Since more and more people are interested - especially lately - in vegetarian diets, I thought we should talk about plant-based proteins. What are the benefits they can offer us and what are the alternatives we have? One question that may arise for many of you is: When you say plant-based proteins, do you also mean protein powders? I think a lot of questions have been raised…so let’s see if we can answer any of them.
Which are the health benefits?
Proteins belong to the macronutrients and are an integral part of a diet that we should all consume daily. They help in the repair-restoration of muscle fibers (especially when consumed after training, by athletes or people who exercise), strengthen our immune system, and they also help balance body fluids and hormones, while they help in many more physiological procedures of the body.
Plant-based proteins come naturally from plant-based foods like vegetables, cereals, nuts, and seeds. Plant-based foods are rich in fibers which boost the digestive process and can make us feel full for longer. In addition, plant-based foods contain much less total and saturated fats than animal-based foods and are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals.
The benefits of plant-based foods and proteins to our health are plenty, when -of course- they are part of a generally balanced diet. In particular, people who follow a vegetarian diet and limit their intake of animal-based foods appear to be less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.
What are the alternatives?
The alternatives are so many… too many! And I have already talked to you about each of these foods separately, either through my blog posts or my shows. Plant-based proteins are contained in:
- Legumes - such as lentils, split peas, chickpeas, and beans. They are at the same time a good source of protein, carbs and fiber, while they are very low in fat. They are also a good source of iron and should be combined with a source of vitamin C - such as lemon juice - for even better absorption by the body.
- Pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa or amaranth. They are sources of carbs and amino acids. They are also rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as ideal alternatives for salads or to combine with legumes and increase the bioavailability of protein (which means to increase protein absorption by combining these foods together).
- Nuts. I have talked to you about their benefits in detail, here and here. They are a good source of protein and “good” Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are an ideal choice for a snack, or as a spread e.g. on bread, and you can even add them to some of your cakes or pancakes, and thus enhance the protein and amino acid content of that recipe!
- Seeds, such as chia seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, and hemp seeds. All these are ideal alternatives for your salads, as well as your pasta or risotto. Have you ever tried veggie rice with pumpkin seeds or pine nuts? This way, you will be able to increase the protein content of your meal once again.
- Tofu, tempeh, and soy beans. Some of you may be familiar with these options and some may not. They all come from soy and are options rich in proteins of high biological value as they contain all the essential amino acids.
- Nutritional yeast. Ideal to add to all your meals and especially to salads and mixed vegetables, or if you want to make the vegan version of a sauce or dressing. It will increase the proteins as well as the vitamins and minerals of your meal, while it will give a cheesy taste to your dish! It is especially recommended for people who want to increase the consumption of foods with B-complex vitamins and for people who have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Protein powder. Do I have to consume it?
Surely, it would be ideal to consume protein in its natural form, which means you should get it from the food itself. Beyond that, plant-based protein powders, such as rice, pea, hemp, or soy protein, should be considered as a supplement -just like a multivitamin. You can consume them if they are considered necessary for you and as advised by your doctor or another health professional. They are suitable for people who are trying to gain weight, for people after a special operation, maybe for people who belong to a high-risk group, and for an athlete who has difficulty consuming the necessary amount of protein needed in his diet daily. You can -of course- add it to a recipe such as energy bars or smoothies, thus increasing the protein content and reducing the sugar and fat content of that recipe. This way, you could benefit from consuming it in the necessary quantities for you and turn your recipe or meal into a more nutritious one.
So, what do you think? Were we able to answer - if not all - even some of your questions? I -among many others- believe that by adding more plant-based proteins to our diet, we help reduce excessive meat consumption and, at the same time, enhance the health of the planet and our own! Think about it!
This article was written in collaboration with the scientific advisor-sports nutritionist Anna Maria Volanaki, MSc, BDA, SENr, INDI.
The website akispetretzikis.com offers as a service a variety of articles, based on scientific sources. All the articles are provided as general information and no text should be used as a substitute for advice from a physician or another health scientist, regardless of the date it has been published.