The Power of Plant Protein

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

It doesn’t matter which type of diet you follow, the addition of legumes, nuts and seeds gives you a nutritional advantage.

Beans, peas, nuts, seeds, soy and lentils, are some of nature’s treasures. They are a powerhouse of good nutrition, a good source of plant protein, loaded with disease fighting phytonutrients, cholesterol-lowering fiber and naturally low in cholesterol and sodium.

A diet focusing on plant-based protein sources can be beneficial for helping to prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality, explained Harvard professor, Frank Hu, MD, PhD, during a recent educational session at the Academy of Nutrition’s annual meeting in Atlanta.

Eat a More Plant-Based Diet

There can be multiple benefits of plant protein foods. Compelling evidence led the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) to encourage a shift in food intake patterns to:

  • A more plant-based diet
  • Increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and dairy products
  • Consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs

Plant-based was defined by the DGA as a pattern in which the majority of protein sources come from plant products, though animal products are not excluded.

Plant vs Animal Protein

Many Americans get plenty of protein and individual needs may easily be met with a variety of animal and/or plant foods.

In fact, some experts recommend higher levels of protein intake, especially when protein replaces refined carbohydrates. Substituting protein for refined carbs has been shown in the DASH diet and OmniHeart studies to have beneficial effects on weight control and cardiovascular risk factors.

Adults need between 46 and 56 grams of protein daily, approximately 10-35 percent of calories. According to the most recent government data, the average intake is 88 grams per day or about 16 percent of calories. The majority, 70 percent, comes from animal sources and the remainder from plant protein.

The total protein package is most important and both plant and lean animal protein sources contribute valuable beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds to the diet.

Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids whereas plant proteins tend to be deficient in one or more. Proteins from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt provide all nine indispensable amino acids in adequate amounts and are considered complete proteins.

Proteins from plants, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables tend to be deficient in one or more of the indispensable amino acids and are called incomplete proteins.

Note: When complete animal proteins are absent, combining proteins at the same meal is usually no longer necessary as long as all of the essential amino acids are consumed within a day.

Go Nuts

Tree nuts and peanuts are the only plant-based proteins that contain fats, but they are healthy fats. In addition to the healthy fats, nuts are a good source of fiber, protein and select phytonutrients, depending on the nut. For example, walnuts are the richest source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, peanuts are the highest in protein and almonds have the highest amount of calcium and fiber.

Nuts are a protein food that may help contribute to improved nutrient intake and health benefits. According to the DGA, “moderate evidence indicates that eating peanuts and certain tree nuts (i.e., walnuts, almonds and pistachios) reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease when consumed as part of a diet that is nutritionally adequate and within calorie needs.”

Studies suggest that people who eat nuts have healthier diets overall. In the PREDIMED study, people who ate a Mediterranean type diet with more than three servings of nuts per week had a 30 percent risk reduction in heart disease and a 39 percent lower mortality risk.

Nuts can keep you feeling full and promote weight loss. In a review of 33 clinical studies, researchers found that a diet that includes nuts did not increase body weight.

Nutritional Advantage of Legumes

Beans, for example, are so nutritious that the DGA increased the recommendation from one to three cups per week. Multitasking foods, beans find themselves in both the vegetable and protein groups. Not only are beans super nutritious, they may help meet nutrients of concern like fiber, calcium and potassium – ones that are often missing in American diets.

For example, most Americans only get about 15 grams of fiber, less than the daily recommended 25-38 grams.* Eating one cup of cooked beans provides 12 grams of fiber along with a wide variety of good-for-you nutrients.

Beans may also be good for your heart. A 2005 study reported that a 1/2cup serving per day of beans was associated with a 38 percent may lower risk of a heart attack.

Add More Plant Protein for Weight Loss

When cutting calories, it is essential to load up on healthy foods. Adding plant protein is a strategy that may help to get weight loss results.

When you replace high-fat meat with plant protein, calories are slashed along with saturated fat while helping to improve the nutritional composition of your diet.

Beans may be particularly effective because they are nutrient rich and contain the ultimate weight loss trifecta: water, fiber and protein. Diets that contain plenty of protein, fiber and water usually make you feel fuller, faster and ultimately may decrease subsequent energy intake.

Furthermore, proteins require more energy to digest and metabolize than carbohydrates or fat. Plant proteins are digested slowly which keeps you satisfied longer so you can cut calories.

Tips to Add More Plant Protein

It’s easy to add plant protein to your diet. Plant protein can substitute for animal protein on meatless Mondays or anytime.

Use legumes to replace part of the animal protein in your diet as often as you like. Use them in salads, soups, stews, pasta, side dishes, meatloaf or in dips like hummus.

Try soy based meat alternatives; use tofu in mixed dishes or snack on edamame to add more soy to your diet.

Snack on nuts; add them to baked dishes, salads, desserts, trail mix, cereal, yogurt, granola and more.

Have fun incorporating plant-based protein into your diet, and enjoy a nutritional advantage.