Plant Protein: Breaking It Down

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We’re interrupting our regularly scheduled counting macros chat to talk - protein.

Plant protein.

Let’s start here. Think back ten years ago. Did you know a vegan? Good chance you didn’t.

Now think about today: five bucks says you know at least a couple of vegans.

Today, veganism, which is a diet that consists of no animal products, and vegetarianism, which consists of not eating meat, is on the rise. In just three short years (we’re talking 2014-2017), people identifying as vegan increased by 600% in the United States. Worldwide interest in veganism has been on the incline, too.

Eating plant-based is no longer an obscure dietary plan, but, rather, is becoming more and more mainstream. Just check out the restaurants popping up in cities and the plant-based options flooding grocery stores.

Suffice it to say, people are increasingly opting out of meat.

But, if we’re not eating meat, where do we get our protein?

Well, the short answer is plants. But, this is a blog, not Twitter, so we’ll give you more than the short answer.

First, let’s understand proteins. Around 20% of our bodies are made up of protein. It’s crucial for the body to function because proteins help to build and repair tissues and maintain healthy metabolic processes.

When we eat protein, it breaks down into amino acids.  There are 22 amino acids the body uses for building proteins. Some are non-essential -  meaning the body can produce them by itself. While nine of them are essential which we need to get from outside sources

If a food contains all nine essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein source. Many animal products - such as fish, eggs, and chicken - are complete protein sources.

But what about plant protein? What is it, and is it a sufficient source for the nine essential amino acids?

Put simply, plant protein is protein derived from non-animal products. At first pondering, you might not think of many examples. But the truth is that plant protein options are more varied than your meat possibilities.

Plant protein foods include (but are certainly not limited to) tofu, chickpeas, lentils, spirulina, almonds, chia seeds, quinoa, hemp seeds, peanuts, potatoes, kale, and broccoli.

Now, the options are bountiful, yes. But is plant protein a sufficient source of the essential amino acids we mentioned?

Well, the answer is no - and yes.

Why no? Well, most plant protein options by themselves are incomplete protein sources - they don’t contain all nine amino acids.

But, SOME do! Soy products, buckwheat, and quinoa are examples of complete protein sources that are plant-based.

However, the key to getting all your essential amino acids from plant proteins is eating a varied diet with different protein sources that complement each other’s amino acid profiles. An easy example of this is good ol’ rice and beans! Beans fist bumps with the lysine while rice pounds back with methionine. And you can’t get more classic than a peanut butter sandwich, where the peanuts combined with the grain result in complete protein. 

So there ya go, if you’ve chosen to go the way of abstaining from meat, you can get all the protein you need from plant sources. Just make sure you consume all your essential amino acids! The best way to do this is by eating through the wide spectrum of plant protein sources available for your plate.

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