Plant Protein Primer: Does Plant Protein Justify The Hype

Too Many Choices

There’s a newfound emphasis on protein. More and more, the macronutrient is recommended as part of every diet, whether for adding muscle, losing weight, and maintaining good health.

As a result, there are more protein products to choose from. You can choose between whey, casein, plant based, “organic,” coffee infused, hydrolyzed, isolate… and those are just the powders. Whole food derived sources are just as plentiful, with a recent emphasis on plant based protein illuminating just how many options we have.

Setting up your diet may look daunting when there are so many choices But don’t fret, setting up your meal plan or trying to stick to the healthy habits you worked so hard to attain.

The recent emphasis on plant based protein, whether from powder or wholesome foods, makes clean eating an even more confusing process.

Protein’s Basic Role

Before we determine whether vegetable sourced protein can work for you, it’s worth explaining some fundamentals. This way, you have a basic understanding when choosing.

Protein, along with dietary fats and carbohydrates, is one of three essential macronutrients that all food is composed of. Protein builds and repairs cells, hence it’s vital role affects every cell in your body.

Further, protein’s role in maintaining and developing muscle tissue makes it an essential part of every bodybuilder and fitness enthusiast’s diet.

What’s The Difference?

Those are the benefits; they’re why you’re looking to get more in the first place. But what is protein made of? If it were all the same, you’d stick to chicken breast and make a whey shake later.

Complete protein has all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential ones. Subsequently, incomplete protein is missing some of the essential amino acids. What are essential amino acids?

Out of the 20, essential amino acids are those that your body can’t make itself, unlike the other 11, which it produces on its own.

Hence, the main distinction between protein sources, in general, is that some are complete, while others lack a complete amino acid profile.

The Plant Protein Phenomenon

Back to the topic at hand, plant based protein. The most frequently cited complaint against the alternative protein is its purported inability to aid in muscle recovery. After all, it’s one of protein’s biggest benefits as it plays a vital role in muscle tissue building and repair, hence why it’s recommended after a heavy workout.

However, as I’ve previously explained in my guide on BCAAs, leucine – one of the three branched chain and more essential amino acids – is imperative in this very task. Hence, the lack of leucine and other essential amino acids in most plant proteins makes it a poor dietary substitution, especially for muscle growth and stimulation.

Complements

Arguments countering the “incomplete protein” stance advocate plant based sources assuming that you’re getting your essential amino acids elsewhere already. The argument makes plant protein seem complimentary to actual complete protein.

However, those against animal based protein are vehemently opposed to a scenario where both have a place in your diet. They try and make up for an incomplete amino acid profile by combining incomplete sources until they attain a complete profile.

Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. For example, you can combine rice, peas, and beans, to ensure retention of all necessary amino acids.

But how practical is this method? It’s doable, but such a tedious practice is the last thing that you need if you’re already having a hard time with the higher discipline and effort levels associated with healthier eating.

Giving It a Go

You figured you’re going to give this “healthier lifestyle” thing a go. Even better, you decided to further restrict yourself and make it more difficult by only eating plant based protein.

Not difficult enough? Now, look up the amino acid profiles of your grains and vegetables to make sure you’re getting everything you need.

Finally, exponentially increase how much you’re eating since standard servings of plant based protein have less protein than their animal-derived counterparts. Simply put, it’s not practical and unnecessarily difficult.

Moreover, keep in mind that if fat loss is a part of your objective, you’re probably on a calorie deficit. To retain or build muscle while in a caloric deficit, you may need more protein.

If you’re wondering how much protein you should have, here’s an article explaining everything you need to know. 

Now let’s sum it all up. To sustain a beneficial and plant based protein fueled diet while attempting fat loss and muscle gain or retention, your diet has to contain disproportionately high amounts of complete plant based protein sources.

In the alternative, if the protein you eat is incomplete, you have to consistently regulate your diet to make sure that these sources complement each other well enough to make up a complete amino acid profile. Don’t want a headache? Eat both. There’s nothing wrong with eating animal sourced protein along with the

Don’t want a headache? Eat both. There’s nothing wrong with eating animal sourced protein along with the plant based variety.

Plant Protein Based Food

Quinoa

A superfood staple, quinoa is a fiber and protein packed pseudo cereal1 which packs six grams of protein and five grams of fiber per serving. Most importantly, quinoa is one of a few non-animal protein sources which offer a complete amino acid profile.

Buckwheat

An alternative to rice, buckwheat is similar to Japanese rhubarb. The protein in buckwheat is high quality as it has a complete amino acid profile, including all nine essential amino acids.

Farro

Farro is a fiber packed wheat grain, which yields six grams of protein from every quarter cup2. Unlike buckwheat and quinoa, farro is not a complete protein, but what it lacks in amino acids it makes up in fiber, with one quarter cup containing seven grams of fiber.

Tofu

Another exception to “incomplete” plant proteins, tofu has a complete amino acid profile. However, even though it contains all essential amino acids, it possesses them in relatively low amounts.

Due to its complete but low profile, tofu requires other incomplete protein sources to give your body all essential amino acids. Per 100 grams, tofu has 8.2 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber.

Steel Cut Oatmeal

A breakfast staple, steel cut oats are a healthier alternative to their rolled counterparts. Although each serving provides five grams of protein, the portion is incomplete as it lacks some essential amino acids.

Steel cut oatmeal makes up for its protein deficiencies with low glycemic index properties. Consequently, the oats don’t spike blood sugar as much, an adverse side effect which may lead to serious health complications including diabetes.                                     

  Edemame

Standing out from other vegetarian protein sources, a one cup serving of edemame packs 18 grams of protein. Edemame is fiber-rich and part of the soybean family so it’s high-quality protein source as it contains all essential amino acids.

Edemame is beneficial in particular as it not only has a complete amino acid profile but also a high protein content. At 18 grams of protein per serving, edemamde rivals most animal sourced alternatives.

Black Beans

Just one-half cup of cooked black beans is packed with almost eight grams of protein and eight grams of fiber. The legume is versatile enough that it’s often used as a substitute for animal sourced protein like beef.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms come in many varieties, with some containing more protein than others. Like black beans, Portobello mushrooms, in particular, are often substituted for burgers instead of beef. In fact, one cup of grilled Portobello mushrooms packs five grams of protein for only 42 calories.

Legumes

With nine grams per half cup serving, legumes are relatively high protein and nutrient dense, due in part to their high fiber content. Unfortunately, legumes have to be paired with other protein sources to make a complete meal due to their incomplete amino acid profile.

Almonds and Almond Butter

An excellent source of dietary fat, almonds also pack a fair amount of protein, with almost seven grams per serving. The calorie-dense tree nut is filling and nutritious; packed with both poly and monounsaturated fats.

Peanuts and Peanut Butter

The groundnut has seven grams of protein in every serving. In its buttery form, the childhood classic is a comfort food with numerous nutritional benefits. Like its tree nut cousin, peanuts are an excellent source of both poly and monounsaturated fats.

Plant Based Protein Powders

 Soy Protein Powder

Isolated from soybeans, soy protein is one of the more popular alternatives to animal-based protein. Soy protein has been recognized as a viable alternative for some time now. In fact, the FDA saw it as a heart healthy protein option as early as 19993.

Even though most recent research agrees that its whey isolate counterpart is a better option for muscular grown4 5, the soybean-derived protein has other benefits. Namely, it’s been noted for its effect as a cancer deterrent6 7 and for its effect on greater heart health.

Pea Protein Powder

Derived from field peas, pea protein is one of the newer sources of non-animal protein on the market. Early research does show great potential, however, with someone studies even concluding that it may be as effective as whey in terms of efficient protein synthesis8.

Such efficacy makes sense as pea protein’s amino acid profile is almost identical to that of common animal protein sources. Hence, pea protein does contain all nine essential amino acids. However, three of them – methionine, tryptophan, and valine – present in low quantities.

Fortunately, most pea protein powders come pre-mixed with rice and subsequently have a complete amino acid profile.

It’s worth noting that valine is one of the three branched chain amino acids that’s not as “useful” as its counterpart, leucine. Another benefit? Along with casein, pea protein has a greater effect on satiation than other protein sources

Another benefit? Along with casein, pea protein has a greater effect on satiation than other protein sources9.

Hemp Protein Powder

Known for its less than stellar taste, hemp protein has a complete amino acid profile. However, the protein suffers from the same deficiencies as other plant-based proteins. Namely, even though it has all the amino acids, it has some of them – lysine and leucine – in such a low amount that supplementation from other sources is required.

Hemp protein is however known for its cardiovascular benefits10 and high rates of digestibility, which allows your body to quickly utilize the amino acids that hemp does have in abundance.

Why Not Both?

As I stressed earlier, plant based protein makes an excellent complement to whole animal proteins. However, it is possible to have a wholesome diet with a complete amino acid profile through an exclusively vegetarian based diet. The aforementioned foods and supplements are a testament to that. But in the interest of achieving a sustained lifestyle change, it’s important to eliminate unnecessary obstacles.

Spending energy to figure out the perfect cocktail of incomplete proteins or consuming large amounts of complete but lower-in-protein amount grains and vegetables will only impede your healthy lifestyle pursuits. Additional obstacles are the last thing that you need as you chase a sustainable healthy lifestyle.

The absolute best diet combines both animal and plant-based proteins. The wide variety of foods which contain both make it easy to have plenty of each in your diet. Such an optimized diet will benefit your health while empowering our will.

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