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Plant-Based Nutrition: Episode #1 – Protein


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Tackling plant-based protein pseudoscience


In the past, many people have relied on meat as their main source of protein. So it’s not surprising that the most concerning part about adopting a plant-based diet for a lot of people is whether they’ll get sufficient levels of protein. But does the source of protein (plant vs. animal) really matter? 
The short answer is: Not really! 
With careful dietary planning, you can obtain adequate protein intake from solely plant-based foods! 
So let’s dive into all things protein and take a deeper look at its role in plant-based nutrition!

What exactly is protein? 

Protein is a macronutrient (just like carbohydrates and fats), which means that our bodies require it in relatively large amounts, hence the term “macro” [1]. Protein is an important structural component of our cells. It can be found in our hair, skin, muscle, bone and essentially every cell in the body! Not surprisingly, protein plays many critical roles in our bodies, including building and repairing tissues and providing us with energy [2]. 
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks of cells. There are about 20 different amino acids and those that can be made by our bodies are classified as non-essential, whereas those that cannot be produced by our bodies, and therefore must be obtained from food, are classified as essential [1]. 
A diet higher in protein can help build muscle mass and strength, promote satiety and stimulate weight loss [3,4,5]. Accordingly, getting the right amount of essential amino acids from your diet can ensure optimal health and body function.

How much protein do you need?

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The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily (or 0.38 grams per pound), but the acceptable protein intake ranges from 10%-35% of calories per day [1]. 
For a person weighing 62 kilograms (or ~ 140 pounds), this would amount to about 50 grams of protein per day.

Dietary sources of plant protein

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Animal sources of protein are considered “complete”, which means they contain all the essential amino acids. But there are also a few plant-based sources of protein that are considered complete, including quinoa, hemp seeds and soybeans! 
Here’s a list of a few protein-rich plant-based foods that will easily help you meet the RDA!  
  • Lentils – 18 grams of protein per 1 cup, cooked 
  • Hemp seeds – 3 grams of protein per 1 tablespoon
  • Tofu – 10 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Soybeans – 29 grams of protein per 1 cup, boiled
  • Quinoa – 8 grams of protein per 1 cup, cooked

When assessing the protein content of foods, it’s important to remember that other nutrients are also present within foods. For example, while a steak may deliver high on its protein content, it also has a higher amount of saturated fats compared to plant-based sources or protein.

Benefits of plant protein

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There are many benefits of switching to plant-based sources of protein. In fact, many athletes including Venus Williams, Kendrick Farris and Kyrie Irving have recently adopted a plant-based diet!
Studies show that diets high in plant protein, nuts, lentil and chickpeas, can help regulate your weight, increase satiety, and protect against weight gain [6,7]. 
Consuming plant-based sources of protein can also help the environment, since their production requires far less resources compared to animal protein, including dedicated land use, water, nitrogen and fossil energy [8]. For example, 100 times more water is required to produce 1 kilogram of meat than that required for producing 1 kilogram of grain protein [9].

Considerations

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Plant-based sources of protein can be a healthy and environmentally friendly way to meet your protein requirements, but it is important to keep some considerations in mind if only consuming protein from plant sources. 
Foods containing animal protein tend to be higher in certain nutrients that are either lacking or only present in small amounts in some plant-based foods, including:
  • DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) – An omega-3 fatty acid found in primarily in fatty fish and is considered important for brain function and eye health [10, 11]
  • Heme-iron – Found in fish, poultry and primarily red meats is more readily absorbed as opposed to non-heme iron found in plant-based foods [12]
  • Vitamin B12 – Mainly found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Many people who follow a strict plant-based diet have a Vitamin B12 deficiency [13]

This is not to say that plant-based foods do not offer important nutrients. But rather, choosing the right plant-based food and including supplements when necessary will help you easily overcome any nutrient deficiencies resulting from a plant-based diet!
It is also important to eat a wide variety of plant-based foods to ensure you are getting a good balance of essential amino acids in your diet.

So, is animal protein superior to plant protein?

Animal protein is definitely not necessarily superior to plant protein. However, it does carry an advantage in terms of typically providing more protein per gram of food when compared to plant-based sources. 
But the good news is that this may be easily overcome by consuming plant-based foods that are rich in protein and using supplements when necessary to meet your daily recommended protein intake! 

The bottom line?

Well planned plant-based diets can adequately deliver all the protein you need! Educating yourself on the various sources of plant-based protein that are available and incorporating a variety of foods when following a plant-based diet is important for a healthy balance of essential amino acids and other crucial nutrients.


Rahbika Ashraf

Rahbika Ashraf is a Business Development and Growth Marketing Assistant at Neophyto Foods, with a background in Human Health and Nutritional Sciences from University of Guelph. She is passionate about health and wellness research, and bridging knowledge gaps with science! When she is not typing away, you can find her meditating, hiking, playing sports and watching TV shows.


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