You're probably already aware that protein can be found in many types of foods, beyond just meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. While we often hear from the media and in many health reports that we should aim to eat high amounts of protein in order to see weight loss results and to maintain our health, many of us do not necessarily know why this is, or what sources of protein are best. When choosing where you get from your protein from, especially if you plan to include protein supplements in your diet, it's important to be educated on the reasons why you need protein, how different proteins are metabolized by your body, and what differs between different protein sources.
While animal foods are higher in protein than most plant foods, that doesn't make them inherently any healthier. Despite what you may think, plant-based foods like legumes, peas, beans, organic soy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains can provide us with all the protein that we need, not to mention many other valuable nutrients as well. Sadly the same cannot be said of most animal-based proteins.
PLANTS ARE MORE THAN JUST PROTEIN
Aside from having protein, plants really shine when it comes to their antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral contents. Protein should play an important role in your diet, but eating more protein alone will not result in better health, bigger muscles, or weight loss. It's best to aim to eat enough protein for your body's needs without over-doing it and neglecting other important food sources in the process.
The majority of your diet should come from fresh plant foods: mostly vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. The reason these foods are superior to animal based proteins is because they aid the body in numerous ways on top of providing protein in the form of amino acids. Plant foods contain disease fighting antioxidants, fiber for a healthy digestive system, help to increase immunity, boost brain power, keep the gut healthy, and so much more.
LOWER IN CALORIES BUT HIGHER IN VOLUME
When you work on reducing, or even totally cutting out, from your diet animal proteins like meat, you make a lot more room for fresh, unprocessed, nutrient rich foods. By learning to balance your meals with one appropriate serving of protein (let's say beans or tofu for example) and then add plenty of fresh goods, you get to enjoy eating large, satisfying meals without gaining weight or feeling deprived. Plant sources of protein are whole foods that are naturally usually low in calories because of their high water and fiber content. This means plant based meals are big in volume but not oversaturated with calories. On the other hand, animal foods like cheese and steak are very calorically dense, so it's easy to over-consume a lot of calories (and unhealthy saturated fats) from them, often leading to weight gain.
PLANT BASED PROTEINS ARE RENEWABLE AND ECO-FRIENDLY
An excessive reliance on animal-based foods has a negative impact on our economy and environment. Many studies continue to show us that there is a dramatic and unfortunate impact that the meat and dairy industries are having on our environment's deterioration. Every year a large amount of land is being used to raise livestock, both for the animals' living area and for food grown specifically to feed those animals. Some reports have indicated that it takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce only 1 pound of meat.
This means that if we require a huge field to be harvested in order to provide 15 pounds of grains, we miss the opportunity to feed 15 times more hungry people, because those grains are being fed to a small number of livestock that will eventually be slaughtered to produce a relatively small amount of meat. Plants have the opposite, positive effect of meat on the environment: they are easy to grow, nurture the soil and ecosystem that they are harvested in, and are inexpensive to produce.
MEETING YOUR PROTEIN NEEDS WITH PLANTS
Now that you know why you should be eating more plants for protein, let's talk about how much you need and specifically where to get it from.
Adults are generally encouraged to get 10% to 35% of their day's calories from protein foods (so if you eat 2000 calories that would be a range of about 200-700 calories). The average women needs about 46 grams of protein per day while the average man needs 56 grams. The key word here is average; people's exact requirements will differ depending on their physical activity level, age, and so on.
Any form of dietary protein is made from a combination of amino acids. Amino acids are the molecular "building blocks" of any protein and what our body uses for many important functions, such as regenerating muscle, cells, tissue, repairing our organs, growth, brain function, and so on. The most complete/essential amino acid based plant foods are peas, high quality protein powders (like organic pea protein powder), quinoa, hempseeds, and chia seeds - so these are great options to include in your diet frequently. For other meals, try combining different plant based foods which will give you an ideal range of amino acids; some combinations that work well are beans and rice, whole wheat bread and nut butter, or organic tofu and brown rice.
PLANT-PROTEINS TO TRY
High Quality Protein Powders, like Pea Protein - Protein powders are great because they offer a convenient, shelf stable, and portable option for getting great plant protein into your diet; however choosing a protein powder can be difficult with so many options available, many of which do not meet high standards for actually helping to improve your health. One great option is organic pea protein powder, made from organic, graded baby yellow peas which are freeze-dried at their highest nutritional peak to retain all of their nutrients and fiber.
Pea protein is a unique plant protein because it contains 20 amino acids, which is difficult to find in many other plant sources. This means the body is able to use the protein easily for repair, muscle building, growth, energy, and more. When organic yellow peas are combined with other high quality superfoods into a whole foods supplement powder form, you are able to consume numerous healthful ingredients all at once: chlorophyll, Vitamin C, antioxidants, adaptogenic herbs, enzymes and probiotics, essential fatty acids, anti-inflammatory herbs, and more. This benefits the body in so many ways, helping to improve nearly every organ and function. It's extremely important to choose only protein powders that include no added harmful ingredients, allergens, or fillers: no added glucose, preservatives, stabilizers or emulsifiers, soy, nuts, GMOs, yeast, and so on.
Tofu - Made from fermented soy beans, this is a traditional food that has been eaten in Asian countries for thousands of years. Organic brands are best.
Tempeh - Tempeh is another fermented product made out of soybeans and brown rice. It too is a traditional and unprocessed form of plant based protein.
Beans, all kinds - In addition to providing protein, they also have fiber and an impressive amount of minerals and vitamins.
Nuts and seeds - nuts and seeds are often considered "super foods" because they pack such a nutrient punch. They contain protein, fiber, healthy forms of fats, minerals like manganese and selenium, plus antioxidants like Vitamin A and Vitamin E. For exceptional nutrients, go for chia seeds, flax seeds, almonds, and walnuts as often as you can.
Non Dairy Milks - Try almond milk, coconut milk, or some others like hemp and rice milks. Look for the kinds that are unsweetened.
Non Dairy Yogurt / Cheese - Look for yogurt made from coconut, or almonds. Again, watch how much sugar is added. Many cheese alternatives are not exactly healthy, as they are pretty processed and high in fat. Try making "cashew cheese" and using this on pizzas, in pasta dishes, or anywhere else you'd otherwise want dairy cheese.