HEALTHY LIVING

The Nutritional Quality of Plant Proteins

The Nutritional Quality of Plant Proteins

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Should you eat more plant proteins?

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JAN. 27, 2021    3 MIN. READ
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Plant-based proteins have steadily been growing in popularity, and this trend is expected to increase in the next decade, with many people choosing plant proteins for health, environmental and ethical reasons. You've likely started noticing more plant-based products in your grocery store or heard discussions about them in the news.

As plant proteins start showing up in more places, it's important to keep in mind that there are many different kinds — and they can vary in nutritional quality. If you decide to add plant-based proteins to your diet in place of animal proteins, you need to understand these differences. By keeping a few key points in mind, you can maintain (and enjoy) a nutritious and well-balanced diet.

Here are insights and answers related to some of the most common questions surrounding plant-based proteins. 

What Are the Most Common (and Best) Sources of Plant Protein?

Believe it or not, many plant-based foods offer good sources of protein. Not only are soy products like tofu or tempeh a good source of protein, but this macronutrient is also available in beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and even some vegetables.

It's important to note that plants have lower amounts of protein than animal sources and they tend to be less calorie dense — so you may need to eat more to meet your daily needs. For this reason, individuals have increasingly been turning to specialized products to ensure they get the amount of protein they need to feel their best.

"It has now become much easier for consumers to boost intake of plant proteins via the availability of multiple plant-based protein concentrates (soy, pea, canola, potato, fava, etc.) in the food industry," said Steven Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, senior scientist of clinical research with Abbott's Global Scientific and Medical Affairs team, in a review article in Nutrients. "Plant protein isolates and concentrates, which often contain 80 percent or more protein by weight, make it possible to consume 10–20 grams or more of plant-based protein per one serving of a ready-to-drink shake or powder mix."

For example, Ensure® Plant-Based nutrition shakes combine fava bean protein isolate with pea protein concentrate to create a no-dairy, vegan shake that has 20 grams of plant-based protein and 180 calories. This is an easy and convenient way to take advantage of the nutritional benefits of protein without having to significantly alter your routine diet.

The Health Benefits of Plant Protein

The health benefits offered by plant protein are just one reason why plant-based diets are growing in popularity. Research has pointed to several health advantages:

  • Improved heart health: An article in the Journal of the American Heart Association described a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than 100 studies and concluded that people who substitute plant protein for animal protein typically have lower indicators for cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduced risk of obesity: An observational study of more than 1,800 European adolescents published in Nutrition Journal found a link between total animal protein intake and obese adolescents. In addition, the adolescents that consumed higher levels of plant protein had lower body fat percentages and BMIs compared with those adolescents with higher animal protein intake.
  • Lower rate of mortality: A report published in JAMA Internal Medicine observed that plant protein intake was inversely associated with all-cause mortality after following over 400,000 people aged 50-71 for more than 15 years. Additionally, it was suggested that plant protein helped reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease in both males and females. Researchers concluded that replacing just 3% of animal protein with plant protein was associated with a 10 percent reduction in overall mortality in both men and women. 

“Today there are many plant-based products available. Plant protein isolates and concentrates, found in protein powders, bars and other foods, which often contain 80 percent or more protein by weight, make it possible to consume 10–20 grams or more of plant-based protein per one serving of a ready-to-drink shake or powder mix “.

 

Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, senior nutrition scientist, Abbott

What Are Indispensable Amino Acids?

When considering plant-based proteins, it's important to touch on amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein. Indispensable amino acids are often referred to as "essential amino acids," meaning the body can't make them and they must be consumed through food.

One of the most common concerns around plant proteins is that they have insufficient levels of one or more indispensable amino acids.

As grains and legumes are missing different amino acids, eating these two foods over the course of the day allows them to "complement" one another, helping to meet requirements for both types of essential amino acids. Hertzler explained that it isn't necessary to consume complementary protein sources at the same meal if the gap between meals is less than three hours.

The following are examples of combinations of plant-based proteins work together to create a complementary protein:

  • Rice and lentils
  • Peas and rice
  • Beans and rice
  • Nut butter and whole grains
  • Oats and nuts

Are There Any Safety Concerns When Eating Plant-Based Protein?

While plant-based proteins are generally safe and a healthy part of the diet, some concerns have been expressed regarding potential adverse health effects of plant proteins.  For example, soy often comes under scrutiny because it contains isoflavones.

 Another concern is that soy is recognized as  one of the eight most common food allergens by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Even so, Hertzler and colleagues point out that soy protein allergy is relatively rare compared with other common food allergens such as milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. 

Bottom line. If you start a plant-based diet, take it slow. If you need additional support, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about how to make the transition.

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