Protein in the Plant-Based World - dummies

Protein in the Plant-Based World

By Marni Wasserman

Protein. You eat a lot of it so you can get big muscles, right? But wait, can you only get enough protein if you eat meat? Most people think they understand protein and that it’s pretty straightforward. The truth is, there’s a lot more to know about this macronutrient than you may realize.

Protein is the major building block the body uses to produce things like muscle, hair, and nails and help with growth and regeneration of tissue. Not to mention, it’s essential to pretty much all major functions of the body. Without it, bodies would totally break down.

There are two types of proteins: complete and incomplete. To be considered complete, a protein must comprise all 22 amino acids, including the 8 essential amino acids (amino acids that your body can’t produce and that you must get from your diet).

It’s important that you eat complete proteins; otherwise, you may experience edema; anemia; depression; poor immunity; muscle wasting; hair that is dull, loose, or falling out; low vitamin A levels; cataracts; and more.

Proteins that are low in some essential amino acids are considered incomplete. But the good news is that if you eat a variety of incomplete plant-protein foods together, they act as a complete protein — for example, brown rice and chickpeas or almond butter on toast.

Even better news is that these foods don’t have to be eaten in the same day — the body has an amino-acid bank that accumulates over a couple of days, after which it combines and assembles the single amino acids to make complete proteins.

Understanding what a healthy body requires

As the World Health Organization has researched this topic, it has discovered that you need less protein than previously thought. In general, a healthy body requires at least three to four servings of plant-based protein a day. This works out to a range of about 20 to 60 grams a day.

You don’t have to go too crazy trying to measure everything out; the type and combination of protein you consume is far more important than the quantity.

Not all proteins are created equal! Good proteins are easier for your body to break down and absorb, while bad proteins, such as processed, synthetic, or cooked animal proteins (in which the amino acids have been broken down), are more difficult for your body to absorb.

The good news is that when you eat a plant-based diet, the odds of your protein falling into the “good” category are much higher than when you eat an animal-based diet.

Examining plant proteins

Plant protein is fraught with benefits: It’s relatively alkaline-forming compared to animal protein (meaning it has a nourishing effect on blood), low in fat, free of growth hormones, easy to digest, and better for the environment. And despite common misconceptions, the plant world offers plenty of sources of protein.

In fact, complete plant-based proteins are found in foods like quinoas, hemp, chlorella, and soybeans. Truth be told, many plant-based proteins are pretty complete, so as long as you eat a variety of them, you get what your body requires.

Here are some sources of plant-based protein:

  • Beans: Fresh or canned organic beans, green and yellow split peas, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, navy beans, white beans

  • Butters: Almond, pumpkin, cashew, sunflower

  • Greens: Chlorella, spirulina, blue-green algae, kale, chard

  • Nuts: Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts

  • Protein powders: Hemp, pea, brown rice

  • Seeds: Tahini, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, flax, chia, quinoa, amaranth

  • Soy: Sprouted tofu, tempeh, edamame

  • Sprouts: Mung bean, adzuki, pea, sunflower, lentil

Some particularly protein-packed plant foods include spinach, which is 51 percent protein; mushrooms, weighing in at 35 percent; beans, which are 26 percent protein; and oatmeal, which is at 16 percent.