Why Protein Is Important In A Plant-Based Diet

Category: Health  

When someone says they eat a plant-based diet this can mean a few different things.

This can range in degrees of vegetarianism, veganism, or just someone who prefers to eat primarily fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Regardless of where they fall on the range of plant-based dietary intake one thing is for sure, protein matters.  

When deciding to eat a plant-based diet it is important to be intentional about getting in the necessary amount of protein each day to properly fuel your body. If you eat animal products it isn’t as necessary to focus on this because all meat, poultry, pork and fish all have protein in larger amounts than plants.

What’s Lacking In Plant-Based Diets?

A proper protein estimate for a healthy individual is typically .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This would equate to an individual weighing 70kg (154 pounds) should try to take in around 56 grams of protein per day.

There is another nutrient that is commonly lacking in a plant-based diet and this is B12. This is lacking because B12 is found only naturally occurring in animal products. B12 is necessary for making red blood cells and maintaining brain and nervous system function and health.

So what is a person who follows a plant-based diet to do? Just as with protein and plant-based diets, there is intentionality required to get in enough B12, but it is possible. There are many plant food products that have been fortified with B12. Some of the more well-known and best sources of B12 fortified foods include breakfast cereals, vegan milks, and alternative dairy products.

Other nutrients that the plant-based dieter should take special care to consume are iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Plant-based calcium is found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, turnip greens and kale. Plant-based iron is known as non-heme iron. Foods that have this non-heme iron include leafy greens, legumes, and fortified cereals. Unfortunately, non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed as heme-iron (iron found in animal source). There is a simple fix to this issue; pairing with vitamin C. This pairing with foods like strawberries, orange juice, and broccoli makes the iron from plant sources easier to absorb for the body.

A proper protein estimate for a healthy individual is typically .8 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Protein Sources

Tell someone you’re going vegetarian or eating plant-based and the first thing you should expect to be told is, you won’t get enough protein. This is not entirely wrong, but it isn’t exactly right either. You can get in enough protein on a plant-based diet, but it requires forethought and intentionality.

Integrating plant-based protein sources can seem impossible or intimidating initially, but with some practice and planning you will be able to select the right protein sources easily. Protein is made of amino acids. Our bodies can make some amino acids to fill our need, but some have to be taken in through the diet, these are called essential amino acids.

These amino acids are the main consideration with plant-based protein, making sure you are getting in all the essential amino acids your body needs to make muscle and keep you properly fueled. Foods that provide all the essential amino acids are known as complete proteins.

All animal sources are complete, but this is not the case with plants. To get in all the essential amino acids requires specific combinations of foods. Some examples of these combinations include whole grain brown rice with black beans, pasta and peas, whole wheat bread and peanut butter, chickpeas and tahini which are the primary ingredients in hummus.

There are a few plant-based complete proteins and they include quinoa and soy. Quinoa is a great alternative to rice and can be easily mixed into recipes to bulk up the protein and nutrional value.

There is another nutrient that is commonly lacking in a plant-based diet and this is B12.

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Why Eat Plant-Based?

If you have decided to follow a plant-based diet, well done! This dietary pattern has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation produces many health issues including fatigue, chronic disease, and weight gain.

A plant-based diet is nutrient-dense making it excellent in providing many essential vitamins and minerals, but the dieter should focus on a few that may be difficult to get. The benefits of a plant-based diet far outweigh the temporary and minor inconvenience of having to be intentional about a few nutrients.

A plant-based diet has proven health benefits. By removing a large majority of processed foods and saturated fat you are improving your overall health. While there may be some nutrients that may be lacking eating a variety of plant foods will ensure you are getting in enough of what you need and you can continue to reap the health benefits.