The benefits of plant-based protein are often debated. Sometimes people question whether plant-based proteins are healthy or adequate as the sole source of protein in the human diet. Given the popularity of plant-based and vegan diets, it’s important to understand the benefits and possible limitations of consuming plant-based protein vs animal protein (or a combination of the two).
This article reviews:
- What is plant-based protein?
- What is animal protein?
- Benefits of plant-based protein
- Plant Protein vs Animal Protein
- How to eat more plant-based protein
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What is Plant-based Protein?
Plant-based protein refers to the protein found in plant foods. All whole plant foods contain some amount of protein, but certain plants contain higher levels. Legumes (chickpeas, black bean, lentils, soy and soy products etc.), nuts and seeds are commonly viewed as higher protein plant foods. Whole grains also contain a fair amount of protein. Fruits and vegetables typically contain the least amount of protein, but there are higher-protein vegetables.
Given the rise of fake meat products (ex. beef-less burgers, mock chicken etc.), the term plant-based protein has started to be used interchangeably with these food items. The protein in these products is sourced from plants so there’s nothing wrong with calling it plant-based protein. Just remember that whole plant foods also contain protein (and whole plants are how the protein is sourced for fake meat products).
What is Animal Protein?
Animal protein refers to consuming protein from animal foods. When people think about protein, animal proteins often come to mind. For example, any meat, fish/ seafood, dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt etc.) and eggs.
Associating protein with animal products is ingrained in our society (North America and most of the world). Many people are taught that protein is only found in animal products and they are necessary for survival.
The most common question about plant-based, vegan or vegetarian diets is: where do you get your protein? While it can be a tedious question to answer, if you’ve never heard of plant-based protein, it’s completely valid to be concerned. If you remove the primary sources of protein (meat) from your diet, it can be challenging to consume adequate amounts of this essential nutrient without knowing enough about where plant-based protein comes from.
Benefits of Plant-based Protein
People don’t eat single nutrients, they consume the whole food. When consuming plant-based proteins, from whole foods especially, people also receive other beneficial compounds.
One specific benefit of plant-based proteins is they contain fibre. Many people find it challenging to consume enough fibre but it’s essential to good health. Most people in Canada and the US do not meet the minimum intake recommendations for fibre. Switching out animal proteins (that do not contain any fibre) with plant-based proteins is one simple way to increase fibre intake.
Additional benefits of plant-based protein consumption include:
- Linked with lower risk of cardiovascular disease 1, 2
- Associated with decreased risk of certain types of cancer 3, 4
- Appears to be beneficial for weight management 5, 6
Plant-based proteins also contain many of the same minerals and other beneficial nutrients that are found in animal proteins including iron and zinc (although there are some absorption issues to be aware of).
Some plant-based proteins also offer the benefits of containing omega-3s (walnuts, chia/hemp/ground flax seeds, soybeans) and calcium (tofu).
Keep in mind I’m specifically referring to whole food sources of plant-based proteins when discussing the benefits above. Processed plant-based proteins (fake meat products, veggie burgers, mock chicken etc.) typically contain less fibre compared to whole food options. However, fake meat products are fortified in Canada, meaning they’re a good source of the same vitamins and minerals found in animal proteins (always check the label because certain products may not fall into the “fake meat” category and therefore not require fortification).
Plant Protein vs Animal Protein: Health Benefits
When people consume plant-based protein, it is often in place of animal protein in the meal, whether the person continues to consume some animal protein or not.
This replacement of animal proteins with plant-based proteins is often viewed as having additional health benefits. As noted above, people eat whole foods, not isolated nutrients.
When it comes to animal proteins, while people get protein and other minerals and vitamins, they also digest compounds that are generally found to be less than ideal for health.
All animal products contain saturated fat and cholesterol to varying levels. Increased intakes of saturated fat are found to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels 7. Lowering intake of saturated fat could be one approach to help lower cholesterol levels and benefit overall heart health.
Additionally, research suggests there are other compounds in animal products (or compounds created from the digestion of animal products) that pose additional health risks. These compounds include sulfur amino acids, HCAs, PAHs 8 and TMAO, 9 but those are great topics for future posts!
There is also the amino acid profile of plant-based vs animal proteins to consider. To keep it brief, a variety of plant-based proteins can provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids. Particular attention to high-lysine foods is important.
How to Eat More Plant-based Protein
Whether you want to increase fibre intake, reduce harm to animals, lower your carbon footprint, or add variety to your diet, eating more plant-based proteins can be a great choice.
Incorporating more plant-based proteins into your eating pattern can be simple. Here are six tips for how to start eating more plant-based proteins:
- Sprinkle on nuts and seeds: Top cereal, oatmeal, salads or other meals with a sprinkle of nuts and/or seeds!
- Use nut and seed butters: Add nut and seed butters to salad dressings, soups, dips and sauces. Also great on toast or rice cakes!
- Eat plant-protein snacks: Nut butter and a piece of fruit, hummus and veggies, trail mix with dried fruit and nuts/seeds, edamame, a smoothie with added nuts/seeds (or tofu!), or rice cake with avocado and a sprinkle of seeds are all great options!
- Replace 50% of meat with legumes: Not ready to completely move to plant-based proteins? Start by replacing half the meat in a recipe with legumes. This works especially well for any recipe calling for ground meats (replace half with lentils).
- Find plant-based versions of favourite recipes: The next time you want to make your favourite recipe, search for a version that contains more plants and a good source of plant-based protein.
- Find recipes that feature plant protein: Instead of thinking about what animal protein your meal will be based around, find recipes that make plant protein (ex. tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, black beans) the star of the meal!
Summary: Benefits of Plant-based Protein vs Animal Protein
Switching out some (or all) animal protein in the diet with plant-based protein options can be beneficial for health. The benefits of plant-based protein include increased intake of fibre, lower risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers, and benefits for weight management. Additionally, plant-based proteins do not contain some of the less-healthy compounds found in meat, including saturated fat and cholesterol.
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- Legume consumption and CVD risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Nutritional and health benefits of pulses
- Dietary fibre intake and risk of breast cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies
- Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies
- A review of the nutritional value of legumes and their effects on obesity and its related co-morbidities
- Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: a randomized controlled trial of five different diets
- Dietary lipids and blood cholesterol: Quantitative meta-analysis of metabolic ward studies
- Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk
- Trimethylamine N-Oxide: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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Thanks for informing me that I should eat more nuts and seeds if I want to get plant-based protein. I really appreciate all the tips you have written here because they're extremely helpful for me. I plan on becoming a vegan soon with the help of a nutrition coach, so thanks again!
Very well explained, I liked to read this article. Thanks for sharing this.