We’ve all heard about the importance of eating enough protein. It helps build and repair muscles, it provides us with much needed energy and it also plays a role in gut health. In many cuisines, most of which come from the West or have been influenced by Western colonization, protein has become synonymous with meat, dairy, and eggs. And, it’s seen as superior to plant-based sources like beans, tofu and lentils. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In many ways, you can say that plant protein is better than animal protein. We’ll explain why.
What does protein do?
Protein is an essential macronutrient made up of chained-together amino acids. Our body uses 20 different amino acids to make proteins. Your body can make 11 of these amino acids on its own, and the other nine must be obtained through food. These are known as “essential amino acids”. In case you’re wondering, they’re called histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Protein is important for a number of health functions. It provides your body with energy while building and repairing tissue after injury, workouts, surgery, and other types of wear and tear.
Your body uses protein to make enzymes, which are needed for healthy digestion, blood clotting, muscle contraction and energy production. Protein strengthens your immune system, helps transport nutrients to your cells, regulates fluids, and helps you maintain a proper pH. As you can see, protein does a lot.
Can you get protein from plants?
Yes, you can—and there are many options to choose from Contains lentils, peas, beans, seitan and pre-packaged plant-based meats. Soy products such as tofu, tempeh and edamame are especially rich in protein as well as vitamins and minerals.
“In addition to their protein and micronutrient offerings, soy products contain phytoestrogens, which reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and breast cancer,” Christine Gillespie, MS, RD, LDN and advisor at ExerciseWithStyle.com, told VegNews.
Are there any downsides? “Of note, the type and content of iron varies between plant-based and animal-based protein sources; non-heme iron, which is found in plant proteins, is less easily absorbed,” Gillespie adds.
Is plant protein better than animal protein?
In VegNews’ view, animal protein’s biggest crime is that it comes from animals that have suffered a life raised for slaughter. These animals have the ability to think and feel fear, happiness and pain, just like dogs. Not to mention, animal agriculture is a major contributor to human-caused climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, soil degradation, ocean acidification, habitat loss, and loss of biodiversity.
This is one of the many reasons to cook with plant-based proteins more often. But as always, you should consult your doctor before making any major dietary changes that could affect your health. A registered dietitian can help you create a meal plan that’s tailored to your lifestyle and teach you how to get your protein from plants.
There are also some health benefits to eating your tofu and beans. Here’s why.
1 It is as good as animal protein
No idea how important it is to get enough protein. In general, between 10 and 35-percent of your daily calories should come from it.
But that in general. Your actual protein needs are affected by age, body size, physical fitness, pregnancy, illness, or whether you are recovering from a surgery or major injury.
Fortunately, research shows that there is little difference between plant- and animal-derived protein in terms of how our bodies use it.
“In fact, differences that were once thought to make plant-based proteins less bioavailable are now understood to not really be that important,” says Dana Ellis Hoons, PhD, MPH, RD. These proteins bring additional benefits, which we will get to later.
2 Plant proteins are less inflammatory
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to illness and injury. Over time, chronic inflammation can contribute to type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to Harvard Health.
“Animal proteins are more inflammatory because they’re often full of animal fat and high in amino acids that are more inflammatory,” explains Hunes. “Because plant-based proteins often contain vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory.”
Some of these can even reverse the negative effects of inflammation. For example, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, and other legumes are rich in fiber and phytonutrients that reduce inflammation.
3 Plants have fiber
Meat, seafood, and dairy products do not naturally contain fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate that helps keep our gut bacteria happy and our digestive system in good working order. But, plant proteins such as lentils, beans, and other whole-food, plant-based proteins do.
Even some vegetables contain small amounts of protein, though you should get most of these muscle-builders from heavy-hitters like the leguminous family. Fiber has been linked to a number of health benefits, including maintaining gut health, regulating blood sugar levels and lowering “bad” cholesterol levels.
4 Lack of protein is probably not a problem
As long as a plant-based diet consists mostly of foods with little nutritional value — such as chips, cookies, candy, ice cream, most snacks and other prepackaged foods, it’s nearly impossible to become deficient in protein, even if you don’t eat something like bean curd or navy beans.
“If you don’t like tofu, don’t force yourself to eat tofu,” says Hunes “Almost any food contains some protein. Even whole wheat bread has four to five grams of protein per slice. So if you change it up every day, you’ll get enough protein, fiber, and almost all the nutrients you need from your diet.”
5 You can get enough amino acids
Plant and animal proteins differ in their amino acid content, which is why the former has a reputation for being inferior to the former. In general, animal proteins contain nine essential amino acids. But the idea that plant protein is somehow low quality is a myth.
Some plant-based sources, such as soybeans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, flaxseed, and nutritional yeast are complete proteins. But, some of these options can be expensive. Fortunately, it’s easy to get all nine essential amino acids from plants through a variety of foods. This is because plant proteins are high in some amino acids, but in insufficient amounts. Alternatives for this, which combine carbohydrates with protein, sound delicious.
“Examples of pairing sources of complete protein include brown rice and black beans, peanut butter on whole-grain toast, and hummus with pita,” says Gillespie.
Some other options include whole-grain pasta with peas (plus garlic, lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, and freshly-cracked black pepper) and a hearty lentil or bean soup with whole-grain crackers.
6 Plant protein can have many health benefits
As we already know, whole-food plant-based proteins usually contain fiber, but they also come with many other health benefits.
Plant-based proteins are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants while animal proteins are high in fat and cholesterol. Studies have shown that a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods can reduce your risk for several chronic health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
In short, you can get enough protein from plants, and it’s almost impossible to be protein deficient in the Western world. Combine a variety of plant-based proteins to ensure you’re getting all nine essential amino acids, as well as vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber.