What's the deal with the PLant-based ProteiN?

Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

Protein is a hot topic nowadays. It’s all around: protein shakes, protein bars, protein blends, etc. It became the ultimate king of nutrition. We are continuously told to base our meals around protein, that the rest comes as secondary. Some even demonize other macronutrients, such as carbs.

And when we think about protein, it’s meat that comes to mind first for the majority of the population. But is it really the best source of this important nutrient? Can it be that we pay too high of a price for following the status quo? Can plant-based protein compete with the animal sourced one?

Let’s dive a bit deeper to clarify this controversial topic.

What Is Protein?

Protein topic is among the top popular questions vegans are being asked regularly. Why is that? Apparently, it is a common belief that proteins are mainly derived from animal products, like their muscle tissue. The majority, though, fail to ask the following question: how does the protein end up in animal products?

Proteins, as we know, are building blocks for our body mass: muscles, bones, skin, blood, etc. Protein is essentially a string of amino acids. There are 21 amino acids that form protein in the body. Out of that 8 are essential. At this point, we lose the majority. It’s a wide-spread myth that essential amino acids are only derived from animal products. But essential doesn’t equal to animal-source. In fact, essential amino acids mean that the body cannot build them on its own, and those have to be taken in the form of food.

What's the Deal with the Plant Based Protein | Why it's worth having legumes for breakfast
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Why animal protein is considered to be superior

Protein from animal sources is commonly believed to be superior to plant-based protein. Why is that? There may be several reasons such a belief have evolved:

  1. Animal flesh is a source of processed protein from the plants that has all essential amino acids already combined.
  2. Thanks to the decades of advertising and brainwashing by the meat industry, the idea that meat is a superior source of nutrition became common sense.  We are led to believe that meat should be a central part of each meal, it’s ‘manly’ to eat lots of meat, that meat equals strong and masculine, that meat is healthy and we will die of malnutrition if we exclude it from the diet. We’ve been pressed to fear to challenge this point of view. To believe that eating meat is the unquestionable norm, a status quo.
  3. Our ancestors preferred concentrated sources of calories since their food intake was not predictable. Animal flesh was a source of such.  

But is a past track record a good enough reason to follow the status quo? Does the fact that cavemen ate animal flesh justify the suffering of billions of slaughtered animals and millions of human deaths each year?

Defining Veganism

Dark Side of animal protein

There may be a lot of protein that we are so much after in animal products. But it comes at a high price. Besides the obvious suffering of farmed animals, there are plenty of scientifically proven negative side-effects on our health.  Let’s take a look at just a few of those:

  • Animal products (both meat and dairy) are high in LDL cholesterol. This can result in atherosclerosis, a plaque buildup that can cause heart attack and stroke.
  • Most of the domesticated animals are fed with tons of antibiotics to prevent spreading disease while being emprisoned in tight spaces. Additionally, antibiotics have very welcomed for the industry side-effect: they cause animals to gain mass way faster than antibiotics-free animals. This abuse of pharmaceuticals has encouraged the evolution of new strains of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria. Constant exposure to the antibiotics found in animal products is shown to increase the risk of cancer, dementia, neurological problems and other diseases in humans.
  • Consumption of meat and dairy causes inflammation in the body: since 2015 WHO (World Health Organization) classifies red meat as carcinogenic to humans, it now is labeled in Group 1 along with tobacco and asbestos. This implies that the scientific evidence that these products are carcinogenic is the same. Other meats and dairy aren’t great for our intestinal flora either. A study found that gut microbiome alterations on a high-fat animal-based diet lead to chronic inflammation in humans.
  • Multiple trains of harmful bacteria for humans can be found in animal products: Salmonella and Campylobacter are the most frequent bacterias found in meat.
  • Animal products are high in fat, and fat is the nutrient highest in calories per gram. This may be one of the causes of obesity that poses a risk to the lives of millions of people each year.
  • When consuming animal products, you are likely to overload on protein. Since animal protein is high in amino acids that are causing state of acidity, the body responds with release of calcium from the bones. In the long term, this may result in a higher risk of osteoporosis.
If you are wondering, why is that these side-effects aren’t commonly known, just consider if the multi-billion dollar industry would be happy to make this information public.
 
There is plenty of controversial information out there that aim to make us doubt if the animals are really suffering, meat is really that bad and plants are really that healthy. And as we know from history, questioning the negative impact is a good enough strategy to keep the status quo.

Sources of Plant-Based Protein

Protein-Packed Vegan Jacket Potato with Black beans
Protein-Packed Jacket Potatoes
If animal products have such a negative impact on our health, where should we get the protein then? As surprising as it may sound, plants actually have protein. However, the amounts per portion vary widely. Some plants have higher protein content, like legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, chickpeas) whereas others are way lower in protein and carry more of other nutrients.
 

Contrary to the common belief, essential amino acids are found in all plants. Some plant foods are very balanced in the essential amino acids profile, others may lack one or two. This can be easily solved by combining different types of foods throughout the day. For example, combining grains and legumes will often result in a complete protein profile. But you do not have to combine those foods in the same meal – it’s enough if foods with various amino acids are present in the diet in the same day.

As per the position of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals):

“The terms complete and incomplete are misleading in relation to plant protein. Protein from a variety of plant foods, eaten during the course of a day, supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids when caloric requirements are met.”

Protein-Packed Vegan Chocolate Fudge Cake
Protein-Packed Vegan Chocolate Fudge Cake

The recommended daily allowance of dietary protein is 0.8g per each kilo of body mass. This amount is considered optimal by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, World Health Organization, United Nations University and others. Many experts note that the body’s real needs are even lower for most people, with the probable exception of pregnant or nursing women. 

“Vegetarian, including vegan, diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes, when caloric intakes are adequate.”

― Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Protein Content​ in Plant Foods

As already mentioned, all plant foods carry protein in varying quantities. Pulses, or legumes, are leading the list of plant-based protein sources, but we provide the list of other plant-based foods that can contribute to your total daily intake.

1. Pulses (legumes): Soybeans and the whole soy products (like tempeh, tofu, edamame beans, and soy milk) are among the highest plant-protein sources with a very balanced essential amino-acids profile. The rest of the pulses are also on the top of protein-rich plant foods.

Plant-Based Protein Sources: Legumes

 2. Nuts are another group of plants that are high in protein. However, they are also high  in fat, therefore should be consumed in a limited amount. Advised serving size is 1/4 cup, once daily.

Plant-Based Protein Sources: Nuts

3.Whole Grains are a great source of complex carbs, but some of them are also rich in plant-based protein. Especially those of the so-called pseudocereals that are technically seeds, but are prepared and consumed just like grains. Pseudocereals include amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, among others.

Plant-Based Protein Sources: Grains

4. Seeds are just like nuts, high in fat and should be consumed in a limited amount. Serving size is 1/4 cup daily of either seeds or nuts.

Plant-Based Protein Sources: Seeds

5. Vegetables

Veggies have a lower protein content in comparison with the other plant groups. However, protein in veggies adds up to the total amount of intake when combined with the other plant food groups.
Plant-Based Protein Sources: Vegetables

To make the most of your plant-based diet and roughly understand how to balance your meals, check out our plate method recommendation:

To learn more about the plant-based diet and how to get the most benefits out of your meals daily, check out our guide: PLANT-BASED DIET FOR BEGINNERS: WHAT TO EXPECT?

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