Protein in Plant-Based Diets-Part I

I just realized that I have been a vegetarian for twenty-five years!  One of the books that I read on the subject early-on said that people who become vegetarians (eat eggs and dairy but no meat) and vegans (eat no animal products) do so for one of three reasons.

1. For their own health

2. To help end cruelty to animals

3. For the sustainability of the planet.

Since then, the popularity of what are now called plant-based diets has skyrocketed, as the sensitivity to all three of those issues has risen.  More and more people are cutting back on animal products for fuel, and instead fill their plates and fuel their bodies with mostly vegetables and other plant foods. In our family, most of our children, and many of our`grandchildren are eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat, dairy, and eggs than they ever did as children.

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

“Plant-based” describes a diet rich in foods that come from plants – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans), tubers (potatoes), and whole grains. Less rigidly defined than “vegetarian” or “vegan,” a plant-based diet does not necessarily mean giving up eating animals and their products entirely. While some people do make that choice, the underlying goal is to boost your intake of foods so that they make up the majority of your diet. Some people who are plant-based do include small portions of animals and their products – ideally choosing high-quality varieties, such as organic and grass-fed beef, for example, or wild varieties of fish.

What about Protein?

Over the years one of the major defenses of the “gotta’ have meat” arguments has been the supposed need for protein, which does play several critical roles in the body. It’s important to get enough of it, the amount of which is dependent on your age, gender, weight, activity level, etc. However, we have been led to believe that in order to have “enough” protein, we must ingest huge amounts of animal products. While this is not only not true, eating too much animal food is often detrimental.

Are Plant Proteins Adequate Alternatives?

Plant proteins are complete proteins. There are some lingering, outdated beliefs that plant protein is inferior to animal protein. Animal protein typically contains more protein per serving than vegetables, and is often considered a “complete protein” because it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t make on its own. We need to get them from our diet. Our bodies do make the others that we need. Many plant foods don’t contain all nine essential amino acids, so are sometimes referred to as “incomplete” protein, which is a somewhat misleading term.

Here’s why. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and we need adequate amounts for the body to function normally.  However, we do not need to take in all nine essential fatty acids at once for this to happen. As long as we eat a variety of foods over the course of our days that collectively contain all of the essential amino acids, the body has the raw material it needs to make proteins. (This is how the animals that are butchered for food do it. They take the incomplete amino acids from the food they eat, and convert it to the protein that we eat when we eat the animals.)

Variety is the key here.  The more varied the diet, the better, for many, many reasons. Getting a good blend of amino acids is just one of them and is very easily accomplished.

That said, some plant foods are considered complete proteins—spirulina, chia seeds, and maca powder, to name just a few.

Consider the Three Main Benefits of Plant-Based Eating

1. Plant Protein Supports Good Health.

It tends to be high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other compounds that we need to stay healthy. Some varieties, such as avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds  contain significant amounts of healthy fats. And while all vegetable have some protein, Beans, nuts, and seeds pack a good nutritional punch.

Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of a plant-based diet.  In one study comparing vegetarians to non-vegetarians, researchers found that vegetarians took in more fiber, vitamins A, C, and E, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, non-heme iron, magnesium, and calcium. Vegetarians tend to have lower body-mass indices (BMIs) than meat-eaters. Other research has shown that plant protein, as part of a plant-based diet, decreased body weight and improved insulin resistance in overweight people. Adding more whole plant foods to your diet is a great place to start, if you are looking for better health.

More research has found that a plant-based diets may lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and the risk of stroke and heart attacks. It has been found to help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and may lower the risk of developing it in the first place.

Furthermore, there is encouraging news for people already dealing with some of the above conditions. Patients being treated for chronic diseases and heart disease who eat a plant-based diet often do not need as many medications. Healthy, plant-based diets have even been associated with a decreased risk of all-mortality among US adults.

As the evidence favoring plant-based diets mounts, more and more doctors and nutrition experts are recommending them. Seriously, you don’t have to wait for them to tell you!!

2. Plant Protein is Kinder to Animals.

One of our granddaughters has been a vegetarian since she was 9 years old. She simply didn’t want to hurt animals. She certainly didn’t want to kill them and eat them. Now she is totally vegan, and preparing to attend Veterinarian School. I came to plant-based living much later in life!  Better health, better living can begin any time.

The truth is that 95% of farm animals in the US are raised on “factory farms,” whose purpose it is to raise animals for human consumption. They are depressing, polluted, industrial farms, designed to meet the demand for meat and other animal products. They have led to an untold amount of animal cruelty and suffering.

It is true that some meat and dairy companies are working to improve conditions for their animals. Still, there is not much legislation in place to keep animals safe. Even in the few states that have anti-cruelty laws, they are rarely enforced.

3. Plant Protein is More Sustainable.

Climate change and diminishing natural resources make it more important than ever to factor in the health of the planet we inhabit when we are choosing what put into our mouths.

It’s just no secret that our food system is a major driver, (though not as well publicized), of climate change and the depletion of natural resources. Some experts report that up to 75% of total agricultural emission come from producing animal products. Without dedicated efforts to reduce the impact, the situation will only worsen, rendering our environment unsafe and unlivable.

It sounds grim. Making the shift toward healthier, plant-based diets is a critical part of the solution. Plant protein is more efficient and less resource-intensive to produce than animal protein, which makes it a clearly more superior choice in terms of sustainability.

And There’s More!

Plant Protein is Budget-Friendly

A plant-based diet can be incredibly affordable. Beans, lentils, and peas are some of the least expensive and most adaptable sources of plant protein. Nuts and seeds cost a little bit more, and can still be called a good value, especially if you buy them in bulk. They also provide good fats, along with many other essential nutrients, thus giving you a much bigger nutrient bang for your buck.

The simple fact of the matter is that eating more plants means (we would think) eating fewer animals, which is better for your health, easier on the  animals with whom we share the planet, and supportive of the life of the earth itself. These are still the reasons why people choose to become more plant-based, which are the same ones that were in place when I entered the lifestyle. The budget-friendly aspect is icing on the proverbial “cake!”

Here’s the magic. It doesn’t much matter what your initial motivation for becoming plant-based is. Once you’ve done it, all of the reasons make profound sense and encourage you to stay that way.

In of Protein in Plant-Based Foods Part II, I will discuss some especially protein-dense plant foods. Until then, remember that there is no protein shortage in this country, and plenty of it in all growing things. Eat Well. Live Better!

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