Plant Protein: Exploring the Best Options

Nowadays, more and more people are turning toward plant-based diets. Even those who do not wish to become vegetarian or vegan are becoming aware that eating less meat can be beneficial.

Therefore, there has been a rapid rise in the flexitarian movement, basing one’s diet on plant foods, with occasional meat, fish, or poultry.

Some people may be concerned about meeting their daily protein needs while consuming fewer animal products. Fortunately, these concerns are usually unwarranted. With a little knowledge and attention to meal planning, it is perfectly possible to consume adequate levels of plant protein.

What Is Plant Protein?

Plant protein is simply a source of protein that comes from plant-based food. Many plant foods, including grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, contain protein. However, some people believe it is challenging to meet one’s daily requirements while eating a plant-based diet.

It is indeed essential to consume plenty of protein to maintain health. The amount that an individual needs depends upon their body weight. The recommended intake is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight (or 7g per 20lb). That means that an adult weighing 140lb will require approximately 50g of protein each day.

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Another recommendation is that one’s protein intake constitutes around 10–35% of their daily calories. Research has shown that most vegans, who consume no animal products, have a protein intake that makes up 13–14% of their daily calories. While this figure may be at the lower end of the scale, it is still adequate.

Therefore, following a plant-based diet is certainly viable in terms of protein consumption.

However, there are a few caveats. For example, it is not only important to consume enough protein each day. The quality of the protein counts too. 

Plant-Based Protein: Pros and Cons

One advantage that animal products have over plant-based foods is that they are a source of complete protein. What this means is that they contain all nine essential amino acids.

Plant protein also contains these amino acids, although some exist at suboptimal levels. These are known as the food’s limiting amino acids.

In grains, the limiting amino acid is usually lysine. Meanwhile, in legumes, it tends to be the sulfur-containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine.

For this reason, it is necessary to consume a variety of plant protein sources throughout the day. Doing so will ensure that an individual consumes the full range of essential amino acids.

Another issue is digestibility. Plant foods often contain compounds that bind with proteins making them more difficult to digest. Fortunately, there are ways to improve plant protein digestibility, as we will discuss in detail later.

Plant protein also has some significant advantages over animal products. Nutritional scientists now recommend that consumers pay attention to the “protein package” of their foods.

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For example, plant-based foods tend to be lower in saturated fat than meat. They are also rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds. As a result, researchers believe that plant-based diets could help control body weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Eating less meat could also help the planet. It requires approximately 6kg of plant-based feed to produce just 1kg of animal protein, thus stretching resources like water and land.

The meat industry is also responsible for a high proportion of carbon emissions. According to the United Nations University, one serving of meat produces the same emissions as twenty servings of vegetables!

Finally, plant protein is far more affordable than meat, making it available to most people, even those with tight budgets. 

Plant-Based Protein Sources

As we already mentioned, there are several good plant protein sources. Grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds all contain decent amounts of protein. A growing number of companies are also extracting protein from these foods to manufacture plant-based meat alternatives.

Plant-based meat alternatives tend to have a higher amount of protein per serving than unprocessed grains and pulses.

These products tend to have a higher amount of protein per serving than unprocessed grains and pulses. However, they may not always be as healthy as they seem. Learn more by reading our related article: Is Fake Meat Healthy? Exploring the Science.

Finally, many people use protein powder to supplement their dietary intake. It is especially popular among athletes and those wishing to gain muscle mass.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the best plant-based protein foods and products. 

High-Protein Plant-Based Foods

Not all high-protein plant foods are equal in terms of their nutritional profiles. Here are some of our favorite options and how they compare: 

Soy

Soy is highly ranked among plant foods as it is considered a complete protein source, containing all nine essential amino acids. It comes in a vast array of forms, from edamame beans to products like tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. Soybean oil and margarine are also widely available.

Soy contains a relatively large quantity of protein. For example, tofu has a generous 9g per 100g serving. It is also packed with calcium, potassium, and compounds called isoflavones.

In the past, isoflavones have received some bad press due to their possible estrogenic effects. However, there is currently no evidence that they are harmful, and it even seems that they may have protective properties. That said, people with estrogen-sensitive conditions may wish to consult a physician before significantly increasing their soy intake.

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One downside is that soy is among the most common allergens in the United States. However, soy allergies are far less common than dairy allergies, meaning it is still a useful milk substitute.

While consuming soy is safe for most people without allergies, people who take levothyroxine should exercise caution. Soy can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb this medicine, meaning that the two should not be consumed together. Leaving a few hours between taking levothyroxine and eating soy should be sufficient.

Lentils

All pulses are good protein sources, but we love lentils for their versatility. They can add texture to soups and stews or replace minced beef in chili and Bolognese sauces. Their earthy flavor also blends perfectly with warm spices in the traditional South Asian dish, dal.

Lentils have a similar protein content to soy, with around 9g per 100g serving. They are also rich in dietary fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, and vitamin C.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are technically fungi rather than plants. However, they make our list as they contain more protein than most vegetables, with just over 3g per 100g serving. They are also a common ingredient in meat substitutes.

Furthermore, mushrooms are one of the best vegetarian sources of vitamin D. They also contain beneficial compounds called beta-glucan polysaccharides that can benefit immunity, gut health, and more.

Plant Protein Supplements

Protein powders are popular among recreational and professional athletes. They are thought to aid muscle growth and recovery.

Plant-based protein supplements are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to whey powder. 

Whey protein is a popular choice as it contains high quantities of leucine. This amino acid is one of the most important for building muscle. Unfortunately, though, whey protein is unsuitable for vegans and people with dairy allergies or intolerances. Therefore, plant-based alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. 

Pea Protein

Pea protein is one of the richest plant-based sources of leucine. It contains 8.4g per 100g, almost equivalent to the 8.8g in 100g of whey powder. It also contains comparable amounts of the other branched-chain amino acids, isoleucine and valine.

Therefore, pea protein is one of the most common additions to plant-based protein powders. A 2019 study found that it produced similar results to whey powder following eight weeks of high-intensity functional training. 

Brown Rice Protein

Brown rice protein is another common ingredient. It has one of the best amino acid profiles among the plant-based sources and similar leucine levels to pea protein. Furthermore, compared to pea protein, it contains slightly more isoleucine and valine. 

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is another option that is gaining popularity. It comes from hemp seeds, which are approximately 20–25% protein. Hemp protein is relatively easy to digest and rich in amino acids, although it has less leucine than pea or brown rice.

Hemp is also rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making it a fantastic choice. 

Tips for a Healthy, High Protein Plant-Based Diet

There are some general guidelines to follow when cutting down one’s meat consumption or planning a high-protein vegan diet.

Firstly, it is essential to eat enough protein at each meal. As a general rule, a quarter cup of beans is equivalent to one egg or a 1oz serving of meat. Individuals can bear this figure in mind when replacing animal products with plant-based foods.

It is also necessary to eat various protein sources to get the full range of essential amino acids.

Fortunately, this is easy to achieve, providing one eats several types of plant protein throughout the day.

It is no coincidence that many traditional staple foods combine a grain with a legume. For instance, many cultures around the world consume some variation on rice and beans.

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However, although it is convenient, it is not necessary to combine proteins in the same meal. Eating two protein sources within a few hours of one another is also effective. Therefore, as well as combining proteins at mealtimes, it can be beneficial to snack on plant-based protein sources.

Nuts and seeds make fantastic high-protein snacks. For example, 100g of raw peanuts contains a respectable 25g of protein. That means that a 1oz serving contains around 7g.

Finally, it is possible to improve the digestibility of plant-based protein by soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains and legumes. Processing them in this way reduces the concentration of compounds that inhibit the absorption of protein and other nutrients.

It should also be noted that plant-based diets are not automatically beneficial. It is still essential to follow general healthy eating guidelines, including increasing vegetable consumption and reducing sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. 

Summary on Plant-Based Protein

There are plenty of plant protein sources, which is excellent news for anyone trying to cut down their meat consumption.

Foods like grains and legumes are versatile, affordable, and tasty. They have the bonus of being high-fiber, low-fat, and packed with valuable nutrients.

It is essential to eat a variety throughout the day to ensure adequate amino acid intake. But with a bit of imagination and prior planning, it is possible to eat a healthy, high-protein plant-based diet.

What are your favorite high-protein plant-based meals? Let us know in the comments.

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