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An Introduction to Plant-Based Protein

A new study has revealed that the number of Americans following plant-based diets is up nearly 9.4 million over the last 15 years. People are increasingly choosing plant-based protein options, even if they don't label themselves as being strictly "vegetarian" or "vegan." This substantial growth can be easily seen in the many fast-food chains that have added or are planning to add vegan options to their menus. Welcome to the age of the flexitarian!  

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The phrase "Plant-Based Protein" is popping up just about everywhere! Not just in places such as Burger King (irony!) with their Impossible Whopper, but if you had the desire, you could pretty easily track down a dinner of vegetarian Peking roast duck, make a vegan "shrimp" cocktail, have a "toona" fish sandwich - there is even a vegetarian haggis! (Who knew?)

But what exactly is plant-based protein, and if you haven't tried it yet, why might you want to?

What is Plant Protein?

Plant protein is a protein that is sourced exclusively from plants. Some examples of plant-sourced protein are nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, seitan, certain grains, and even peas. There is a sub-group of plant proteins that people have recently been identifying by the name of "pulses," as well. Pulses are large groups of plants that provide beans (such as black, pinto, and kidney beans), chickpeas, lentils, and split peas.

Plant proteins are highly nutritious. They provide an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Let's take a closer look at what plant proteins have to offer.

Are Plant Proteins Complete Proteins?

To be classified as a complete protein, a food must contain all nine essential amino acids. These are amino acids that our bodies cannot make on our own, therefore we must obtain them from food sources.

The nine essential amino acids are Lysine, Histidine, Methionine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Phenylalanine, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine.

When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left, and our bodies use them to help the body with important biological functions, such as breaking down food, growing and repairing muscle tissue, or as a general source of energy.

A very commonly asked question is "are plant proteins complete proteins?" Let's explore!

Do Plant Proteins Have All the Essential Amino Acids?

While most plant-based proteins do not contain all nine essential amino acids, there are some that are considered complete. These include quinoa, buckwheat, and soy. Most plant-based protein sources tend to lack at least 1 of the essential amino acids. Pea protein technically contains all of the essential amino acids, but it's a little low in methionine, so you wouldn't want that to be your only source of protein.

So how can you be sure you are getting all of the essential amino acids when eating only plant proteins?

Protein Combining! 

Protein combining basically means eating a variety of plant protein sources to ensure you consume all of the essential amino acids. It's easier than it sounds! Pulses and grains have different essential amino acids, so eating a protein from each of these groups will provide an overall complete protein source. 

It is important to note that you do not have to get these combined proteins in every meal. They can be eaten in different meals during the day or the week. Additionally, plant-based protein powders can be an excellent supplement to a plant-based diet. A complete plant-based protein powder provides a tasty, convenient way to know that you are getting all of the essential amino acids, regardless of how your meals are stacked up on any given day.

Is Plant-Based Protein Good for You?

In a nutshell (see what we did there? NUTS, a good plant-based source of protein!) – YES! Plant-based proteins are VERY good for you, for a number of reasons. Some quick science in support of plant protein:

What Are Some Health Benefits of Plant-Based Protein and Protein Powders?  

An interesting fact about protein is that our bodies do not store it the way it does carbohydrates and fats. This means that we need a steady intake to meet our needs.

But protein is super important for our health! It's a component of every cell in the human body, we need it to produce enzymes and hormones, and our hair and nails are made almost entirely of protein!

Here are some other key health benefits to plant-based proteins:

IMPROVE GUT HEALTH

This is a hot category these days with a huge focus on using probiotics to ensure a healthy gut microbiome, but plant-based proteins can also be good for gut health. Research has shown that those who eat a plant-based diet have a unique gut profile that contains fewer disease-causing organisms.
You can boost your gut health by getting nutrients from a variety of plant sources to diversify the bacteria in your gut and create a more balanced microbiome. Another way is to make sure you’re getting enough fiber in your diet. By supplementing with a protein powder that contains additional fiber, you can make sure you are meeting your daily fiber needs.

GET IMPORTANT VITAMINS AND MINERALS

Many plant-based protein sources also contain essential minerals and nutrients that other protein sources do not. For example, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids can help to support the immune system and improve energy levels.

STAY FULLER LONGER

Because sources of plant protein tend to contain more fiber than animal sources, they can be much more satisfying. One study showed that when young men consumed a protein-rich meal composed of legumes, they consumed 12 percent fewer calories in their next meal than if they had eaten a meat-based meal. Fiber can help to curb cravings and make you less hungry between meals, which can also help with weight loss.

WEIGHT LOSS

Although not a goal for everybody, plant protein can be beneficial for weight loss. Partly because their fiber content can make you less hungry, but also because plant-based proteins tend to be lower in calories and fat than animal proteins. By regularly choosing a plant-based protein option, you can reduce your caloric intake while boosting your daily nutrient profile. 

SUMMARY

Although the meat and dairy industries like to position animal protein as being the superior source of protein, hopefully, we have shown that is not always the case. Plant-based protein options should have a prime position as a protein source in our diets. Whether we want to lose weight, improve our health, try to save the planet a little, or spare the lives of some very cute animals, plant proteins offer a lot of benefits.

Google up some vegetarian meal ideas, pick up the latest issue of Forks Over Knives, and check out our selection of plant-based, vegan products to begin (or continue) your plant-based protein journey!

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