What Is Plant-Based Protein?

What Is Plant-Based Protein?

The human body is made up of organ systems, each organ system is made up of individual organs, each organ is made up of tissues, and each tissue is made up of cells. Next to water, the second most abundant component of cells is protein. Each cell is made up of approximately 18% protein. Besides that, protein is an important component of enzymes that carry out important bodily processes. Moreover, haemoglobin is a special protein in your blood that carries oxygen. These facts allude to the importance of protein.

Protein is a macronutrient and is made up of smaller organic compounds composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen called amino acids. There are around twenty amino acids. Our bodies are incapable of storing these amino acids but it is capable of making them from scratch or modifying one amino acid and turning it into a different amino acid. Still, the human body has its limits and must obtain some of the amino acids from food. Histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, are the amino acids that we must obtain from our food. Due to the fact that these nine amino acids can only be obtained from food, they are referred to as essential amino acids.

What Does Plant-Based Mean?

Plant-based sometimes referred to as plant-forward is an eating pattern that focuses on foods that are derived from plants. Aside from that, plant-based also include foods derived from fungi and algae, like mushroom and seaweed. Following a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you no longer eat meat. Instead, a plant-based diet means that you consume fruits, vegetables, fungi, and algae in greater proportions than meat.

Protein Digestion

When we consume proteins from our food, the act of chewing begins their digestion. The mechanical action of chewing breaks the food down into tiny pieces, increasing their surface area. This increased surface area is important for the later parts. Once the protein-containing food reaches the stomach, hydrochloric acid and proteases enzymes break down the protein into small chains of amino acids. Proteases would also break down these small chains of amino acids into peptides. Once the food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestines, enzymes from the pancreas break down the peptides into single amino acids. Some common enzymes involved in the digestion of protein include trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidase.

Importance of Protein

As mentioned earlier, each cell in our body is 18% protein. They are also needed to create enzymes; even our antibodies and other components of our immune system are made up of proteins. That is why protein is a macronutrient because the body needs it to obtain amino acids, which could then be used to synthesize proteins within the body. Essentially, people need proteins because they are needed for the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells, tissues, hormones, and the immune system.

This is the reason why protein is crucial when it comes to muscle building. Muscles are made up of protein. When we train our muscles, they get damaged and would need repair and maintenance. At the same time, training encourages muscle development and growth. For the human body to be able to repair, maintain, develop, and encourage the growth of the muscles, sufficient quantities of amino acids derived from proteins are needed.

There are cases wherein people are unable to obtain sufficient protein from their diet. Although this is uncommon in developed countries, it is a huge public health burden in Central Africa and South Asia. Some common issues encountered when an individual doesn’t get enough protein include:

  • Muscle wasting or loss of muscle mass
  • Decreased metabolism
  • Increased bone fragility
  • Unhealthy skin, hair, and nails
  • Irritability
  • Slow healing of cuts, wounds, or bruises

How Much Protein Do I Need?

How Much Protein Do I Need?

The established Reference Nutrient Intake or RNI for an average adult is 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of the person’s body weight per day. For example, a 66-kilogram adult should consume 49.5 grams of protein every day.

The National Academy of Medicine rounded the number up to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of the person’s body weight per day. So a 66-kilogram adult should consume 52.8 grams of protein every day, following the National Academy of Medicine’s recommendation. When based on calories, the National Academy of Medicine recommends 10% to 35% of calories derived from protein each day. High protein diets may go beyond the recommendations of the National Academy of Medicine, with 30% to 50% of calories derived from protein each day.

In a 2016 article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers discovered that the percentage of calories from total protein intake is not related to overall mortality or to specific causes of death after they studied more than 130,000 men and women participants for up to 32 years. However, they were able to ascertain that the source of the protein was important. This supports the idea that a consumer should also take into account other properties of food besides its protein content. For instance, consider the following food items:

  • 4 ounces of broiled sirloin steak provides 33 grams of protein. However, this amount of steak also contains 5 grams of saturated fat, a type of fat that increases heart disease risk.
  • It takes 2 cups of lentils, a significantly greater quantity, to match the protein content of the 4-ounce broiled sirloin steak. However, the 2 cups of lentils contain 0.2 grams of saturated fat only.

There are factors, like age, lifestyle, pre-existing conditions, etc., that consumers should consider with regards to protein intake.

  • Sarcopenia or age-related muscle loss is a natural part of ageing. This is the reason why adults over the age of 65 require more protein. They should consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight each day to slow down sarcopenia.
  • Since pregnant women are carrying a developing baby, their body may demand more protein. Pregnant women should, at the minimum, derive 25% of their daily calorie intake from proteins.
  • The fast-developing bodies of children mean they need more protein compared to adults. Any individual who hasn’t reached the adult age should consume 1 gram of protein per kilogram of their body weight on a daily basis.
  • There are individuals who have medical conditions which negatively affect their ability to absorb protein. These individuals need to consume more protein than the average adult. How much protein these individuals need to consume per day varies depending on the severity of their condition. They need to consult a health expert to know just how much protein they would need in a day.
  • Athletes and people who tend to be more active may require more protein due to their developing muscles. They should get around 1.2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to ensure that they have enough protein to support their lifestyle.
  • People following a 100% plant-based diet may need to consume more protein. More on this later on.

High-Protein Diet

For numerous purposes, people may observe a diet that features a high proportion of protein. People who follow a high-protein diet are usually those who are looking to lose weight and improve their physique. Here are some health benefits of following a high-protein diet:

  • Improved muscle growth and maintenance: Engaging in physical activities regularly and following a high-protein diet leads to faster muscle growth. Aside from that, an individual who follows a high-protein diet is able to maintain their muscle mass.
  • Increased strength: With faster muscle development, an individual observing a high-protein diet would experience increased strength.
  • Faster exercise recovery: Since a high-protein diet supplies an abundance of amino acids, muscle damage brought about by exercise can be repaired quickly.
  • Better appetite control: Proteins have this tendency to make an individual feel full for a long duration. Thus, a high-protein diet is perfect for hunger control.
  • Better weight control and body composition management: Since following a high-protein diet leads to better appetite control, an individual following such diet are bound to lose weight. Aside from that, a high-protein diet hastens muscle development which increases metabolism, fat burning, and improves overall aesthetics.
  • Improved cardiometabolic health: High-protein diet improves appetite control and body composition. This leads to improvements in blood glucose levels, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure.
  • Stronger immune system: Antibodies are specialized proteins that are capable of binding pathogens and facilitating their destruction. Since antibodies are proteins, a high-protein diet would allow the body to have enough raw materials to produce sufficient antibodies.

Individuals Who Follow a Plant-Based Diet Need to Eat More Protein

According to Reed Mangles in her book “Simply Vegan”, vegans should consume a slightly higher amount of protein to account for the differences in how the body processes animal protein and plant protein. Here are the recommended protein intake for vegans:

  • 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for the average adult
  • 2.2 to 2.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for the moderately active adult
  • Pregnant women should follow the 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day recommendation but add an additional 25 grams.
  • For non-adults who follow a plant-based diet, their protein consumption should be 50% more than usual. Thus their protein consumption should be 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight.

There are misconceptions among those who follow the traditional balanced diet towards those who follow a plant-based one. Most traditional dieters would think that a plant-based diet won’t provide adequate amounts of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals because of the fact that animal-based foods are avoided. However, this can’t be farther from the truth. An individual can still obtain all of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that they need from plant-based foods alone. The only catch is that plant-based dieters need to exert more effort in planning meals.

For an individual who follows a plant-based diet to be able to obtain enough proteins, they must combine different grains and vegetables with pulses such as beans and rice, or any leafy vegetables with broccoli.

Plant Protein vs Animal Protein

Plant protein and animal protein differ in some ways and the body processes these two proteins differently. Still, the two proteins are broken down into amino acids which the body could, later on, use as building blocks for other proteins.

As mentioned earlier, there are nine essential amino acids that the body is incapable of producing and must be obtained from food. These essential amino acids play a vital role in synthesizing hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.

Branched-chain amino acids are particularly important in muscle protein synthesis. With them, the body is unable to repair, maintain, and develop our muscles.

Humans need to obtain all of the essential amino acids from their food. Whether a certain food item provides all essential amino acids or not is important in discussing plant protein vs animal protein.

Complete proteins is the term used to describe food items that contains all nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins on the other hand are food items that may contain only some of the essential amino acids or none at all. Eggs are considered complete proteins. If you eat eggs in every meal, you wouldn’t have to worry about getting all of the nine essential amino acids. Barley, on the other hand, is an incomplete protein. The essential amino acids present in various species of barley are as follows; threonine, tryptophan, and valine. If you ate barley in every meal, you’ll miss out on histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, and phenylalanine. To ensure that an individual obtains all nine essential amino acids, they just need to introduce variety in their diet.

Most plant-based foods lack lysine, a plant-based dieter should eat at least one cup of chickpeas, edamame, or tempeh, in a single day to supplement this deficiency.

Another thing that people should keep in mind with regards to plant protein is that the body may not be able to absorb them as efficiently compared to animal proteins. To circumvent this issue, individuals who follow a plant-based diet would need to consume more plant protein.

1. Advantages of Animal Protein

  • Majority of animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Animal protein is easier to digest and absorb compared to plant protein.
  • Since animal protein is easier to digest and usually contains all nine essential amino acids, they are superior to plant protein when it comes to building muscles.

2. Advantages of Plant Protein

  • Sources of plant protein contain fibre which can help keep our digestive system healthy.
  • Aside from that, they contain low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol whereas animal protein may contain a lot of them.
  • Plant protein may be superior when it comes to improving a person’s overall health.

It’s not just the amount of protein, or whether that food item is a complete protein or not, that consumers should consider. They should consider other aspects of a food item as well. Red meat and processed meat may contain a lot of protein and may be considered a complete protein, they are nonetheless unhealthy and consumption should be minimized. Choosing healthier protein sources such as beans, nuts, fish, or poultry have been found to reduce the risk of acquiring several diseases.

a) Reduced heart disease risk

A 2019 meta-analysis published in Circulation revealed that by replacing red meats as a protein source with healthy plant proteins an individual can reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

b) Type 2 diabetes

A diet that is high in red meat leads to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Whereas a diet that includes less red meat leads to a reduction in the risk of acquiring type 2 diabetes. This is what a 2011 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition uncovered. Moreover, the study also mentioned that each additional serving of red meat or processed meat increases the risk of diabetes by up to 32%.

c) Weight loss

A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis published in The Obesity Society showed that a daily serving of beans, chickpeas, lentils, or peas can improve hunger control which leads to faster weight loss.

3. Can You Build Muscle With Plant Protein?

Just because animal protein is superior when it comes to building muscles, this doesn’t mean that a person who only eats plant protein cannot build muscle. An individual who follows a plant-based diet can still build muscle but to ensure that their muscles get enough amino acids they must consume a wide variety of plant protein that can provide all nine essential amino acids. They must also consume 50% more plant proteins compared to those who would eat animal proteins.

What Are The Five Sources of Plant-Based Protein?

What Are The Five Sources of Plant-Based Protein?

Here are the top 5 sources of plant-based protein ranked according to the amount of protein they possess per cup.

1.   Spirulina

Spirulina usually comes in the form of plant-based protein powder. A cup of spirulina contains 64 grams of protein. However, the usual dosage of spirulina is just 2 tablespoons which could contain up to 8 grams of protein. Besides protein, spirulina is packed with B vitamins, except B-12, iron, and manganese. They are one of the best vegan protein powder.

2.   Seitan

When you mix wheat gluten with various spices you get seitan. They contain all of the nine essential amino acids. In other words, seitan is a complete protein. A cup of seitan contains 63 grams of protein. It is one of the best meat substitutes in the market.

3.   Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are also complete proteins, they contain 5 grams of protein per tablespoon or 60 grams of protein per cup. They are like chia seeds but with higher protein content. They can be added to smoothies, salad dressing, baked goods, granola bars, breadcrumbs, and jams.

4.   Peanuts

Peanuts are one of the best snacks. They are healthy, contain a lot of healthy fats that may improve heart health, and on top of that is a good plant-based protein source. A cup of peanuts can contain up to 41 grams of protein.

5.   Almonds

A cup of almonds provides 33 grams of protein and a good amount of vitamin E.

Honourable Mentions

a) Tempeh

Tempeh is made from soybeans that have been fermented. After the fermentation process, the soybeans are pressed into a cake. Sometimes wheat is incorporated into the tempeh. A cup of tempeh contains up to 30 grams of protein.

b) Mycoprotein

Mycoprotein is a protein derived from the fungus Fusarium venenatum. To make mycoprotein, the spores of Fusarium venenatum are fermented, a process similar to beer brewing. Some mycoprotein may contain animal-derived ingredients such as egg whites. However, the ones that do not contain animal-derived ingredients contain 26 grams of protein per cup.

c) Tofu

Is like the cheese of soy milk. When you allow the soy milk to curd, you get tofu. They are very versatile and can be cooked in a multitude of ways. A cup of tofu contains 20 grams of protein.

d) Lentils

Lentils are a versatile plant-based protein source that can be added to stews, curries, salads, or rice. A cup of lentils can provide around 18 grams of protein. Aside from that, they are a good source of fibres, iron, and potassium.

e) Chickpeas

Chickpeas contain 14.5 grams of protein per cup. They can be added to stews and curries, or even roasted in the oven. Hummus is made of chickpea and provides the same amount of protein chickpea does.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

There are a wide variety of plant-based protein powders available in the market. Most of them are made from either soy, pea, rice, hemp, or a combination of these. Each plant-based protein powder has its advantages and disadvantages. Thus, consumers are urged to do thorough research in deciding which plant-based protein powder is suitable for them.

General guidelines for protein powder consumption suggests that 20 to 40 grams of protein powder per day are sufficient. However, dosage beyond 80 grams per day is discouraged as it may displace other whole foods which may lead to deficiencies in some vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

Wrap Up

Protein is an essential building block for every cell within our body. The human body requires a lot of protein because it needs them for the growth, development, maintenance, and repair of cells. Protein is a macronutrient. Food items that contain high amounts of protein are numerous. However, they can be divided into plant proteins and animal proteins. Both of them has their advantages and disadvantages but plant proteins offer additional health benefits such as reduced heart disease, decreased likelihood of type 2 diabetes, and improved weight loss. Despite this, those who follow a plant-based diet should keep in mind that plant proteins aren’t absorbed as efficiently as animal proteins, and most plant proteins may lack some of the essential amino acids.


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