Healthy Plant-Based Protein
Protein is a crucial nutrient for our bodies, playing a variety of essential roles in maintaining our health and wellbeing. Responsible for growth and repair, enzymatic reactions, antibody production, transport of key compounds, immune defense, and hormonal regulation, proteins do a lot of heavy lifting for our health. Without them, our body's functioning systems would be compromised.
Proteins are large molecules made up of long chains of amino acids. Amino acids are often described as “the building blocks of protein.”
"Proteins are made up of amino acids which our bodies use to create DNA and perform regular functions. There are 20 different amino acids but only nine of them are essential. Since our body cannot produce them on its own those must be obtained through diet,” explains Nadia Mahmud, Nutritionist, Roundglass. Plant proteins are linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
What is the Role of Proteins in our Bodies?
The thousands of proteins in our bodies are responsible for a wide range of biological processes with diverse, crucial functions:
Building and repairing tissues: Protein is a vital component of the body’s cells, tissues, and organs, necessary for building and repairing muscle, bone, skin, and other tissues.
Energy production: While carbohydrates and fats are the primary sources of energy for our bodies, protein can also be broken down and used as fuel.
Enzyme production: Many enzymes in our bodies are made of proteins, harnessed for chemical reactions that take place in our bodies, like digestion and metabolism.
Hormone production: Hormones such as insulin and growth hormone are comprised of proteins and impact metabolism, growth, and development.
Immune system support: Antibodies are specialized proteins that protect the body from harmful viruses and bacteria.
What Are the Best Plant-based Sources of Protein?
There are many plant-based sources of protein that can help meet our daily needs. Here are some of the best:
Legumes: Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans, are excellent sources of protein. They are also high in fiber, which can help promote digestive health and reduce cardiovascular risk.
Soy Products: Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are complete sources of plant protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that the body needs.
Vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, and peas not only have protein, but also important nutrients like iron and vitamin C. These vegetables also have bioactives like sulforaphane that help fight inflammation.
Whole Grains: Quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat contain protein and fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
What Are the Best Ways to Eat Protein?
The amount of protein to eat for good health depends on a person's age, sex, body weight, activity level, and overall health status. Generally, it is recommended that adults consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. However, athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and older adults may require more to support their specific needs.
Getting too much protein can have negative health effects, including bone loss, kidney damage, risk of heart disease, and even cancer. It is best to consult with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian for individualized advice on protein intake based on your age, physical activity level, and goals.
It is always good to soak beans in water for a few hours and cook them well before consuming to get their nutritional benefits. Legumes contain lectins which are called anti-nutrients in their raw state. The toxin phytohaemagglutinin is a lectin which is found naturally in legumes such as kidney beans (white and red), broad beans, and peas. It can lead to gastroenteric distress, indigestion, bloating and stomach cramps when beans are consumed raw or undercooked.
Eating protein in combination with other nutrients can improve how your body absorbs and uses it, helping slow blood sugar spikes. Here are some of the best matches:
Protein and carbohydrates: Rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes can help improve the absorption of amino acids into muscles, especially helpful after exercise to assist in repairing and building muscle tissue.
Protein and healthy fats: Foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado can help slow down protein absorption, allowing it to be released gradually into the bloodstream. This can help improve satiety and prevent blood sugar spikes.
Protein and vitamin C: Foods high in vitamin C like citrus, berries, and leafy greens can help improve the absorption of iron from plant-based proteins. This is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans, who may have a higher risk of iron deficiency.
Protein and probiotics: Yogurt and kefir can help improve gut health and digestion, assisting in nutrient absorption.
Who Needs More Protein and Why?
Consider upping your protein intake if you are part of these groups:
Athletes and active individuals: Active people may require more protein to support muscle repair and growth, particularly endurance athletes prone to muscle breakdown during lengthy workouts.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women: Pregnant and breastfeeding women require more protein to support the growth and development of the fetus and infant.
Older adults: Over 65? More protein is important to combat age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) and to stay strong and active.
Vegetarians and vegans: Consider more protein to ensure you’re absorbing all the needed essential amino acids.
People recovering from injury or illness: Protein supports tissue repair and healing.
What Are the Best Times to Include Protein in our Diets?
Consider the benefits of protein-rich food throughout the day:
Breakfast: The first meal of the day can kick-start metabolism, reduce hunger and cravings, and provide sustained energy. Good options include eggs, Greek yogurt, and smoothies with protein powder or nut butter.
Post-workout: After exercising, protein can help promote muscle repair and growth, as well as improve recovery time. Try whey protein shakes, tempeh or tofu, and nuts and seeds.
Snacks: Healthy snacks keep hunger at bay and prevent overeating at mealtimes. Grab a protein bar or fruit with nuts or nut butter. Hummus with veggies is a good choice, too.
Regular Meals: Get satiety and support muscle repair and growth when you add plant-based options to your plate like tofu, legumes, and some grass-fed dairy products.
Protein-based Recipe Inspiration
You can get your protein from a wide variety of dishes you’re probably already enjoying on a regular basis. Get creative!
Falafel sandwich: Crispy chickpea patties, vegetables, and a tahini-based sauce make for a great on-the-go option.
Tofu stir-fry: A stir-fry is a great way to load up on veggies.
Vegan chili: Create your own spicy standard and add some rice or cornbread on the side.
Bean burrito: Wrap up your beans in a tortilla with rice and vegetables (and optional cheese) for a protein-packed meal.
Lentil soup: Comfort in a bowl is a hearty soup made with lentils, vegetables, and spices.
Quinoa salad: Toss a salad with quinoa and a variety of vegetables, nuts, and seeds to back for lunch or for an oven-free dinner.
Chana masala: Have some rice or flatbread ready to serve with chickpeas cooked in a spicy tomato-based sauce.
Protein plays a key part in a wide range of incredibly diverse biological processes. So, make sure to eat a variety of plant-based proteins for a nutrient-packed punch to every meal.
- Protein helps in building and repairing tissues and organs
- Protein supports immunity and hormone production
- Plant-based proteins add culinary diversity to your meals