More and more people are switching to a plant-based protein diet and you might be one of them. But are you eating the right food?
If you’re looking for more high-quality plant protein in your diet, you’re at the right place.
In this article, you’ll learn the comparison between plant-based and animal-based protein, how to get more lean protein in your diet and what plant-based protein foods you should eat.
Is Plant-Based Protein Better Than Animal-Based Protein?
Have you ever wondered which protein source is better?
Before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a step back and look at them from four different perspectives, lasting health, complete protein, protein package, and bioavailability.
1. Lasting health
The biggest concern is which protein can help you achieve optimal health in the long run.
Science has shown us over and over again that a plant-based diet has a wealth of health benefits such as a lower risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, mortality rate, and blood sugar.
On the other hand, meat consumption has been associated with higher health risks, like increased rates of total mortality, cardiovascular diseases, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Summary: People on a plant-based diet have a lower mortality rate and are less likely to develop diseases, whereas meat-based diets are associated with higher risks of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
2. Complete protein
A complete protein means the food contains all 9 essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
All animal products (including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy) are complete proteins.
Whereas only a number of vegan protein sources (plant-based) are complete proteins, such as quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and soybeans.
Summary: All animal products (meat, fish, eggs) are complete proteins, whereas only some plants (quinoa, hemp seeds, buckwheat) are complete proteins.
3. Protein package
There isn’t a single natural food that contains only one nutrient. What makes us healthy is consuming the entire protein package — the group of nutrients present in the food such as carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals.
Some nutrients are animal-specific like heme iron and vitamin B12. While plants may not have vitamin B12, they do contain their own “plant-specific” nutrients like phytonutrients, and fiber.
Summary: Some nutrients exist specifically in animal products such as heme iron and vitamin B12. Whereas only plants contain phytonutrients and fiber.
Bioavailability is the number of nutrients absorbed by the body.
- One example is iron. In general, there are two types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme is only found in animal products, and non-heme is found in plant products. In terms of iron’s bioavailability, our bodies can easily absorb heme iron compared to non-heme iron.
- An important source of Vitamin A is beta-carotene present in animal and plant sources.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that we need to eat more plant products than meat to achieve our Vitamin A daily intake.
Summary: Heme iron found only in animal products is easier to be absorbed by the body compared to non-heme iron found in plants. Most animal products are richer in Vitamin A than plants.
Conclusion: Plant-based protein vs. animal-based protein
As you can see, there’s no clear winner here.
Our ancestors have been eating meat and plants for millions of years, and our bodies have evolved to thrive in omnivore diets.
We also recognize that some people become healthier when they go either way: a meat-based or plant-based diet. If it’s working for you, that’s great!
If it’s not, you may want to seriously reconsider the quality of the food you’re eating.
How Do You Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?
Most importantly, we need enough high-quality protein.
When followed, these 3 hacks can help you get the most protein out of your diet by aligning the way we eat with our evolved nutritional requirements.
1. Always choose high-quality sources of plant-based protein
Always opt for fresh and unprocessed plants without flavorings, preservatives, and additives.
- Fresh beans have higher quality nutrients than their processed counterparts.
- Choose fruits as opposed to junk snacks whenever you need something to snack on.
- Get raw or dry-roasted nuts instead of salted or sweetened nuts.
- Eat raw vegetables when possible. If you need to cook them, steaming or boiling can help retain as many nutrients as possible.
2. A variety of plant proteins is more important than you think
Protein combining or protein complementing is a common practice among vegans and vegetarians.
Many of them believed that they need to combine different plant products that replace each other’s missing nutrients in a single meal. This practical is called protein combining.
That was a myth.
Our bodies maintain a pool of amino acids that can be used to complement dietary protein when we’re not getting enough protein from plants.
What’s key here is eating a variety of vegan protein sources throughout the year plus some high-quality lean meat — like fish, chicken breast, turkey breast.
3. Optimize for seasonal eating
We evolved to eat in seasons.
Our bodies have seasons where we gain fat and lose fat, not a visible level. It’s a cycle.— Eric Edmeades, trainer of Mindvalley’s WILDFIT Quest
Seasonal eating is the evolutionary human dietary cycle that we’ve inherited from our ancestors.
Back then, there were times there was an abundance of food, and at certain times foods were scarce.
Our bodies are built to store fat so we can survive through food scarcity, and release fat so we can walk for miles to hunt for food.
The modern problem is that most of us are eating an abundance of food all year long, which has disrupted the body cycle.
When the human body is aligned to seasons, the body cycle will slowly be restored and our bodies will naturally release fat.
One thing you can do today is to find out what foods are in season at your local grocery stores and incorporate them into your diet.
What Plants Are High In Protein?
Without further ado, this is the list of best plant-based protein foods you can start adding to your high-protein vegetarian meals today.
1. Soy products: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, soybeans, and soy milk
Protein in soy is one of the few plant-based proteins that are complete proteins. Not only that, but soy is also rich in B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and good fat.
Science has shown that soy foods benefit our overall health.
- Polyunsaturated fat in soy has been known to offer a number of health benefits, such as lowering blood cholesterol.
- Soy isoflavones may help in preventing bone loss and certain cancers.
- Eating soy is a great way to boost your fiber intake.
For every 100g,
- Tempeh: 20g of protein
- Soybeans: 18g of protein
- Edamame: 12g of protein
- Tofu: 8g of protein
- Soy milk: 2.6g of protein
Did you know tempeh is a popular choice to substitute for meat? It can be cooked just like meat and it contains all the goodness of soy.
2. Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans, black beans, peanuts
Do beans have protein?
Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils are packed with other essential nutrients like folate, fiber, iron, phosphorus, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. They are the best plant-based protein foods you can get.
They are one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet won the best diet award in 2019.
Do you know why are legumes such a big deal? It’s because of the benefits they offer:
- Better heart health
- Help to lower blood cholesterol and may prevent sharp rises in blood sugar
- A great substitute for red meat and it has been shown to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease
- Help to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
- May help with weight loss (thanks to the fiber) and modestly increase calorie burning.
Legumes (except peanuts) contain about 9g of protein for every 100g.
Surprisingly for peanuts, it contains a whopping 26g of protein! But, eat it sparingly because peanuts also contain a high amount of bad fat.
3. Seeds: Chia seeds, hemp seeds
Chia seeds were high-protein vegan foods eaten by the Aztecs in central Mexico around 5,500 years ago (3500 B.C).
It was used for medicine, oil, offering, and food. It is said that the Aztecs would carry chia seeds during long trips as an energy provider (something like energy bars but much better).
Chia seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fat, such as omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
One ounce (28g) of chia seeds contains around 5g of protein.
Reasons why chia seeds are good for you:
- The fiber in chia seeds may help to lower bad cholesterol and slow down digestion, which can prevent blood sugar spikes and promote a feeling of fullness
- High intake of omega-3 fatty acids from seafood and plants may reduce the risk of cardiovascular death.
- Plant sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic fatty acids may reduce risk factors of sudden cardiac death in women.
Hemp originated in Central Asia, and is cultivated as early as 2800 BCE. The edible hemp seeds contain about 30% oil and are a good source of protein, fiber, and magnesium. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds contain around 10g of protein.
Benefits of hemp seeds are:
- Like chia seeds, hemp seeds contain high levels of omega-3s and a healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are shown to improve heart health and reduce the risks of heart disease.
- Hemp seeds can be blended into hemp milk. It is a great source of protein and calcium.
4. Protein-rich fruits and vegetables: guavas, avocados, apricots, kiwis, blackberries, broccoli, spinach, asparagus
If you want optimal health and longevity, you cannot ignore fruits and vegetables. They are the best protective mechanism against diseases. Yet, the vast majority of us are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables, especially high protein vegetables.
The protein package in fruits and vegetables is far superior to any non-functional foods out there. They’re rich in protein, potassium, fiber, folate, vitamin A and vitamin C. And they don’t contain any cholesterol.
For years, studies have shown that fruits and vegetables help us achieve ideal health including, 1) lower blood pressure, 2) reducing the risk of heart disease, 3) helping in weight loss, and many more.
Fruits and vegetables do not fight disease. It is their absence that causes it.— Eric Edmeades, trainer of Mindvalley’s WILDFIT Quest
Some of the fruits and vegetables high in protein are (per cup):
- Guavas: 4.2g of protein
- One avocado: 4g of protein
- Apricots: 2.2g of protein
- Kiwi: 2.1g of protein
- Blackberries: 2g of protein
- Broccoli: 5.7g of protein
- Spinach: 5.3g of protein
- Asparagus: 5.3g of protein
5. Nuts: Nut butters, walnut, pistachio, almonds, cashews
Isn’t it nuts that nuts have so much protein and nutrients?
These chewy and crispy little nuts pack a lot more nutrients than you think. They are rich in vitamin E, folate, potassium, fiber, and arginine (an amino acid required to make nitric oxide that relaxes constricted blood vessels and eases blood flow).
Even better, studies showed that nuts lower cholesterol, reduce blood clotting, and contribute to fullness (the feeling of being full).
For every 43g (1.5oz):
- Peanut: 10.1g of protein
- Almond: 9.4g of protein
- Pistachio: 9.1g of protein
- Cashew: 6.5g of protein
- Walnut: 6.5g of protein
- Hazelnut: 6.4g of protein
- Pecan: 4g of protein
Macadamia: 3.3g of protein
6. Grains: Amaranth, Quinoa, sprouted Ezekiel bread, Spelt, Teff, wild rice, brown rice, corn
We eat grains all the time — wheat products, rice, bread, tortillas, cereals — but do you know most grains we eat are actually low in nutritional quality?
What we eat are mostly refined grains. But what we should be eating are whole grains.
Because whole grains have most nutrients remain intact, whereas refined grains have 99% of their nutrients stripped away.
Whole grains are nutrient-dense foods packed with: protein, carbohydrates, B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, vitamin E, healthy fat, and phytochemicals (a natural compound in plants).
The compounds in high protein grains are shown to lower cholesterol, maintain a steady blood sugar level, may protect against cancer, and may help prevent the formation of small blood clots that can trigger heart attacks or strokes.
Examples of high protein grains include (per 100g),
- Sprouted Ezekiel bread: 15g of protein
- Spelt: 6g of protein
- Amaranth grains: 4g of protein
- Quinoa: 4g of protein
- Teff: 4g of protein
- Wild rice: 4g of protein
- Brown rice: 3g of protein
- Corn: 3g of protein
What Is the Best Plant-Based Protein?
If “The Best Plant-Based Protein” award existed, which food do you think will win?
By protein alone, hemp seed would take the crown, boasting an equal amount of protein as beef and lamb.
However, our bodies are built to get protein from multiple sources. Proteins from hemp seed alone wouldn’t suffice.
The key here is the protein package.
We need to get other nutrients alongside high protein vegan foods to fulfill our broad range of nutritional requirements.
What Is the Best Diet?
It is undeniable that Americans and some parts of the world are eating way too many non-functional foods and too few high-quality plant-based proteins.
Look around you.
About half of American adults — 117 million — have one or more preventable chronic diseases. These diseases can be prevented by eating high-quality functional foods and a decent amount of physical activity.
More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese.
The good news is that humans have the best diet.
You might guess it’s paleo, vegan, or the famous Mediterranean diet.
It’s the human diet.
The best diet for humans is the human diet.
The more closely a species adhere to their natural evolved diet, the healthier that species will be.— Eric Edmeades, trainer of Mindvalley’s WILDFIT Quest
This may sound confusing but get this.
Eric Edmeades, creator of WILDFIT®, says, “Every organism on Earth has a diet. And humans have one.
High-quality plant-based protein foods are just one part of the human diet.