Think of the word “protein.” What’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you’re like a lot of people, it’s often the image of a big, red steak. But plants can be protein powerhouses too. Just like animal proteins, plant-based protein sources provide essential amino acids the body needs to function. And in many ways, they’ve actually proven superior to their mooing, clucking counterparts.
Proteins and Amino Acids
Protein is made in the body with the help of amino acids, which are also used to carry out basic functions needed to survive. There are about 20 amino acids in total and are classified as essential and non-essential. The body can’t product the nine essential amino acids, so they must be obtained from food. That’s where protein comes in. The proteins we get from foods are considered either complete or incomplete. Animal protein sources, such as meat and eggs, are considered complete because they contain adequate levels of all nine of the essential amino acids. Plant proteins like the ones found in nuts, grains, beans, and so forth, are considered incomplete because they may contain low levels of one or more of the essential amino acids (contrary to the belief that they are missing one or more amino acids).
The Power of Plants
So does that mean plant proteins take a back seat to animal proteins? Definitely not. Eating a wide variety of nuts, seed, grains, fruits and vegetables throughout the day or consuming plant-based protein powders is the best way to ensure you’re receiving all the amino acids you require. Not only do plant proteins provide our bodies with essential amino acids, but they’re full of health-boosting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which have shown to be champions in fighting health conditions that have become all too prevalent. Take a look at some of the health concerns that plant proteins can help fight:
Heart disease is the number 1 cause of death in America. One of the main contributors to developing heart disease is high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol isn’t all bad. It’s actually manufactured by the body—we require HDL (the “good cholesterol) to stay healthy. But too much cholesterol from animal sources causes LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) to accumulate in the body. Unlike animal proteins and animal-based protein powders (like whey), plant proteins are naturally free of cholesterol and saturated fat, and that’s good news for your heart. Plus, sodium content can be high especially in processed meats and whey protein unlike plant-based proteins. Plant proteins are also excellent heart-disease fighters for what they do contain—nutrients like magnesium and potassium that help keep the heart in top shape. Plus, plant proteins like beans, oatmeal, and nuts are rich in fiber, which research has shown can help decrease LDL cholesterol levels. One study found that even rice protein powder may help reduce cholesterol levels. Fortunately, simple lifestyle changes can greatly reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Eating more plant-based proteins can even help reverse the effects of heart disease; this study found that those with heart disease lowered their risk of heart attack and death by 70% by following a vegan diet.
Although over 29 million Americans have diabetes, type 2 diabetes is largely preventable. Whether you’re managing your diabetes or taking steps to reduce your risk of developing the disease, fiber-rich plant proteins are must-have additions to your diet. As low-glycemic index foods, whole plant proteins (e.g. beans, lentils, tofu, whole grains, seeds, etc.) help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels by slowing the rate at which food is digested. The American Diabetes Association identifies regulating blood sugar and incorporating plant-proteins into your diet as two simple ways to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, replacing animal proteins with plant proteins was linked to a lower risk of type two diabetes according to this study published April 2017. At minimum, replacing 5 grams of animal protein with plant protein daily was estimated to reduce the risk by 18 percent. You can also help regulate your blood sugar and insulin levels and avoid blood sugar spikes by adding low sugar/carb plant protein powders to foods that are naturally high in sugars or carbohydrates, like smoothies, juices, and baked goods like pancakes and muffins. As an added bonus, you’ll also get heart-healthy boosts of fiber and protein.
1 in 3 Americans are at risk for developing kidney disease—the 9th leading cause of death in the country. Scientists have found that diets high in animal proteins are markedly taxing to our kidneys, leading to increased inflammation, protein leakage into the urine (known as proteinuria), and eventually, kidney disease. Plant proteins, however, do not cause the same strain on the kidneys—even helping slow deterioration of kidney function that has already begun. A study performed by the National Kidney Foundation discovered that the mortality rate of individuals with chronic kidney disease fell significantly when plant proteins were incorporated into their diet. Protein sources that are low in sodium, magnesium, and potassium, like rice protein powder, are ideal for healthy kidneys: the low levels are suitable for individuals with kidney disease and offer a healthy source of protein. As with any supplement, use should be cleared with a health care provider.
Digestive Conditions and Diseases
Chances are good you or someone you know is battling Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)—over 1.6 million Americans are. IBD actually refers to a group of conditions that affect the intestines and bowels. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, and lactose intolerance are a few of the most common digestive conditions. Most people who have these conditions are given a strict set of dietary guidelines from their doctors. Some forms of isolated plant proteins—such as GN rice protein—can be beneficial additions to the IBD/digestive conditions because most of the fiber has been removed, which means they’re able to provide essential proteins without any gas-producing side effects. Because the strict diets digestive conditions require can get boring, plant proteins help provide variety. With the exception of soy protein, most are also allergen-friendly, so they’re easy to incorporate. Plus, naturally dairy-free plant proteins are excellent protein substitutions to dairy and dairy-based protein powders like whey and casein for people with lactose or casein intolerance.
Around half of all Americans want to lose weight, and that’s a pretty good goal—as excess pounds drop, so does the risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, bone and joint diseases, stroke, and even some cancers. While exercise is essential to losing weight and strengthening muscles and bones, making healthy changes to your diet will not only help you lose weight, but reduce your risk of developing diet-related diseases. Both whole and isolated plant proteins are ideal components of a healthy meal plan. They’re naturally fat-free, low in calories, and rich in essential nutrients. They’re also full of fiber and healthy protein, so you feel fuller longer. Making healthy changes and incorporating plant proteins into your whole family’s meal plan may help your children not only develop healthy eating habits, but fight obesity themselves. A European study found that plant proteins may help play a part in preventing adolescent obesity, while researchers from this study found that enjoying plant-based foods was instrumental in reducing a child’s risk for becoming overweight.
It’s a well-known fact: foods can fight cancer. As many as 35 to 50 percent of cancers develop as a result of diet, which means cutting your cancer risk could be as straightforward as adjusting what you put on your plate. Studies have shown that societies with the highest consumption of saturated fats also have the highest rates of breast and colon cancer deaths. Plant proteins, on the other hand, are powerful components of an anti-cancer diet. Oncologist identify as the most beneficial types of foods for helping stave off cancer. Vegetables and plant proteins are rich in natural cancer-fighting properties called phytochemicals, which aren’t found in animal proteins. These antioxidant, anti-inflammatory substances are known to help prevent cancer, and can even stop food substances from converting into carcinogens in the body.
Arthritis comes in many different forms. There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and while it’s a condition that many people associate with old age, it can occur at any age—over 50 million American adults and 300,000 children nationwide have some form of arthritis. One common form of arthritis is inflammatory arthritis. Inflammation is the body’s response to harmful toxins or injuries. Normally this response protects us, but when inflammation occurs without a trigger like a virus or injury, it’s referred to as an autoimmune disease—such as inflammatory arthritis—and can cause the body to harm itself. Fortunately, taking a proactive approach to arthritis can help prevent joint damage and slow its growth rate. Studies have shown that swapping portions of animal proteins for plant proteins not only reduce the occurrences of arthritis, but can actually be used to treat arthritis symptoms. Incorporating anti-inflammatory, plant-based foods into your diet is essential to managing the symptoms of arthritis. Unlike animal sources of protein, which are high in saturated fats that cause inflammation, plant proteins are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds that help alleviate arthritis.
Reaping the Benefits of Plants
You don’t have to become a vegetarian or radically overhaul your diet to experience the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Edamame, black beans, quinoa, chia, lentils, chickpeas, wild rice, peanuts, and plant protein powders are just a few delicious and nutritiously-dense plant proteins you can add every day to your meals. An easy way to start is by incorporating Meatless Mondays into your week. A few simple substitutions can transform your favorite meat-based dishes into healthy and delicious plant-based options—try fresh burritos with black beans and rice, swap your cold cut sandwich for quinoa, chickpeas, and marinated chicken breast; or add a scoop of plant-based protein powder to your favorite muffin or smoothie recipe. When it comes to your health, the power of plants can’t be ignored! Adding more plant-based proteins through simple changes to your diet can help you enjoy a healthier life.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian