Written by: Leora Aframian, MS, RDN
Health benefits and disease prevention
Plant-based diets are associated with a great number of health benefits and disease prevention. Its’ popularity has become more prominent for those who are looking to improve their health status or avoid future diseases.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets discusses these benefits in detail,
“Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control”
(Melina et al.,2016).
Many who opt for vegan or vegetarian diets have the nutritional goal of preventive care, lowering their risk of many health conditions which can lead to a healthier and fuller life in the long run. Conversely, some have chosen the vegetarian or vegan diet after struggling with some of the conditions mentioned above and have found solace in the plant-based nature of the diet.
How to start
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defends vegan, lacto- ovo- vegetarian and lacto-vegetarian diets at almost every stage of life as long as it is planned and executed correctly (Melina et al.,2016). Planning a well-balanced meal can sometimes be a barrier for those who would like to move forward with a more plant-based regimen but do not know where to begin. One part of the proper planning procedure is finding the right sources of protein.
This can remain a challenge for those hoping to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or just opting to keep it more plant-based. It can be especially difficult for those who are new to this diet, or considering it, to find proper and complementary sources of protein. However, there are various nutritious plant-based protein options to choose from.
Protein is involved in many essential functions in the human body. They are considered to be the building blocks of the muscular system, hair, skin, nails, and work in everyday growth and repair. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which are considered essential, that is, our body does not produce them, we must get them from our diet.
The nine essential amino acids include Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Methionine, Valine, and Phenylalanine. All plant foods contain all of the essential amino acids, in that way they are “complete”.
However, some plant-based proteins do not contain enough specific amino acids so they must be paired with others for a synergistic approach. It is important for vegetarians and vegans to consider the quality of their protein as well as incorporating a variety of sources when planning their daily meals to ensure all essential amino acids are covered in appropriate amounts throughout the day.
The protein source
Below is a list of 6 plant-based protein source ideas as well as their nutritional considerations.
- Soy products: Soy products are considered to be high-quality proteins because they are rich in the amino acid Lysine which is usually limited in vegan diets. Soybeans and soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and most other soy products are good sources of protein as they are some of the highest sources of lysine (Palmer, 2017). According to the USDA’s Food Data Central, 1 cup of green cooked, boiled soybeans, unsalted contains 22 grams of protein (2019).
- Seitan: Seitan has become a popular meat substitute due to its high protein content. It is made of hydrated gluten which is found in wheat products. A three-ounce serving of seitan contains between 15 and 21 grams of protein. Seitan is low in the amino acid lysine so it would be ideal to pair it with a rich source of lysine to complete your daily amino acid profile (Julson, 2018).
- Black beans: Black beans are both a good source of protein and fiber. According to the USDA, 1 cup of cooked and boiled black beans contains 15.2 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber (2019). You may have heard the popular combination of mixing beans and rice in order to create a “complete” protein. Beans are high in the essential amino acid lysine but low in methionine. Conversely, rice is higher in methionine but lower in lysine, in this way, these two foods are complementary.
- Lentils: Lentils are a good source of protein and iron. The USDA reports, 1 cup of plain dry, cooked lentils contains 16 grams of protein and almost 6 grams of iron (2019). Like beans, lentils traditionally lack in the amino acid methionine, it would be wise to pair a nutritionally adequate source of methionine, in the same meal, or throughout the day to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts.
- Quinoa: Quinoa is a unique grain as it contains higher quantities of lysine than others such as wheat or rice (Bistrian, 2010). 1 cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.14 grams of protein as well as 5.18 grams of fiber as reported by the USDA (2019). Quinoa is a gluten-free grain and can work as a great alternative to wheat products for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
- Chia: Chia seeds are a good source of protein and they are rich in omega-three fatty acids, calcium, phosphorus, and fiber. Two tablespoons of chia seeds contain 4 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020). Chia seeds are a healthy and delicious addition to almost any meal.
For those who have chosen to incorporate a more plant-based regime, finding that sweet spot of a balanced diet, especially in regards to protein can be believed a difficult task. It can be a challenge to those new to this diet to find acceptable protein sources in sufficient amounts of the essential amino acids daily.
Still, many people are choosing a more plant-based routine such as vegetarian or vegan diets because of their association with numerous health benefits. Proper protein planning can be easy when done correctly. There is an abundance of protein choices and combinations to choose from. As such, it is best to balance different protein sources throughout the day to ensure nourishment from a variety of foods, and all essential amino acids are accounted for.
1. “Beans, black, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt” FoodData Central. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019.
2. Bistrian, Bruce, M.D., Ph.D. “By the Way, Doctor: Isn’t Quinoa a Supplier of Complete Proteins?” Harvard Health Letter. Harvard Health Publishing, Sept. 2010.
3.”Chia Seeds.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2020.
4. Julson, Erica. “Is Seitan (Vital Wheat Gluten) Healthy?” Nutrition. Healthline, 2018.
5.”Lentils, dry, cooked, fat not added in cooking.” Food Data Central. United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019.
6.Melina, Vesanto, Winston Craig, and Susan Levin. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 116.12 (2016): 1970-980. Eat Right Pro. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016.
7.Palmer, Sharon, RDN. “Plant Proteins.” Today’s Dietitian Feb. 2017: 26. Print.
“Quinoa, cooked.” FoodData Central. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019.
8.”Soybeans, Green, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, without Salt.” Food Data Central. United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019.