The Good and Bad of Plant-Based Proteins
BY: Danielle Winston
JULY 11, 2021
Plant-based eating conjures up images of wild greens and veggies growing lush on a country farm, but it's impossible to stay healthy without tossing protein in the mix. Why does protein matter so much? Like food itself, its value lies in its makeup: protein consists of an amino acid chain, linked to building muscle mass, brain health, proper functioning of the central nervous and immune systems, and more. According to Integrative medicine specialist, Tsao-lin Moy, founder of Integrative Healing Arts, lacking sufficient protein may “lead to thinning hair, dry skin, hunger, food cravings, fatigue, loss of muscle, and lowered immune function.” While vegetables do contain various amounts of protein, getting enough of the right type isn't as easy as it sounds. For vegans it's tricky because, unlike animal protein, plant sources are often incomplete, meaning they lack one or more of the 9 essential amino acids needed for optimum functioning; and since your body doesn't produce them naturally, they come solely from diet. So how much protein does your body actually need? There isn't a one-size-fits-everybody answer. Depending on age, weight, and exercise level, different amounts are recommended daily, starting at roughly 50 grams a day. To determine what's best for you, consult the online protein calculator.
Eating from nature ought to provide you with a sense of inner balance and wellbeing, not confusion over which dizzying option to choose when food shopping. So, take a healing breath, and check out the positives and negatives of various proteins below.
Soy (tofu, tempeh, processed soy, textured proteins)
Plus: nutritious soy packs a protein punch. Highly versatile, it can be savory or sweet, used in everything from desserts to dinner. Moy says, “More ethnic and traditional forms of soy products are less manipulated.” For instance, “Tofu skins are a by-product made during the processing of tofu. They are a bean curd that is high in protein and vitamins. In Japan, bean curd skins are called Yuba, and come in the form of soy milk, tofu, miso (fermented soy), tempeh and edamame.”
Minus: many soy products are GMO, contain pesticides, and have natural estrogenic effects. So, seek out organic, non GMO, with minimal processing. As for possible hormonal disruption, Moy says, “Many plants are phyto-estrogens and can mimic estrogen, but the body will convert what it needs. Just because a substance is a phyto-estrogen, does not mean it is the cause of increased estrogen levels. It is not clear that eating soy based foods will disrupt hormones.” Check with your doctor for safety concerns.
Plus: the trendy meat substitute boasts such an authentic look and feel of meat, that it even bleeds (from beet juice). Not exactly a positive if your love of animals has inspired you to go vegan! Also similar to beef, Beyond weighs in at a hefty 20 grams of protein, mostly derived from pea protein isolate, as well as some mung bean protein; both are considered relatively healthy. The first clinical trial involving Beyond Meat was conducted by Stanford University; 36 participants consumed Beyond products every day for 8 weeks, and were compared to animal protein consumption. Findings discovered Beyond's plant-based products improved the subject’s cardiovascular disease risk factors, with no harmful effects.
Minus: pea protein can magnify the purine content in peas (chemical compounds that forms uric acid), which may contribute to certain inflammatory health conditions such as gout. While ingredients in Beyond are arguably better than some meatless options, this burger still falls into the category of a highly processed food. Containing over twenty ingredients, along with your tasty burger, you'll get maltodextrin, modified food starch, and more. For specifics, see Business Insider's ingredient breakdown here.
Beans & Lentils
Plus: kidney, navy, pinto. Consuming beans and lentils are an ideal way to up your daily protein. Most beans contain roughly 7 grams a half cup, as well as fiber to benefit gut health, and help you feel satiated. Beans also come with an abundance of antioxidants, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Moy likes, “chickpeas because they are easy to add to many meals, lightly sauteed with onions and curry spices. They help with digestion and inflammation. Chickpeas can be made into hummus, and used to spread on toast along with sliced avocado, and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds.”
Minus: Depending on the bean, carb count can be substantial. When added to store-bought products, such as veggie burgers or meat substitutes, be aware of unhealthy ingredients, possible fillers and chemical additives. The same applies to commercially manufactured hummus and bean dips.
Plus: simple and nutritious, a ½ cup of cooked peas contains 4 grams of protein. Additionally, they have vitamin C, potassium, iron, fiber, and relatively low calories and carbs. Steam and add peas liberally to cooked meals. Or consume raw or chilled in smoothies and salads.
Minus: in addition to purine content, be aware that peas contain 4 grams of sugar per ½ cup.
Seitan (Vital Wheat gluten)
Plus: high in protein (roughly 15-20 grams per serving), texture and flavor works well for simple and gourmet preparations alike. May substitute for meat in most dishes. It's sodium-free, contains selenium, and small amounts of iron, copper and phosphorus.
Minus: many people find gluten difficult to digest, and for those with Celiac Disease it's intolerable. So, if you are sensitive to gluten this is obviously one to avoid. “Depending on how good your gut flora is, will also determine how well you break down the proteins and absorb the nutrient,” says Moy. Even if you are not gluten sensitive, depending on the brand, there will usually be added ingredients. Always seek out clean, non GMO, and organic.
Quinoa & Buckwheat
Plus: often thought of as grains, quinoa and buckwheat are actually tiny seeds, but there's nothing small about their wellness benefits. Both are complete proteins, offering all 9 essential amino acids. They are also naturally anti-inflammatory and fiber rich, and gluten-free. Breakfast, side dish, main course, hot or cold, delightful anytime of day!
Minus: very little negatives. Both have relatively high carb counts though. So be mindful of portion size. And when opting for flours and other processed products, always check added ingredients.
Nuts & Seeds
Plus: snacking on nuts and seeds throughout your day adds protein without harmful additives. For instance, a handful of almonds (1 Oz) contains roughly 6 grams of protein. Sunflower seeds are an underrated food, with a little less than 6 grams of protein per serving. Health benefits of nuts and seeds vary greatly, check this handy breakdown.
Minus: many nuts and seeds contain high concentrations of oils. So opt for heart healthy anti-inflammatory poly & monounsaturated fats, and low saturated content. Nuts and seeds can be a little too delicious, which isn't always a good thing. It can be tempting to finish a whole bag of raw cashews without realizing.
*Note: Moy loves Nutritional yeast, “because it is very tasty (cheesy) and easy to add as flavoring. Nutritional yeast is a cousin of brewers yeast and considered a complete protein, high in B12 and folic acid. It is also low glycemic.”
Ultimately, veganism offers an abundance of positives. “Health comes from more than the foods we consume, but also the environment that we live in,” adds Moy. And in the future, there are many bright spots on the healthy eating horizon; scientists are busy developing new formulations of protein derived from potatoes, as well as researching ways to make plant proteins taste better and also healthier. Choosing this compassionate lifestyle offers a profound awareness of food, rooted in its source, the ultimate in self-care for you and the planet.