Plant-Based Protein Foods
Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.
Protein is made from twenty-plus basic building blocks called amino acids. Because we don’t store amino acids, our bodies make them in two different ways: either from scratch or by modifying others. Nine amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—known as the essential amino acids, must come from food.
The National Academy of Medicine also sets a wide range for acceptable protein intake—anywhere from 10% to 35% of calories each day. Beyond that, there’s relatively little solid information on the ideal amount of protein in the diet or the healthiest target for calories contributed by protein.
In an analysis conducted at Harvard among more than 130,000 men and women who were followed for up to 32 years, the percentage of calories from total protein intake was not related to overall mortality or to specific causes of death.
It’s important to note that millions of people worldwide, especially young children, don’t get enough protein due to food insecurity. The effects of protein deficiency and malnutrition range in severity from growth failure and loss of muscle mass to decreased immunity, weakening of the heart and respiratory system, and death.
However, it’s uncommon for healthy adults in the U.S. and most other developed countries to have a deficiency, because there’s an abundance of plant and animal-based foods full of protein. In fact, many in the U.S. are consuming more than enough protein, especially from animal-based foods.
Available evidence indicates that it’s the source of protein (or, the protein “package”), rather than the amount of protein, that likely makes a difference for our health. You can explore the research related to each disease in the tabs below, but here’s the evidence-based takeaway: eating healthy protein sources like beans, nuts, fish, or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
When you hear the word “protein,” you likely think of a chicken breast or a hunk of steak. That makes sense — meat is one of the best sources of this macronutrient, according to the Heart Foundation. But it’s not the only source. In fact, it’s entirely possible to get the protein you need each day without eating meat like poultry, beef, and pork. “When done thoughtfully, individuals can meet their protein needs exclusively from plant-based sources,” says Nathalie Sessions, RD, of Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram of body weight. Multiply your weight in pounds (lb) by 0.36 — that’s how many grams of protein you should be getting each day at a minimum. Therefore, if you weigh 150 lb, you’d aim for 54 g of protein daily. To think of it another way, protein should make up between 10 and 35 percent of your daily calorie intake, says Shira Sussi, RDN, the founder of Shira Sussi Nutrition in Brooklyn, New York.
That’s not a difficult ask for most Americans. “We are not terribly worried about getting enough protein — most Americans are meeting or exceeding the recommended intake,” Sessions says. “In many cases that I’ve seen working with clients and patients, they are overdoing protein intake while also undergoing the recommended intakes of the nutrient-rich vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.”
In general, animal proteins are the most basic kind of protein found in plants, but they aren’t the only kind. Lamb is the most well-known meat that most people have eaten. It’s affordable meat that you can find in most supermarkets and butcher shops. Lamb has a good amount of protein per pound.
Another animal protein is black Angus. It’s quality meat that can be found in the supermarkets of the large western states, or in larger specialty stores. Beef is another source of animal protein. You can find it in the grocery store and butcher shops. Cattle have many other parts besides the skin, and this is one of them.
Defining the physical definition of protein is also somewhat contentious. People can eat non-essential amino acids in their diet. But when we eat meat and dairy products, our bodies break them down into essential amino acids, meaning these substances are essential for human health.
So, non-essential amino acids can be bought and sold, even if they aren’t essential. People with anabolic muscles or those looking for more muscle are the best (and only) buyers of food containing high levels of an essential amino acid, which is obtained when a protein is broken down into its essential parts. High protein diets are extremely effective in creating muscle gains, but not for sustained, lean muscle gains.
Meat-based protein (such as ground beef or chicken) is the most easily digested and contains the most calories (it’s also found in junk food, so you’re getting the most calories from it). Protein from plants is made either from animal or plant sources. For example, soybeans, soy flour, soy protein, soy milk, and so on.
You can eat these as foods, or use them as ingredients in other products. (Many other brands of plant-based protein are available.) You can also purchase protein powders that contain whey, tofu, and other plant-based protein. Soy protein is a good alternative to meat protein. Soybeans are high in essential amino acids (which can be found in meat and a number of other foods).
It may sound simple, but a plant-based protein source is the simplest way to get enough protein, and there are dozens of options available for human consumption, many of them different from animal-based protein. Beef is a good choice, but there are other great sources of animal protein as well.
Protein powder can provide the necessary nutrients without the meat, although brands such as Vega (sometimes marketed as a vegan diet) claim their products are lower in fat and calories, higher in vitamins and minerals, and free of saturated fat and cholesterol. Hemp foods, protein powder, and soy products are often touted as the highest protein food option because of their lower fat and calorie content.
Plant-Based Protein Foods
In particular, the soy protein found in many plant-based foods (like almond butter, hemp seeds, quinoa, and lentils) is a complete protein. The type of plant protein we want to consume is called a complete protein because it has all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts. But just like some things are better than others, plant-based proteins vary in their completeness and essential amino acid content.
How much protein do we need? A good protein balance is important for optimal health and muscle recovery. We need roughly 50 percent of our total daily calories to come from protein. Maintaining an optimum protein balance is an essential part of consuming a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Meat-based foods are some of the best sources of protein in the world. They provide the building blocks, which our bodies use to make the 21 amino acids. When it comes to meat, foods like meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy and plant-based sources like nuts and beans have approximately the same amount of protein.
However, plant-based sources are only about 25% of the calories we need, but they are a highly versatile, nutrient-dense food group, rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, and vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (antioxidants) that are hard for your body to make on its own. Some plant-based sources of protein are known as complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids.
Protein And The Body
Protein plays an important role in almost every biological function in the body, with researchers estimating that the majority of human proteins are involved in human development, including learning, memory, and information processing. Also, the human body is almost completely dependent on protein.
Each body cell contains a protein-saturated membrane, which protects the organ’s genetic material. So, in order to function, your body must have a good supply of food that’s rich in protein. Our brains need protein to keep them working properly. You also need protein in your diet for growth and repair. And you’ll also need protein to maintain lean body mass.
The body uses amino acids to build proteins. When it makes more protein than the body needs, it caches the excess in storage tubs called lysosomes. Lysosomes contain enzymes that break down and absorb the excess protein. A few small changes in the proteins can cause the lysosomes to release more or less protein into the blood.
Once they are in your blood, the excess proteins help your body turn stored carbohydrates (like fat) into glucose, your body’s primary fuel. Without enough protein, your body can’t make enough of the important fuels it needs. Fat—the only thing your body can’t make from scratch—is typically broken down to glucose. When your body breaks down your fats and glucose, it creates ketones. Ketones—also known as “bad” fat—are toxic to your body. Ketones damage your cells.
The Benefits Of Protein
What you eat, or don’t eat, determines how much protein you need. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, 1 gram a day, helps maintain and build muscle mass and helps you stay healthy, active, and alive. Nutritional labels show us the amounts of protein in our foods.
Do I need protein for muscle? Your muscles need protein to function. Protein has long been thought to be the fuel for muscle growth, but recent research on people in the final months of life found that the protein in the fluid around muscle cells is actually the fuel for their energy. The key to building muscle mass is getting enough protein in your diet.
Whether you’re active or retired, weight or muscle-toned, just eat a meat-based or plant-based diet, and your body will be healthier. What’s more, being protein-rich can prevent and even reverse the ageing process, and promote healthy longevity. In 2009, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics evaluated 57 types of diets for protein. Of those 57, only three were higher in protein than your average American. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those diets, however. In fact, the higher-protein diets ranked as better overall diets.
Why Eat Plant-Based Proteins?
The meat and dairy industries harvest animals to fatten them up and cut off their limbs. Why would we want to do that to ourselves? The most obvious benefit is that plant-based proteins contain the most essential amino acids. It is far more difficult to grow humans if we are deficient in any of our twenty-plus essential amino acids.
For this reason, plant-based protein is also a great way to prevent or ward off deficiencies. Plant protein also has significant health benefits. Avoiding meat and dairy is always going to be a challenge, as these foods are among our most basic and convenient food choices.
Since we cannot create the same amino acids on our own, they have been designated as essential amino acids. You can find the ones you need in food. Animal products don’t contain all the essential amino acids required by the body, and can therefore not be considered complete proteins.
You can, however, turn to plant-based protein foods for the key amino acids that the body cannot make on its own, such as leucine and lysine. On top of that, plant-based proteins are rich in dietary fiber and a variety of nutrients—such as essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and other beneficial components—that can contribute to disease prevention and overall good health.
Eating foods rich in protein every day—even if you’re eating foods like soy, fish, nuts, quinoa, or hemp seeds—helps to sustain your body, builds muscle, and helps you maintain a healthy weight. In fact, animals are designed to eat plants, not other animals. To stay at a healthy weight, and build muscle, eat at least 35 grams of protein per day.
Because your body can’t synthesize all the essential amino acids, your body must rely on protein from food to make many other essential amino acids for your muscles to function properly. Besides that, eating a variety of protein foods—even those without the extra nutrition content of animal sources— can boost your immunity and even help you feel full more quickly.
How Much Protein Should You Be Eating?
The government recommends adults eat 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. An adult male is 73 kilograms or 162 pounds. A person of similar weight is bound to need more protein than that. If you are trying to lose weight or lose belly fat, the government says to aim for 1.2-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
(The calculator doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat.) If you are a woman who weighs 130 pounds, for example, that’s 1.6 grams of protein per pound. However, the recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein has been calculated to be much higher in studies than it actually is.
The amount of protein you need depends on your age, gender, physical activity level, and general lifestyle. As a general guideline, adults should eat 1.0 to 1.4 grams per pound of bodyweight or 24 to 38 grams per day. (To be safe, you’ll want to stay away from processed foods—especially meat products, which often contain lots of extra protein—and to pay special attention to the types of protein in your food.)
What about the 200 grams of protein per day that manufacturers often add to food, right? If you count every single bite you take, you’ll end up getting too much. It’s actually the total amount of protein you eat—including proteins you don’t eat—that’s most important. It’s important to be aware of the different ways protein is made and used by your body.
Protein In Our Diets
There is plenty of protein in a variety of foods, but if it doesn’t come from food, what can it be? You might not know it, but milk, eggs, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, and most processed foods contain all eight essential amino acids. You can easily get enough protein to meet your needs with your daily diet.
Research suggests that many athletes and healthy adults do just fine meeting protein requirements by consuming foods high in lean meat, seafood, beans, nuts, and seeds, along with low-fat dairy products and nuts and seeds. We all need different types of protein, but the five most common and easiest to get are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
Protein gets you leaner and more powerful. Protein helps you perform all the basic muscle functions you need to do, such as lifting, moving, breathing, and thinking. Do you have a workout regimen? Do you work long hours? Do you have a job that requires a lot of sitting?
Protein builds your metabolism and helps you burn fat. It also provides the amino acids to produce protein-digesting enzymes. When these enzymes are active, they help break down proteins into amino acids that can then be used for energy or as building blocks for the body. If you don’t eat enough protein, your body stops producing enzymes to break down the proteins that you eat. This deficiency can result in loss of muscle and a higher risk of injury when lifting weights or doing other physical activity.
In the 21st century, Americans have been dining on a diet heavy in processed foods. This has left our bodies hungry for real food—but is this food providing the body with all of the essential amino acids it needs? Unfortunately, not many. The vegetarian diet is not enough to provide protein, especially as the American population becomes more overweight and obese.
Protein alternatives to plant-based foods have become popular recently. Chia seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B-6 and are the main ingredient in chia seed pudding. While eating one cup of dried chia seeds contains only five percent of the protein found in whole chia seeds, they do contain several other important nutrients like fiber, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Although the word “alternative” implies an inferior protein, most protein alternatives have just as much protein, if not more, than the protein in animal protein. Moreover, many of these protein alternatives contain more amino acids, less of each harmful carbohydrates, and even more essential fatty acids.
Protein alternatives from plant sources may be the healthiest alternative to animal protein available. They’re also the easiest and tastiest protein options for anyone to consume, as most contain no cholesterol, no saturated fat, and less sodium than animal protein.
Once you’ve had a taste of real food, you’ll never want the fake stuff again. With each meal, you’ll need fewer supplements. And as you eat better, you’ll need less medicine. Eating food and taking regular exercise make you healthier, but as you’re starting on your health journey, here are a few more tips to keep you going.
In the future, you’ll look forward to eating every meal as your heart heals from your colds and stews. And someday, when your doctor finally sees you and tells you you’re cancer-free, you won’t have to wait for your body to heal before eating and living well.
By now, you should see that science supports the idea of a meatless diet. Don’t be intimidated if you have had a difficult time making the switch. There are many foods that are so delicious and nutritious that a plant-based diet is a no-brainer. The best way to get your hands on the right foods is to visit an organic farmer’s market or explore the produce aisle at your local grocery store.
Remember that it takes approximately 10-14 days to produce enough energy in a plant to maintain a healthy, balanced, and functional diet. So, it might take a little time to get started, but it is totally worth it in the end. The lifestyle changes that you will experience and the food choices that you will make over the next few weeks will likely be life-changing.
I trust you enjoyed reading the article about Plant-Based Protein Foods. Please stay tuned. There are more blog posts to come very shortly.
Want To Learn How To Create Delicious, Cruelty-Free, Healthy AND 100% Vegan Meals? Try These Awesome Vegan Cooking Courses With A Free 7-DAY MEMBERSHIP
Your Opinion Is Important To Me
Ideas? Thoughts? Questions? I would love to hear from you. Would you please leave me your questions, experience, and remarks about this article on Plant-Based Protein Foods in the comments section below? You can also reach me by email at Jeannette@LivingTheVeganLifestyle.org.