the first things to comes to their mind are animal sources like chicken, beef, eggs, dairy, fish, and pork. Maybe even protein powders. Plant-based choices may eventually cross their mind, but not initially. And usually their uncertain if plant protein is as good of a choice as animal protein.
For some reason, plant protein sources have a reputation as being inferior to animal sources. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. All protein are made up of amino acids. And whether the protein is from a plant or an animal source, our digestive system breaks the protein down into amino acids. It’s those amino acids your body makes use of for many of its functions Without them, muscle repair, hormone synthesis, and cellular function would completely falter.
Perhaps the reason plant sources of amino acids haven’t always received the same level of attention and prestige as animal sources is the pesky and hard to shake idea that plant proteins have to be combined at all meals. It’s time to shed some light on the antiquated (and incorrect) complementary protein theory.
The Truth About Complementary Proteins and Protein Combining
Complementary proteins, or protein combining, is the idea that plant sources of protein are incomplete. They are said to be incomplete because they’re missing or low in one or more of the essential amino acids.
So based on the “incompleteness” of the amino acid profile of most plant-based food, scientists and nutrition experts decided these plant-based foods would need to be combined. Grains with legumes. Legumes with seeds or nuts. At every single meal. If people didn’t eat them in these combos, they were warned, they would eventually end up with a deficiency in one or many of the amino acids.
Thank goodness they were wrong. How complicated would that be?
First, while most plant sources of protein are low (but not completely devoid) in one or more essential amino acids, some are not. Here are some of the complete plant proteins that do exist:
- spirulina and other edible seaweed
These three choices provide all the essential amino acids in decent amounts. So definitely no combining needed with these three.
Second, and maybe even more importantly, you don’t need to combine grains with legumes, seeds with legumes, or eat animal sources of protein at every meal to meet your daily needs. As long as you eat a variety of healthful foods throughout the day, that meet your caloric needs and protein needs, you’ll meet your amino acid needs. It’s only when you completely avoid high protein choices from multiple food groups that you’re in danger of developing a deficiency.
One reason plant protein is getting more attention is producing it is far less taxing on the environment than producing poultry, seafood, or meat.
Carbon emissions have been a concern of environmentalists for quite some time now. Their detrimental effect on the environment is something, rightfully so, many of us are growing more aware of and concerned about.
People are curious about what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint. If you’re one of them, switching out animal-based protein for plant-based for at least a couple of meals per week is one way you can lower your impact.
The carbon produced from farming and processing of all sorts of plant-based foods is lower than that of just about every form of animal-based food.
The positive effect of plant-based foods goes beyond how little environmental damage is incurred during their production compared to animal-based foods. They also actively benefit the health of the soil.
Legumes, through their symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, release nitrogen. Most of the nitrogen the legume plants use for their own needs, but some of it is released into the soil. This free nitrogen is then available for other crops. Which increases the yield of those crops and makes them more nutrient dense.
When it comes to getting the biggest bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with choosing plant sources of protein . You could buy a lot more beans, peas, or lentils for the same amount of money you would spend on poultry, seafood, or meat. They can even be added to meat dishes to stretch them. An extra helping of beans adds nutrients, texture, and flavor to a bowl of beef chili, while also making it possible to use less (more expensive) meat in the recipe.
Aside from keeping our earth healthy, plant proteins can also keep your body healthy.
Since nutrients don’t exist in isolation in natural, unprocessed, whole foods, you can’t eat a plant-based protein rich food and expect to only get protein from it. You also get loads of other health promoting nutrients. For instance, quinoa also boasts ample amounts of fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and manganese . Each of which benefits your well-being in a multitude of ways. And quinoa is certainly not the only high-protein plant food packing a wide range of nutrients.
Diets rich in plant-based protein seem to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). A diet that gets a larger proportion of its protein from plant sources than animal sources, is related to a lower risk of CVD. Now, we have to remember this doesn’t mean it’s the protein from plant sources of protein the are having the positive effect all on their own. It’s likely that the other nutrients in those foods are also protective against heart disease.
Plant sources of protein may also have a positive effect on your reproductive health. Chavarro, et al, found the more plant-based protein a woman had in her diet, the less likely she was to experience anovulatory infertility. Plant-based protein sources, in part, because they tend to be great sources of iron and folate, are great choices if you’re looking to optimize your fertility.
Additionally, low-carbohydrate diets that are high in protein and fat from plant sources are associated with a reduced risk of developing gestational diabetes. And replacing animal protein with plant protein seems to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes.
Top 40 Protein Rich Plant Foods
If you’d like to add more plant proteins to your diet, starting with the foods below is a great idea. Below, you’ll find 40 high protein plant-based foods.
- whole mature soybeans
- mung beans
- white beans
- green peas
- red kidney beans
- navy beans
- pigeon peas
- pink beans
- black beans
- yellow beans
- lima beans
- pinto beans
- chickpeas, perhaps you know them as garbanzo beans or bengal gram
- great northern beans
- broad beans, also known as fava beans
- adzuki beans
- pumpkin seeds
- french beans
- sunflower seeds
- sesame seeds
- brazil nuts
- hazelnuts, also called filberts
Ways to Incorporate More Plant Protein Into Your Daily Diet
- Trade out your beef hamburger patty for a lentil burger
- Top your toast and eggs with beans
- Add beans to a salad
- Toss chickpeas into your spaghetti sauce
- Blend a vegan protein powder into your morning smoothie
- Fill a baked potato with black beans along with other toppings
- Dip chips or cut vegetables in hummus
- Mix lentils into your rice dishes
- Try a lentil or quinoa cracker in place of the usual wheat option
- Snack on nuts or seed or add them your morning bowl of oats
- Soak cashews overnight, then blend them into tomato, split pea, or pumpkin soup for some plant-based creaminess
- Order seaweed soup the next time you go out for asian food
- Snack on seaweed sheets in place of chips or crackers
- Head to a vegan or vegetarian restaurant for a change
- Opt for beans or lentils as a side in place of mashed potatoes
This article is by no means meant to deter you from eating animal protein. All foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. And many animal-based protein sources are full of their own unique set of nutrients for optimal health and wellness. Mixing plant-based protein options into your usual diet, whether in place of or alongside animal-based protein, supplies your body with a variety of nutrients. And when it comes to healthy eating, variety is key.
Consider adding more plant-based protein options into your diet in the coming new year for health benefits, to save money, and to do your part to keep our planet healthy.
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Amanda is a gym instructor and a diet and nutrition fanatic that has reviewed 100s of supplements for the benefit of consumers. She struggled with obesity 7 years ago and after losing more than 30lbs, dedicates most of her time in helping others achieve similar results and transform their lives.