Plant Protein Party
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can make some of them, but the ones we can’t make ourselves (“essential amino acids”) must be consumed from the diet. Protein is an important part of a balanced diet, as it helps with tissue structure, muscle building, and transport of many molecules within our body. We can consume protein from both animal and plant sources.
People might choose plant proteins for a number of reasons. They may be following a vegetarian or vegan diet, in which they don’t consume animal products and subsequently need another source of protein. They may be making some lifestyle changes to reduce their meat consumption or to incorporate more plant foods into their diet. Budget can also play a role, as plant proteins are often less expensive than animal proteins. Concern for the environment and animal cruelty can also be a deciding factor for some.
Whatever your reason may be, whether it’s one I mentioned above or you simply want to try new foods, plant proteins have many health benefits and are a great addition to any eating pattern. They help with satiety, keeping us full for longer periods of time while also helping with blood sugar control. Fiber from those plant sources plays a part in this, helping keep our gut health in check and improving digestion. Plant proteins have also been shown to decrease risk of heart disease when consumed regularly, a health concern that is common in the United States.
What kinds of plant proteins are there?
- Soy: tofu, edamame, tempeh
- Seitan (made out of hydrated gluten)
- Legumes: lentils, peas, beans, chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds
For vegetarians and vegans, consume a variety of plant sources to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids you need. It is completely possible to meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet — it just may take some extra planning and effort!
As dietitians, we typically recommend a foods-first approach to meeting our energy needs, but we recognize that some individuals (including athletes or those recovering from illness/surgery) may choose to supplement their protein intake with a plant-based protein powder. On the ingredients list, look for a plant protein blend to make sure you’re getting a mix of amino acids. Common blends include soy, pea, rice, and seeds, although others may be available as well. Also make sure to look for the NSF or Informed Choice logo on the product — this 3rd party testing guarantees that the ingredients on the label are correct and do not contain any toxic substances.
Check out the Home Base Recipe Library for some ideas to start incorporating plant proteins into your meals and snacks. My favorite is this Greek Lentil Salad, which is super colorful and easy to prepare for lunch!
By Inna Kagan, Registered Dietitian