What’s the Beef with Plant Protein?

One of the biggest concerns that we often hear about in adopting a plant-based lifestyle is regarding protein. There seems to be a preconceived notion that one cannot get enough protein on a plant-based way of eating. In this blog post, we’ll break down the common myths regarding plant-based protein and identify a list of protein sources.

First, let’s discuss exactly what protein is. Protein is a macronutrient that is essential for building muscle and it’s found everywhere in our bodies; including in muscles, bone, skin, hair and more. Protein is made up of little building blocks called amino acids. There are 20+ amino acids but there are 9 that are considered “essential” (which the body can’t make) and that means that we need to consume them in order to get them.

Most people in developed first world countries are consuming more than enough protein because there is an abundance in our food sources. Protein deficiency is more commonly found in poorer areas of the world where access to food is limited.

The Claims

Despite popular belief, It doesn’t involve intense macro tracking or hours of studied nutrition. All it requires is that we know our go-to sources of protein and that we eat a variety of plant foods throughout the week. Let’s discuss the top 3 claims about plant protein.

  1. You can’t get enough protein on a plant-based lifestyle.

First, all plants contain protein and at least 14% of their calories are made up of protein. With that being said, however, there certainly are more nutrient-dense sources of plant protein than others. For example, carrots versus soy beans. At the end of this blog post, I’ll list some of the best sources of plant protein.

Second, it is widely said that we get way more protein than we need and fitness/nutrition coaches are overestimating how much we should get in a day. Eating a variety of plants in a week, especially including those nutrient-dense sources, will absolutely be more than enough protein, whether you’re sedentary or very active.

  1. You have to “combine” foods to get complete protein.

You might have heard that plant protein isn’t “complete”. What does this mean? Essentially, a “complete” protein has all nine of the essential amino acids.

First, there are, in fact, plant-based sources of protein that are complete and contain all of the essential amino acids.

Second, it doesn’t matter whether ONE food has all of them or not. If you are eating a variety of whole plant foods (beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables) , it is scientifically and mathematically impossible to be amino acid deficient (AHA Journals :https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/01.CIR.0000018905.97677.1F).

  1. Plant protein is inferior to animal protein.

Protein is protein. All sources of protein are ingested, absorbed into the bloodstream and broken down to their individual units.

The crucial difference in the source of protein is the overall nutritional package in a particular food. Diet culture has taken “reductionism” to the extreme, meaning that we are only looking at one single element of a food (protein) instead of all of the components.

For example, let’s take a look at the same serving size for a piece of beef and a cup of lentils.

The piece of steak has 33g of protein but contains saturated fat and heme iron (excess heme iron leads to nitrosamines which are linked to increase risks of colorectal cancer). It is recommended that we keep saturated fat levels to less than 7% of daily calories per day.

The cup of lentils has 18g of protein, is high in non-heme iron, folate, and fiber (animal products contain ZERO fiber). Lentils lead in 9 out of the 14 micronutrients compared to beef so while beef has a higher protein content, protein is not the only nutrient that matters. There is a wide array of macro and micronutrients that we need to take into consideration. Also, keep in mind that most of us are getting way more protein than we need.

So when we look at the overall nutrition profile and nutrient density of a food, it’s clear that plants offer so many health benefits. If we focus on protein only, we’re falling into the trap of “reductionism” and missing out on other key elements of healthy and balanced nutrition.

Plants high in protein

  • Beans: soy, chickpeas, black beans, kidney, navy
  • Legumes: lentils, peas, peanuts
  • Seitan and other whole wheat grains
  • Amaranth and teff
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Hemp and Chia Seeds
  • Broccoli and Spinach

This is not an exhaustive list by any means but a great starting point for those on a plant-based lifestyle. Whether you’re an omnivore or vegetarian or vegan, it is always a good idea to start including more plant-based proteins and less animal-based protein into your diet.

In summary, eating a variety of whole plant foods and focusing on some key nutrient-dense plants will ensure that you can absolutely get enough protein on a plant-based lifestyle to not only survive, but thrive.