If you’re thinking of going vegan — or if you’ve already made the switch — you might have heard an old familiar argument: But what about protein?!?! The truth is that plant-based protein is more than enough to meet your nutritional needs.
It’s a myth that you can only get protein from meat and animal by-products. Plenty of plant-based proteins exist, from soybeans and nuts to legumes and lentils. Many of these proteins have the added benefit of readily absorbing flavors from sauces, herbs, and spices, so they provide a veritable blank slate for your culinary repertoire.
Most importantly, you don’t have to miss out on anything when you’re vegan or vegetarian. There’s no reason to feel deprived, whether nutritionally or in terms of taste. Plant-based proteins keep you healthy and provide a cruelty-free alternative to meat.
To understand how a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle impacts your diet in terms of protein, you first have to understand protein and what it does for your body. Then you have to find fresh ways to work plant-based protein into your life.
Once you do that, you’ll wonder why you haven’t tried this lifestyle before. Plant-based proteins are deliciously wonderful for your mental and physical health.
First, What is Protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients — the other two being carbohydrates and fats — that your body needs to function. A protein consists of amino acids strung together to form an organic compound. They serve as the foundation for important parts of the body, including muscles and tendons.
You might have heard that you need more protein if you want to build lean muscle. That’s true. When your diet consists of lots of protein from different sources, your body can build lean tissue and make you stronger.
But are animal products the only source of protein? Absolutely not.
Animal protein is often referred to as “complete” protein. That’s because animal protein contains more of the amino acids our bodies need to function than most single plant-based protein sources.
However, when you combine multiple plant-based proteins, you no longer need animal meat in your diet. In fact, you might even get more protein because you’re eating a wider variety of foods. You’re not eating just one thing anyway, right? There are easy ways of completing your protein intake with plants.
Consider your dinner plate on any given night.
Many people eat one portion of meat, one carb, one vegetable, and one fruit. That sounds balanced, but it’s not nutritionally complete.
Imagine, instead, that you build a nice salad full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and seeds. You might have 15 to 20 ingredients in even a simple salad, whereas the first example contained far fewer. That’s kind of variety makes it very likely you’re getting a complete array of amino acids across the different protein sources.
Protein is essential for your cells to grow and remain healthy. It’s responsible for not only making up your body systems but also helping them flourish.
The problem is that many people think they need more protein than they really do. The current nutritional recommendations state that you need about .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. In other words, if you weigh 140 pounds, you should be eating around 50 grams of protein per day.
Since your body can’t store it, you have to continually replenish your body with protein. Adding plant-based proteins to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks will help you meet the daily recommended intake. This article will help you do just that.
What Are Plant-Based Proteins?
Plant-based protein is simply protein that comes from plant sources instead of from animals. Many plant-based proteins are extremely healthy and can be used in place of meat:
- Black beans
- Sunflower seeds
These plants and plant-based products tend to readily absorb flavors from other sources, creating more diversity for your palette and sometimes even mimicking meat in taste or texture — and sometimes both.
The problem is that many people don’t associate plants with protein. We know that plants contain tons of vitamins and minerals that prove essential for optimum health, but we sometimes turn a blind eye to protein.
Consider, for a moment, that most of the animals who are slaughtered for their meat don’t eat meat themselves. In other words, they’re getting their own protein requirements from vegetables and grains.
For instance, certain steer calves eat 1.6 pounds of protein daily. That’s far more than the average human consumes, yet they’re able to meet their requirements without troughs full of steak or hamburgers or chicken breasts.
When we depend on animal meat to provide our protein, we’re eating an animal that doesn’t demonstrate predation on other animals. That’s an important distinction.
And Why Is Protein So Important?
Many parts of your body, from muscles and skin to hair and nails, are built primarily with protein. And since the human body can’t store protein as it can fat, we have to eat sufficient amounts every day to support each of our most essential systems, from your heart to the rate at which your hair grows.
There’s protein in your blood, bones, hormones, lymphatic system, and more. Without protein, your body couldn’t survive. But the odds are if you are reading this in a developed country, you are facing the opposite risk.
In developed countries, protein deficiencies are extremely rare. In fact, many Western diets, such as the Standard American Diet (abbreviated SAD, for a good reason), are too high in protein intake. Excessive intake of protein – especially animal protein – has been linked to higher mortality rates and increased heart failures. Eating too much protein can negatively impact kidney and bone health, among other consequences.
A Common Myth
People who claim that meat is essential to the human diet often fail to realize how many plant-based proteins exist. While it’s true that you need to diversify your protein intake when you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can easily meet your body’s needs without animal-based protein.
Misinformation abounds when it comes to ideal protein intake. Even high-level athletes don’t need to consume insane amounts of protein to remain fit and healthy. There are vegan Olympians, bodybuilders, and Formula One champions; and many others in between.
Furthermore, you don’t need to consume protein shakes — many of which contain animal products — to get a healthy amount of protein from your diet. Especially stay away from whey, a cheese-making by-product now marketed by the bucketful at every turn. You just need to choose healthy foods and make sure to incorporate plant-based protein into your diet, such as from soy, kidney beans, lentils, potatoes, and peanuts.
More and More People Are Deciding to Spare Animals
The primary benefit of understanding the benefits of plant-based protein is that you learn you don’t have to consume animals to care for your body. The idea that humans, as “apex predators” (which is an ecological description, not a biological one – and certainly not a moral one), need to slaughter helpless animals to meet our needs has been debunked over and over again.
When you choose a plant-based diet, you spare the animals you might otherwise have consumed. As more and more people choose vegan and vegetarian diets, the factory farmers have fewer dollar bills with which to line their wallets. Consequently, they breed fewer animals who would ultimately wind up in the slaughterhouse.
Plant-based proteins aren’t just good for you — they’re good for animals, too.
It’s not just protein, either. Many people tout chickens as amazing sources of nutrition for the human body. What few people talk about is the abundance of Omega-6 fatty acids in chicken meat and the dirty of Omega-3 fatty acids. We need far more of the latter than the former.
Meanwhile, foods like Brussels sprouts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts contain high levels of both plant-based proteins and Omega-3s. You’re better off combining these foods on your plate than scarfing down a chicken breast. This doesn’t mean you don’t need Omega-6s — only that your diet requires a healthy balance.
Now that more people are interested in sparing animals a miserable fate, they’re getting more interested in plant-based sources of macronutrients like protein. In other words, instead of considering plants as an addendum to the diet, they become the sole focus.
It’s the difference between eating a side salad with your steak and filling your plate with delicious plant foods.
Vegetarianism and Veganism Are Becoming Increasingly Popular
In some parts of the world, vegetarianism has increased by more than 400 percent and veganism by 600 percent over the last decade. While some cultures are slower to adopt plant-based diets than others, we’re clearly seeing an increase in people who value vegetarian or vegan lifestyles.
Regardless of your diet, you need to know what foods will promote optimum health. For instance, as a vegan, you might have to diversify your diet to get more micronutrients or even take supplements, such as iron and calcium, if you find you’re low in those areas.
Educating yourself about plant-based proteins can benefit you whether you’re a meat-eater or not, but it’s particularly important when you’re eliminating meat and animal products from your diet.
People are going vegan and vegetarian for many reasons. They want to be healthier, stop factory farming, improve their longevity, promote healthy foods, and expand their diets. All of these reasons are valid.
One of the best things about becoming vegan or vegetarian is that you gain an incredible community of animal lovers. Trading recipes, learning about new sources of protein — such as the increasingly famous seitan which has a long history — and learning more about your body’s nutritional requirements from others can be extremely satisfying.
There’s nothing unusual about eating only plant-based foods. You’re in great company, both domestically and abroad, and there are many sources of information, resources, and recipes online.
How Do You Substitute the Protein You Got From Animal Meat?
If you’re used to eating the Standard American Diet or any diet that includes meat, you might ask, “What can I use instead of meat to get my protein?” The options are plentiful.
Take something as simple as a hamburger, which is traditionally made with ground beef. You could make your own black bean patties for a spicy take on the old standby. Alternatively, you could make tofu or even corn-based burgers. And there are many meat-substitute options from great food brands like Field Roast, Beyond Meat, Just Foods, and Tofurky, just to name a few you might find at the local grocery.
There’s always a plant-based substitute to help you continue enjoying your favorite foods. If you view a vegan or vegetarian diet as restrictive or limiting, you’ll be back to ordering your steaks medium rare within the month. Instead, you will get to embrace the amazing array of flavors and recipes at your disposal.
Making the Transition
If you’re shifting from a standard diet to one that eliminates animal meat, start every meal with a base of protein. Pick whatever sounds good to you, whether it’s tofu or cooked squash. Add on extra plant-based protein sources, from nuts to seeds to lentils, and add in other flavors you love.
That’s the easiest way to ensure you’re getting sufficient protein. Start with a good plant-based protein source and build from there. Once you get in that habit, it’ll become as easy as selecting food from the value menu at your local fast-food joint.
Seitan, as mentioned above, has become something of a wonder food among vegetarians and vegans because of its ability to mimic the taste and texture of meat. If you’re truly craving meat, pick up some seitan (which is essentially the protein of wheat) at your local supermarket and prepare it for your next meal.
Why Choose Plant Proteins?
The best reason to choose plant-based protein is that it’s a cruelty-free source of something you need. Quinoa, hemp, and soy are three of the most effective sources of protein because they’re “complete” — in other words, they provide all of the essential amino acids your body can’t produce on its own.
But there are other easy ways to get complete with your proteins. For example, while beans are high in protein, but not a complete protein by themselves, rice and beans together are a complete source of protein! No wonder that’s a staple found in so many diets.
Another great reason to choose plant-based protein over the meat variety is overall health. For instance, when you switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’re likely to shed unwanted pounds. This is because many of the most abundant sources of protein from plant life don’t come with the hefty calories you’d associated with, for instance, red meat.
As a vegan, you’ll also cut out dairy and eggs, which means that you’ll lose two sources of protein, but also lose two sources of unhealthy cholesterol. Replacing them with plant-based protein will bring you more in line with your healthy weight.
Plant Versus Animal Protein
As mentioned above, some people criticize the smaller amounts of amino acids in plants when compared to animal meat. However, there’s always a balance. Plant-based protein contains more nutrients and fiber — two things you need to stay healthy and to maintain your digestive system.
The two most common deficiencies of plant-based protein diets are iron and B-12. However, you can get those easily from supplements. There’s no reason for you to defy your compassion for animals in pursuit of a healthy diet.
Otherwise, protein is protein, whether it comes from an animal or a plant. While plant-based protein is less complete when you just look at one source at a time, you might actually get more varied protein because you’re deriving it from multiple sources.
It’s kind of like asking about the difference between vitamin D from the sun and vitamin D from food. It’s all vitamin D.
Instead of putting the two protein sources on opposite sides of a scrimmage line, realize that you can get protein no matter your dietary choices. You just have to be aware of the various sources and how you like to consume them.
Health Benefits of Plant-Based Protein
Let’s bring this home with a few facts nobody can ignore about the benefits of plant-based protein versus meat protein. They definitely exist.
Let’s start with red meat. It’s a traditional source of protein, but it’s also a huge contributor to heart disease and diabetes. Nobody wants to put their hearts or kidneys at risk, which is where plants come in. They don’t contain the fat, sodium, and other components of red meat that can make you sick.
You’re also like to ingest more fiber if you look for your protein in plants. Fiber is essential for digestive health, cholesterol maintenance, and weight control. If you eat a low-fiber diet, you might struggle with constipation, diarrhea, excess bloating, and other uncomfortable symptoms.
A Much Cleaner Alternative to Animal-Based Protein
Plant-based proteins don’t contain the hormones or antibiotics found in factory-farmed meat. You don’t want to put those things into your body without knowing how you’ll respond. For instance, antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an extreme health concern, and eating meat treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics could put you at greater risk – and importantly, the rest of humanity if antibiotic-resistant bacteria start spreading from factory farming operations.
Then there’s fat, which is another macronutrient. Unhealthy fats, such as those derived from red meat and poultry, can contribute to clogged arteries, obesity, kidney disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. However, plant-based protein also provides fat – just different.
You get lots of protein from nuts, in particular, which are high in healthy fat as well as protein. The same goes for avocados, chia seeds, and extra virgin olive oil. Getting your macros from clean, healthy sources will help you live longer and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Animal meat can also contribute to inflammation throughout the body, sometimes as a result of the hormones injected into the animals. Inflammatory reactions cause all sorts of problems, and eating a cleaner diet will help bring the inflammation down so you can live your life more fully.
Clean Meat Might Offer a Middle Ground
Maybe you’re not entirely ready to give up animal protein yet. Clean meat — meat derived from animal stem cells and grown in a laboratory — will be coming to supermarket shelves shortly.
You can consume animal meat without contributing to animal slaughter and suffering. While these developments haven’t hit the market yet, they present a bright future for people who possess vegan or vegetarian leanings but can’t quite make the shift. And eventually, they will be more affordable, tasty, and convenient than meat from slaughtered animals.
Vegans and vegetarians don’t sweat the protein. They know they can get enough as long as they’re eating a wide variety of food.
The vegetarian who lives off Cheetos and fro-yo won’t enjoy a healthy diet. The same goes for the vegan who limits his or her diet to potatoes and squash.
However, if you’re willing to experiment with plant-based protein and work it into your diet, you’ll feel and look healthier and eat a cruelty-free diet at the same time.
What do you think about switching to plant-based protein?