Protein has gotten a lot of attention over the years, and most recently, there has been a lot of conversation around plant-based proteins. According to New Nutrition Business demand for plant proteins grew by 20% in both 2018 and 2019.The great news is you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to be plant based, the benefits to incorporating more plant-based proteins can be beneficial for everyone!
When considering a plant-based approach towards protein, the possibilities these days seem to be endless. Alternative sources of plant-based proteins include pea, soy, hemp, nut and seed, quinoa, rice, oat and even potato proteins.
There is a great deal of debate around the ability of the body to actually receive all essential amino acids through plant-based sources of protein, but first let’s take a step back and break down the differences between essential and non-essential proteins.
There are 20 types of amino acids that the human body uses to build proteins (the building blocks of basically everything. Amino acids are defined as either essential or non-essential. Our bodies cannot make essential amino acids, meaning they are “essential” for our health, yet we cannot create them on our own and must get them from the diet (or supplements). Non-essential amino acids, on the other hand, can be created by our bodies from other amino acids, so we don’t need to get them from our diets. Animal protein sources are generally considered complete amino acids, while many plant-based proteins tend to be lower in some of these essential amino acids. The good news is you can combine non-essential amino acids together from various plant proteins (kind of like putting together a puzzle) to create complete sources of protein, which will give you your essential amino acids! Extra credit points for plant foods such as quinoa, buckwheat, hemp and soy, which actually contain all 9 of the essential acids, making them a complete protein source!
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2016) states that protein from a variety of plant foods, eaten during the course of a day, can supply enough of all essential (indispensable) amino acids when calorie requirements are met. This is why it is important to have a combination of different sources of plant proteins in the diet.
Plant based proteins can provide a host of benefits to the body, including supporting cardiovascular health, providing antioxidants and providing greater nutrient density including fiber, B Vitamins and minerals. Various studies have found that implementing plant protein into the diet can improve several markers of blood health, such as blood glucose levels and C-reactive protein levels (a marker of inflammation). Various phytonutrients found in plant proteins have also been associated with a reduce risk of certain cancers. Plant based foods are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which can support energy production and GI tract health.
You don’t necessarily need to go full on vegetarian to receive the benefits of incorporating more plant-based eating in general. Believe it or not. you can still eat meat while having a plant-based diet, in fact, this could look like incorporating more legumes, beans, grains, nut and seeds, as well as fruits, vegetables and of course plant based protein balls!
By Brianna Diorio, M.S., FDN-P