The Plant Protein Debate Never Seems to Go Away


legumesAdopting a plant-based diet can give you a lot of health benefits. However, you would also encounter a lot of questions especially when it comes to protein deficiency. After all, people have been taught that the best source of protein is animal meat. With this in mind, there will still be doubts about the plant protein that one will get from veggie diets.

One of the biggest concerns about plant protein is their “completeness.” Complete protein refers to high amounts of amino acids in foods. While there are 20 different amino acids that work together to convert protein, nine of those are not produced by the body on its own. These are termed essential amino acids and the body needs to consume them for protein conversion. Thus, for a food to be considered a complete protein source, it should contain all the nine essential amino acids.

Although meat and other animal products are considered complete and plant sources aren’t, there is a continuing misconception that you should consume all of those essential amino acids in every food that you eat, every single time. However, our body does not necessarily need all of it in one go. As long as you supply your body with sufficient amounts of each of the essential amino acids daily, you will still thrive. That said, plant-based diets are composed of foods which contain varied amounts of different amino acids.

While it is true that your body requires protein, it does not mean that you need to consume insanely high amounts of it. For one thing, the human body already has its own supply of protein. Secondly, consuming protein in excess can even be detrimental to your health. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Recommended Daily Allowance, the daily protein requirement is 0.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. However, most people fill in their daily caloric intake with almost 20 to 30 percent of protein. If you are a female weighing 130 pounds, your recommended protein intake is at 47 grams a day. If you are a male weighing 170 pounds, your recommended protein intake is at 62 grams. Taking into account the average daily calorie intake of 1800 for females and 2500 calories for male, and the typical percentage of protein consumption in a daily diet, you are more or less consuming around 90 to 135 grams of protein (for females) and 125 to 188 grams of protein (for males). These figures are almost twice or thrice the recommended amount set by the USDA.

The majority of those who consume high amounts of protein get it from meat sources. Consuming protein from animal products also means that you are taking in high amounts of dietary cholesterol, saturated fat and fat while consuming lower levels of fiber and other health-protective nutrients. According to the Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism of the American Heart Association, high protein diets are not generally recommended. For one, its skews the dietary requirements and limits other essential nutrients for consumption. With lesser food variety, the body is not adequately supplied with its other nutritional requirements. Furthermore, high protein diets compromise the intake of essential vitamins and mineral. Excess protein is also retained in the kidney and could potentially develop into chronic illnesses including gout, cardiovascular diseases, liver abnormalities, bone abnormalities and more.

In August of 2016, results of a study were published in JAMA Internal Medicine.  In this study,  researchers followed over 130,000 health care professionals with regard to the type of protein they consumed (plant or animal) and numerous health outcomes, including overall mortality. Their results clearly suggested a reduced mortality rate among participants who substituted plant protein for animal protein in their diets. This was particularly apparent when they avoided red meats.

For so long, animals have been considered as the best source of protein because they already contain the complete protein that the body needs and that their amino acids are structured in a way that the human body can easily utilize. However, when the body digests protein, it will still be broken down into constituents of amino acid, which is then transported through the blood and distributed to the entire body to maintain the function of all system. When the body requires a protein for repair of muscle tissues or for the production of an enzyme, it will then start collecting the amino acids in the body to create a sequence appropriate for the requirement. The human body works in that way, regardless if you are eating meat or plants.

By eating a wide range of plant foods, you can effortlessly consume all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Compared to animal sources, plant foods contain higher amounts of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. All of these components are essential in keeping your body healthy and help it in preventing the onset of chronic illnesses. Plant foods such as pumpkin seeds, brown rice, buckwheat and cashews also contain branched chain amino acids or BCAAs which your body needs for building lean muscles. This diminishes the misconception that you can’t build muscles if you are a vegan or a vegetarian.

There are many excellent sources of plant protein.  Quinoa is one of those plant foods considered to be a great source of complete protein. It contains nine grams per one cup of cooked quinoa. Aside from protein, it is full of fiber, magnesium, iron, and manganese. It is a very versatile food item and you can use it as a base for your morning meals, for muffins, and even as a substitute for rice.  Another great plant protein is buckwheat.  This gluten-free rhubarb contains 11 grams of protein in every half cup of cooked buckwheat. Buckwheat is the base for soba noodles. It is also a great alternative to rice. Consuming buckwheat can also help in lowering blood cholesterol, manage blood sugar and improving your blood circulation.

Chia seeds are a superfood that packs three grams of protein per tablespoon. They also have high amounts of fiber and can hold ten times of their weight when soaked in water. Eating chia keeps you fuller faster and longer.  Another star in the plant protein line up is lentils. One cup of cooked lentils will provide you with 18 grams of protein. They are easy to cook and can be paired off with brown rice, which contains eight grams of protein per cooked cup. That’s 26 grams of protein all in one meal.

Finally, a discussion of plant protein must also include soy.  This is a source of complete protein and is often used in plant-based diets. Tempeh, natto, and tofu are some of the soy-based products that you can incorporate into your meals.  It is important to pick certified organic varieties to avoid GMO soy. When shopping for tofu, pick the harder ones, as these contain more protein. A half cup of firm tofu contains ten grams of protein, while both tempeh and natto contain 15 grams of protein per half cup of serving.  Many people also enjoy munching on steamed edamame which is natural soybeans.

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Thriving on Plants is a resource for a whole food, plant-based way of eating and living. Here we celebrate all things plant and honor the power of informed awareness and a diet focused primarily of unprocessed vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains to support good health and happiness. Discover what a little more plant can do for your life!


This website is for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing presented here should be construed as a substitute for medical advice. Before beginning any type of new diet (natural or conventional), it is advisable to seek the advice of a licensed physician, nutritionist and/or healthcare professional.
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