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Learn how to get plant protein in your diet for maximal health and environmental benefits with this easy guide on vegan protein basics, including swaps, tips, and more.
More and more people are putting plant proteins—beans, lentils, peas, soyfoods, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—at the center of the plate. According to research conducted by Midan Marketing and MeatingPlace, 70 percent of meat eaters in the U.S. are substituting a non-protein meal at least once a week, and 22 percent say they are doing it more often than a year ago. Why are plants soaring? Health benefits and environmental benefits are at the top of the list of reasons why consumers, from vegetarians to omnivores, are swapping out animal proteins for plant proteins in the diet.
Health Benefits in Plant Proteins
Research has linked plant-based diets with lower risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Sherene Chou, MS, RD, a sustainable food and nutrition consultant, says, “Plant foods are associated with a lower risk of disease because plants contain more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and are rich in fiber.” In fact, a Harvard study found that people who increased their red meat intake by about 3.5 servings more per week raised their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 50 percent, while those who reduced their red meat intake lowered their type 2 diabetes risk by 14 percent.
Better for the Planet
Studies consistently show that plant-based diets are better for the environment. Diets high in meat increase greenhouse gas emissions from food production and global land clearing, as well as rate of species extinction, according to research. In fact, data from Loma Linda University found that you could significantly reduce your carbon footprint by reducing animal foods in the diet: semi-vegetarians had a 20 percent lower carbon footprint than non-vegetarians, and pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) were 24 percent lower, vegetarians were 28 percent lower, and vegans were 42 percent lower.
Proteins are made of chains of amino acids; nine are essential, meaning they must be included in the diet: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Proteins in the human body exist in consistent amounts of the essential amino acids—these levels may also be found in soy products and animal foods and are considered “complete” or “high-quality,” compared with other plant protein sources, which may have a lower percentage of at least one amino acid.
Plant Protein Quality
All plant foods contain at least some of every essential amino acid, but in general, legumes are lower in methionine and most other plant foods are lower in lysine. As long as you consume a variety of plant foods throughout the day—even if you are exclusively vegan—you can get an adequate amount of amino acids. Chou says, “You do not need to purposefully ‘combine’ foods during each meal to make them ‘complete’ because your body can store essential amino acids. It is critical to eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day for your caloric needs, and to include high-quality plant proteins at each meal.”
Plant Protein Strategies
Include high-protein foods (see Plant Protein Food Sources) in each plant-based meal in order to feel satisfied, suggests Jack Norris, RD, plant-based expert and co-author of Vegan for Life. He adds, “Simply removing animal products from your diet is going to leave you with mostly low-calorie foods, such as salads, vegetables, and fruit. Eating only these foods could quickly leave you feeling hungry and weak.”
Plant-Based Meal Options
While a couple of decades ago, you might have been hard pressed to find tofu, veggie burgers, or plant-based milk in mainstream supermarkets or restaurants, now they are everywhere. Most supermarkets have plant-based sections, and restaurants are offering more options, including Taco Bell (which has a “Vegetarian Certified” menu), Wendy’s, Chipotle, and TGIF. The best plant proteins come from whole, nutrient-rich foods, such as pulses (beans), soy foods (tofu, tempeh), nuts, and seeds.