- A carefully planned plant-based diet can provide you with all the nutrients you need
- Different types of plant-based proteins have a higher concentration of the various essential amino acids you need
- You can still achieve your body composition goals following a carefully planned plant-based diet.
One of the fastest-growing food trends in recent years has been the plant-based diet movement and subsequently the increase in plant-based protein options. In 2018, the plant-based “meat” industry grew by 23%, and this exponential growth is expected to continue over the next several years. There are several reasons behind the rise in plant-based protein intakes including environmental factors and the desire to improve health.
Finding plant-based alternatives to meat and animal products is easier now than ever before. Major fast-food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King now have plant-based menu options. The adoption of plant-based alternatives from these familiar, big name brands has helped spark interest in people who might not otherwise consider eating a meatless meal.
Anyone considered including more plant-based foods in their diet may be wondering about the impact it might have on your health and body composition. Let’s take a look at some of the plant-based protein sources on the market today and then dive into the research on how a plant-based eating pattern can benefit your health and the environment.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
There still isn’t a widely accepted definition for what constitutes a “plant-based diet”. Rather, the term loosely refers to anyone who consumes animal products less frequently or in smaller quantities.
People don’t necessarily have to avoid animal products completely when following a plant-based diet. However, they do incorporate a larger proportion of foods made from plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Meat becomes more of a garnish on the plate rather than always taking center-stage. Some examples of plant-based eating patterns are vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean diets.
Examples of Plant-Based Protein Alternatives
Let’s take a look at some of the plant-based protein alternatives out there and compare their nutrient breakdown and protein content.
Nuts are a decent source of protein and heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Regular consumption of nuts has been shown to help decrease blood sugar, total cholesterol, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which reduces the overall risk of heart disease.
Which type of nut is best? Rather than nitpicking the specific nutrient content of each nut individually, consider incorporating a variety of nuts into your routine. Diversity helps ensure you get the full spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants present in a variety of nuts. Plus, research shows that dietary diversity is key for a healthy gut microbiome which can affect everything from metabolism to mental health.
A 1 ounce serving of unsalted mixed nuts contains:
- 172 calories
- 15 grams of fat
- 2.3 g saturated of fat
- 1.1 mg of sodium
- 5.5 grams of protein
Note that a serving of nuts is small, roughly ¼ cup or enough to fit comfortably in your cupped hand.
Tofu is made from the curds of soy milk. You can almost think of it as “cheese” made from edamame beans. This plant-based protein has a neutral flavor meaning it takes on the taste of whatever delicious sauce you’re cooking it with.
Here are the nutrition highlights from of ½ cup of tofu:
- 94 calories
- 5.9 grams of fat
- 0.9 grams of saturated fat
- 8.7 grams of sodium
- 10 grams of protein
Soy is sometimes shunned by people concerned about the effects of compounds present called phytoestrogens, which have a similar chemical structure to the hormone estrogen; however, consumption of phytoestrogens actually promotes health benefits. For example, regular consumption of soy products is associated with a reduced risk for both prostate and breast cancer.
Beans have gotten a bit of a bad reputation. For example, popular diets like Paleo and Whole 30 recommend avoiding beans entirely. The truth is that raw beans contain some harmful substances including lectin and phytic acid; however, these substances are removed when beans are properly cooked and soaked. When properly prepared, beans make a great addition to an overall healthy diet and are an excellent plant-based source of protein.
The exact nutrient value will vary from one bean to the next, but 1 cup of unsalted kidney beans, for example, provides:
- 225 calories
- 0.9 grams of fat
- 0.1 g saturated fat
- 3.5 mg of sodium
- 15 grams of protein
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, meaning you get the added benefits of its probiotic content. While the flavor of tempeh isn’t quite as neutral as tofu, this plant-based protein is still highly versatile and goes well in anything from stir-fries to sandwiches.
Nutrient breakdown of 100 grams of tempeh is as follows:
- 195 calories
- 11 grams of total fat
- 3.4 grams of saturated fat
- 14 mg of sodium
- 20 grams of protein
Also known as “vital wheat gluten”, seitan is made from wheat protein and is one of the highest sources of protein among the plant-based alternatives. Seitan has a surprisingly similar texture to meat and gets used in a variety of meatless dishes as a substitute for everything from ground beef to fajitas. Seitan should be avoided by anyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
- 370 calories
- 1.9 grams of fat
- 0.3 grams of saturated fat
- 29 mg of sodium
- 75 grams of protein
Convenience Plant-Based Proteins
A growing number of convenience plant-based products are available on the market today. One well-known example is the Impossible Burger now available at Burger King.
According to the Impossible Foods website, ingredients in the Impossible Burger include “Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate” in addition to some vitamins and minerals.
A 4 oz. Impossible Burger provides the following:
- 240 calories
- 14 grams of fat
- 8 grams of saturated fat
- 370 mg of sodium
- 19 grams of protein
This particular product is higher in saturated fat and sodium but lower in protein than an equivalent portion of 93% lean ground beef.
In general the same rule of thumb about processed foods applies whether you’re eating plant-based or not. Processed and convenience foods tend to be less healthy across the board. Don’t automatically assume a product is healthy just because it says “plant-based” on the package.
In general, plant-based proteins tend to provide moderate to high amounts of protein, are low in saturated fat and sodium, and often provide some dietary fiber as well. This would lead to the assumption that a plant-based diet is healthy, but let’s take a look at what the research shows.
How does Plant-Based Protein Compare to Animal Protein?
Eating more plant-based proteins might improve longevity. A large, long-term study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that replacing even a small amount of red meat and/or processed meat with plant protein was associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.
However, keep in mind that the choice to follow any restrictive diet shouldn’t be taken lightly. Completely eliminating animal derived products from your diet can pose a risk for certain nutrient deficiencies because certain essential nutrients only occur naturally in animal foods. Vegans and vegetarians should take note of potential nutrients of concern and include good sources of those nutrients that fall within his or her dietary restrictions.
The following are some nutrients to be aware of when transitioning to a plant-based diet.
Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Essential amino acids are types of amino acids that cannot be produced internally, meaning they have to be consumed from dietary sources.
Protein from animal sources are considered “complete proteins” because they provide high proportions of all the essential amino acids you need. Some plant proteins are also considered complete proteins including soy, quinoa, and chia seeds.
Many other plant proteins are called “incomplete” because they are low in certain essential amino acids; however, the phrase incomplete protein is misleading. This is because our body can store amino acids for later use when needed.
Recommendations based on outdated research used to suggest pairing “complementary” plant proteins in the same meal to ensure you would get all of the essential amino acids you need. For example, by pairing rice with beans in the same meal you could get all of your essential amino acids at the same time. However, we now know that complementary proteins don’t need to be eaten in the same meal.
While some plant-based proteins are low in certain types of amino acids, different types of plant-based proteins have higher concentrations of the various essential amino acids you need. By following a plant-based diet with a reasonable amount of variety, you can ensure you get 100% of the amino acid profile you need.
Vitamin B12 is generally only present naturally in animal-derived foods. This essential nutrient plays a role in red blood cell formation, metabolism, and neurological function. Therefore, vegans should take a b12 supplement or regularly consume B12-fortified foods. B12 fortification will vary based on the product or brand, but it is most commonly added to milk substitutes and cereal.
While vegetarians tend to meet their daily calcium needs, the typical calcium intake of vegans can vary widely. Good vegan sources of calcium include kale, turnip greens, bok choy, tofu made with calcium salt, and calcium-fortified foods.
EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are essential omega-3 fatty acids that play a role in nervous system development and heart health. Good dietary sources of EPA and DHA are cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines, and therefore intake of these nutrients are typically lower for people who follow a vegan diet.
Most healthy adults on vegan and vegetarian diets are able to make enough of their own EPA and DHA without needing to get it through dietary sources; however, a supplement may be necessary for pregnant or lactating women and those with certain health conditions which reduce the body’s ability to create EPA and DHA including diabetes and high blood pressure.
Until recent years, there was concern about the “bio-availability,” or absorption rates, of iron from plant-based sources. Iron found in plants is called “non-heme iron”, while “heme iron” is found only in animal sources. The heme iron is typically more easily absorbed than non-heme iron from plant sources, which involves some additional steps in its absorption process.
However, recent research shows that people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets adapt to lower bioavailability and become more efficient at absorbing non-heme iron. Iron is present in many plant foods, but some of the richest plant-sources of iron include lentils, spinach, kidney beans, chickpeas, and swiss chard.
How Does Plant-Based Protein Affect Your Body Composition?
Some people may be hesitant to adopt a plant-based lifestyle for fear it would be at the expense of their body composition goals. Is it possible to eat less animal protein while still building muscle and losing fat? Let’s find out.
Plant-Based Diets for Weight Loss
People who report following vegan, vegetarian and even “semi-vegetarian” diets are less likely to be overweight or obese, indicating that reducing intake of meat and animal products is likely beneficial for weight loss.
Short-term studies have found that people who follow a vegan diet may lose more weight than those on a more conventional weight loss diet, even when consuming a similar amount of calories. Furthermore, participants following vegan diets more often had more significant improvements in blood sugar and inflammation markers. However, more long-term research is needed to determine if these findings withstand the test of time.
Plant-Based Protein and Muscle Gain
It appears that some plant-based proteins are just as effective as animal protein at promoting muscle gain. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that supplementing rice protein following resistance training had similar benefits compared to whey protein supplementation. Both groups had decreased fat-mass, increased lean body mass, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, and improved power and strength.
Of note, plant-based proteins often have lower digestibility compared to animal proteins. However, isolated protein, like rice protein powder, has a similar digestibility compared to animal-based proteins making it an effective post-workout supplement compared to whey protein.
Anecdotally, several world-class athletes have endorsed vegan or plant-based diets. Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady reports following a primarily plant-based diet, and two-time Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris reports that he is 100% vegan.
So is Plant-Based Protein Right for Me?
Studies indicate that you don’t need to be 100% vegan to reap the benefits of eating more plant-based proteins. This lifestyle doesn’t have to be all or nothing – any amount less makes a difference for your health and the environment.
For those wanting to take the plunge and try a 100% plant-based diet, try to avoid becoming a “junk-food vegan”. “Plant-based” does not automatically equate to “healthy”.
Vegan versions of fast food, desserts, and salty junk food (French fries, chips, etc.) should still be limited. Buying foods in their whole forms and preparing them from scratch is equally as important on a plant-based diet as it is for omnivores.
Remember, you don’t have to cut out animal products completely to reap benefits of eating more plant-based foods — any amount less is a step forward for your overall health.
Stephanie Troxell is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach from Denver, Colorado. She specializes in theories of behavior change and has assisted thousands of clients from around the world in uncovering their own unique sources of internal motivation in order to promote lasting healthy habits.