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Eating well

October 01, 2018

What you need to know about plant-based proteins

Looking for meatless or dairy-free ways to get your protein? Here are some great plant-based alternatives that can help you stay strong and healthy.

“Plant-based” is a buzzword you may be seeing a lot lately. It simply means a way of eating that prioritizes food from plants over that from animals. Whether it’s for ethical reasons, personal health or the health of the planet, many Canadians have adopted plant-based eating habits. Plant-based eating can range from strict veganism (no animal products at all) to various versions of vegetarianism (no to meat, yes to eggs, dairy and perhaps fish), to simply choosing to cut back on eating meat. Whichever route you choose, one of your first tasks is to find substitutes for meat. One of the important nutrients in meat and dairy products is protein, so how do you get protein in a plant-based diet?

Why do people need protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient our bodies use to build and repair tissues and make enzymes and hormones. Eating protein helps us to feel full and keeps us from getting hungry again too quickly. We commonly think of meat, dairy and eggs as the main sources of protein in the traditional Western diet. But while it’s true that these animal-based foods are sources of complete protein (more on that later), here’s something you might not know: Most foods contain protein – even plants. 

“Protein is present in almost all foods, even vegetables, fruits, breads and grains,” says Toronto-based dietitian Pamela Fergusson, RD, PhD. “It spans every food group.”

Can you be protein-deficient?

According to Health Canada, there’s no percentage of daily value for protein listed on the nutrition labelling on packaged food in Canada (like there is for nutrients such as calcium, iron or vitamins) because most Canadians who eat a varied diet get enough protein.

“There isn’t any problem of protein deficiency as long as you’re eating enough calories or food,” Fergusson says. “The protein you consume from veggies, fruits, nuts and whole grains all adds up at the end of the day.” 

But what about the difference between complete and incomplete proteins? A complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins – often found in plant foods – lack one or more of these amino acids. 

“We used to believe that people on a plant-based diet needed to eat complementary proteins at each meal to add up to all the amino acids,” Fergusson says. Complementary proteins are formed by combining two or more foods with incomplete protein, like peanut butter on whole-wheat bread, or rice and beans. “That theory has been debunked. We now understand that we store amino acids and can combine them from our food intake throughout the day.”  

If you do want sources of complete plant-based protein in your diet, Fergusson recommends tofu, buckwheat, edamame, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and quinoa.

The benefits of plant-based protein

Why opt for plant-based proteins over protein from meat or dairy? “The wonderful thing about plant-based foods is that, along with protein, you’re also consuming all the fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants they contain,” Fergusson explains. “These are vital nutrients that you might not find in meat-based foods or products.”

She adds: “There’s also a lot of research out there confirming that people with diets rich in plant-based protein have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.”

Data presented earlier this year at Nutrition 2018, the American Society for Nutrition’s annual conference, found that vegetarians or people who ate mostly plant-based foods enjoyed several health benefits, including:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Lower body mass index
  • Smaller waist circumference
  • Lower amounts of abdominal fat

The best sources of plant-based proteins

If you’re trying to cut back on meat without sacrificing protein, Fergusson says there are plenty of options available: “The highest sources of protein from plant-based foods come from legumes, lentils, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds.”  

But don’t forget your veggies. “Among vegetables, kale, broccoli, asparagus, edamame and spinach are also high in protein.”

For every 250 mL of the following plant-based foods, you can receive a good amount of protein (listed in grams, below):

  • Kidney beans, 43 g
  • Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), 39 g
  • Tofu, 20 g
  • Lentils, 18 g
  • Edamame, 13 g
  • Pumpkin seeds, 12 g
  • Quinoa, 8 g
  • Green peas, 5 g
  • Raisins, 5 g
  • Kale, 3 g
  • Potatoes, 3 g
  • Broccoli, 3 g
  • Avocados, 3 g
  • Jackfruit, 3 g
  • Asparagus, 3 g
  • Spinach, 2 g

What about plant-based protein powders?

Along with whey-based protein powders, many food companies also sell plant-based powders to appeal to vegan or vegan-curious shoppers. “There’s nothing particularly harmful about them,” Fergusson reasons. “As with any protein powder, they’re mostly for people who are very active and might have an increased need for protein.”

However, Fergusson is quick to point out that you can still meet these needs through whole (unprocessed) foods, which are natural sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Protein powders, on the other hand, contain mostly added or fortified nutrients.

Plant-based protein for beginners

Whether you’re a newly converted vegetarian or you simply want to go meatless a few times a week, Fergusson recommends starting gradually.

Breakfast. “Replace eggs on toast with avocado toast,” suggests Fergusson. “Or go for a hearty bowl of oatmeal with nondairy milk.” One cup of oatmeal gives you around six grams of protein. That can rise to 10 grams if you add a plant-based milk like soy milk – about the same amount of protein you’d get from one egg and a slice of whole-wheat toast. Note that while many plant-based milks are fortified with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, not all are equally nutritious. Be sure to read the nutrition label carefully.

Snacks. Load up on extra protein throughout the day with the right snacks. Smear your favourite nut butter on rice cakes, crackers or fruit slices. Dip raw veggies in a protein-packed serving of chickpea hummus. If you’re on the go, grab a bag of kale chips or munch on some trail mix. When buying packaged snacks, always check the ingredients. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn a lot of popular snacks, like popcorn and potato chips, are plant-based by default. Do watch for cheese and other animal-based ingredients in flavoured versions, however. (Read more: How to decode the nutrition label.)

Lunch and dinner. Get creative in the kitchen and think of ways to reduce the amount of meat you’d normally use. “For instance, if you’re making chili con carne, replace half the meat with plant-based proteins like lentils or chickpeas,” she says. “From there on, you can slowly adjust until you’re eating a bean-based chili.” (Read more: Healthy recipe – Vegetarian chili.)   

Dining out. Vegetarian and vegan options are becoming more common in restaurants, but what if you can’t spot any plant-based dishes on the menu? Most restaurants offer various vegetarian options as sides or appetizers. This lets you create your own platter: Ask for a combination of sides like sweet potato fries, stuffed mushrooms or roasted veggies on one plate and enjoy.

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