Where Does Plant-Based Protein Come From?

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Myths, Truths & Where to Get It

“But…where will I get my protein?”

It’s still one of the most common questions asked about plant-based diets. If you’re already plant-based, people want to know where your protein comes from. If you’re considering a plant-based diet, you might be wondering which foods to eat for protein and whether you can get enough after making the switch.

Despite projections that the worldwide plant-based protein market will be valued at over $10 billion by 2020, protein is still largely equated with meat. Most meals contain some kind of animal protein, be it eggs in a breakfast sandwich, chicken on a salad at lunch or a burger for dinner. When you’ve spent the majority of your life eating that way, you don’t think about replacing animal foods with plant proteins — you just picture the eggs, chicken or burger disappearing.

But whole plant foods are far from lacking when it comes to protein. When you exchange meat and other animal products for foods like beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy greens, you get all the protein you need and enjoy the added benefits of the fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found abundantly in plants.

where does plant based protein come fromWhy You Need Protein

Protein sometimes gets downplayed in the plant-based community, perhaps in an effort to dethrone it from its centuries-old pedestal of being the stuff of life. However, some fuss about protein is warranted because of what it does in your body.

When you eat protein from any source, it gets broken down into its component amino acids. These are either used immediately to make the proteins your body needs or broken down further by the liver in a process called deamination. Unused compounds are either excreted or put back together through transamination to form other amino acids. When combined into proteins, amino acids contribute to:

  • Building, growing and repairing the body
    • Muscle, skin, hair, nails, etc.
  • Creating enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies
  • Maintaining clotting factors in the blood
  • Ligament and tendon health
  • Immune and nervous system function
  • Transporting nutrients

In an emergency, the body can also use protein for fuel. This usually happens during severe caloric restriction when adequate fuel from carbohydrates and fats in unavailable.

Dispelling Plant Protein Myths

Is plant-based protein good for you? You bet! Just like with carbohydrates and fats, protein doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In animal foods, it comes in the company of vitamins and minerals but also brings along high levels of saturated fat, pro-inflammatory compounds, hormones and, in the case of factory-farmed meats, antibiotics and pathogens. Plant protein foods, on the other hand, are generally low in fat (or contain beneficial fats), high in fiber, loaded with antioxidants and devoid of cholesterol.

rice bowl with veggiesOne major myth that persists despite evidence to the contrary is the idea that plant-based protein doesn’t provide all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids your body can’t make and has to get from food, and there are nine of them:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

The perceived trouble comes from the fact that some plant foods lack adequate amounts of one or more essential amino acids when consumed alone. However, since the process of transamination reconstructs proteins from amino acids found in all the things you eat, your body doesn’t need to get all nine amino acids at once from a single food source or even a single meal. Many plant-based dishes also naturally combine two “complementary” proteins without the need for meticulous dietary planning. In beans and rice, for example, methionine is lacking in the beans but not the rice, and the beans have the lysine that’s low in rice. It’s a natural (and delicious) combination found in just about every cuisine worldwide.

What this all boils down to is one basic truth about plant-based diets: you will get enough protein if you consume adequate calories from a variety of whole plant foods. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which you can calculate by dividing your weight by 2.2 and then multiplying the resulting number by 0.8. It’s not much at all — for a 2,000-calorie per day diet, it works out to around 10 to 12 percent of calories, which is easy to achieve with plant proteins.

That said, there are some situations in which people require more protein:

  • Older adults with inadequate HCl (stomach acid) to break down proteins
  • Individuals with digestive disorders preventing proper absorption
  • People recovering from surgery or injury
  • Cancer patients expePlant-bvasedriencing muscle wasting

In these cases, it’s important to work with a plant-strong health coach, dietitian or nutritionist who can assess individual protein needs and create an appropriate meal plan.

Plant-Based Protein in Food: Some Examples

Okay, so plants do have protein, and you’re not going to turn into a wilted stalk of celery if you only eat plants. But just like with any lifestyle change, you need to make sure you approach your plant-based journey the smart way. That means knowing your protein sources and making them part of all your meals!

Here’s a quick list of 12 foods you can start eating today (or add to the plant proteins you’re already eating) to meet your daily requirements:

bowl of beans for plant proteinMeasurements are for cooked grains and beans.

  • Chickpea flour — 20.6 grams per cup
  • Lentils — 17.9 grams per cup
  • Split peas — 16.35 grams per cup
  • Tempeh — 15.7 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Black beans — 15.2 grams per cup
  • Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) — 14.5 grams per cup
  • Edamame — 8.5 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Quinoa — 8 grams per cup
  • Green peas — 8 grams per cup
  • Peanut butter — 8 grams in 2 tablespoons
  • Hemp seeds — 5 grams per tablespoon
  • Spinach — 5 grams per cup

Which plant-based protein is best? There’s really no reason to choose just a few and leave the others out. Since you can get all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant foods, the best approach is to do just that every day. Try some split peas in your soup. Put tempeh in your sandwich. Whip up a chickpea flour omelet for Sunday brunch. Add beans to everything. And you can never go wrong with leafy greens.

The next time someone asks you where to find plant-based protein in food, you’ll know exactly what to tell them — and maybe have a tasty recipe to share, too!

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Won’t a High-Carb Plant-Based Diet Make Me Fat?

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The Truth About Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs

There’s a lot of debate out there about high-carb vs. low-carb diets and the potential benefits of one over the other, and it’s led to an equally large amount of confusion over whether carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are good or bad for you. This post isn’t meant to settle that debate but rather to shed some light on one of the main points of this confusion: the difference between whole and refined carbs.

At 4 calories per gram, carbs are found in a wide variety of foods, and they all tend to be lumped together in the high- vs. low-carb debate. But there’s a big difference in how whole carbs from foods like fruits, vegetables and brown rice and refined carbs like those in white bread, sugary desserts and sweetened drinks affect your body.

Refined Carbs: A Nutrient Wasteland

donut stack refined carbs sugarWith its high concentration of processed and fast foods, the standard Western diet has plenty of refined carbs. But these carbs start out as whole grains consisting of three parts:

  • Bran — Outer layer containing fiber, antioxidants and 50 to 80 percent of the minerals
  • Germ — Inner “seed” containing healthy fats, B vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants, including vitamin E
  • Endosperm — Food source for the developing seed, made up mostly of starches and some protein

Refined grains are stripped of one or more of these parts and the nutrients contained in them. The most refined products, such as white flour, have both bran and germ removed completely. When this happens, the grain loses:

  • 79 percent of the fiber
  • 70 percent of the minerals
  • 66 percent of the B vitamins
  • About 25 percent of the protein
  • Most of the antioxidants and phytonutrients

And, strangely enough, the calorie content actually increases about 7 percent!

The Fallacy of Enriched Grains

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If all that goes away when carbs are refined, then why do so many products say they’re ‘good sources’ of vitamins and minerals?”

The answer lies in the process of “enriching,” in which artificially manufactured nutrients are added back into refined grain products. This is why breakfast cereals with more sugar than soda can claim to be nutritious, and it’s another process that adds to the confusion about carbs. Only a select few nutrients are replaced when refined grains are enriched, and they’re often added in excess of their natural concentrations. So you get a lot of vitamins B1, B2 and B3 along with iron and folate, but you don’t get:

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin K
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Selenium
  • Fiber

fruity eclairs refined sugar

“Enriched” wheat, for example, has only about 5 percent of the vitamin E and 22 percent of the fiber of whole. The lack of these nutrients contributes to what refined carbs do to your body. Synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t used as efficiently as nutrients found in whole foods, partly because they’re delivered in the wrong proportions and aren’t accompanied by a full spectrum of supporting nutrients.

When you eat refined carbs, your body has to take vitamins and minerals from internal reserves to process and assimilate the food. Since you don’t get the majority of those nutrients back and the ones you do get come from unnatural sources, your reserves deplete over time, leaving you tired, sluggish and prone to getting sick. Other negative consequences include:

  • Higher triglycerides
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Increased cholesterol, especially very-low density particles (VLDL)

These effects put you at a higher risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that low-fiber diets may be linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Refined Carbs to Avoid

If you’re going to “cut carbs,” refined carbs are the ones you want to get rid of! Take a look at your diet, and take steps to eliminate:

  • Added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup
  • Refined and enriched flour
    • White bread products
    • White rice
    • White pasta
  • Boxed breakfast cereals
  • Pastries, snack cakes, donuts, muffins, etc.

The Whole Carb Story

Leaving carbohydrates intact preserves the bran, germ and endosperm as a complete package the way God intended. Think about it: A grain is really a seed. Seeds need a wide variety of nutrients to germinate and then grow and thrive into full plants. When you eat a whole grain, you get these nutrients in the right forms and the proper proportions to support the health of your whole body.

Switching from refined carbs to whole carbs means benefiting from the vitamins and minerals removed during refining plus a whole range of antioxidants, including flavanoids and polyphenols. These powerful phytochemicals aren’t found in processed foods and can’t adequately be added through “enriching” because their combinations in foods and interactions in the body are still largely a mystery. Studies suggest attempting to use isolated antioxidants to treat disease or improve health can actually have the opposite effect. Getting antioxidants from foods like whole grains and other whole carbohydrates, however, preserves the natural balance and allows these compounds to work as they should, protecting your body at a cellular level.

How does this “whole package” benefit your body?

  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Decreases inflammation
  • Lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Improves digestion and gut health

(I cover some of these benefits in more detail in my post, “5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains.”)

What Foods Are Whole Carbs?

whole grain bread whole carbsPretty much all whole plant foods contain at least some beneficial whole carbohydrates. Many are packed with a wide spectrum of nutrients but are low in calories, and all have the potential to improve your overall health when eaten regularly and in various combinations. The best way to think about the carbs in a plant-based diet is to stop picturing “carbs” as a food group and start thinking of food as food!

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, spelt, millet and amaranth are all good sources of whole carbs. So are leafy greens, crunchy veggies, starchy veggies, fruits and beans. Even nuts and seeds contain a small amount of carbs. Therefore, making whole plant foods the bulk of your diet means getting all the benefits of carbs without the negative side effects of refining.

Getting the Good Carbs in Your Diet

So what does all of this have to do with weight? Can you safely adopt a high-carb plant-based diet without seeing the scale go up?

Short answer: Yes! In fact, swapping out refined carbs with whole carbs can actually help you lose weight. How does that work? First, fiber contributes to the feeling of satiety, so if you eat unrefined carbs like those listed above, you feel full sooner and stay full longer. Second, whole carbs are much more complex than refined and take longer to be broken down by the body. This eliminates the spikes and drops in blood sugar you get after eating refined carbs, so you don’t feel “high” after you eat only to completely crash and get shaky and hungry an hour later. You wind up eating fewer calories without feeling deprived, making it easier to lose unwanted weight and maintain a healthy weight once you reach your goals.

Here are a few tips to get you started with a high-carb plant-based diet:fruit and veggie with asparagus

  • Clean the processed foods out of your pantry
  • Switch to whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Switch from white rice to brown
  • Snack on whole foods
    • Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc.
  • Increase your intake of low-calorie whole carbs
    • Leafy greens, veggies
  • Add beans to your meals in place of meats or processed mock meats

As for the high-carb vs. low-carb debate, don’t let it confuse you. It’s not whether or not you eat carbs but the type of carbs you eat that matters! A nutritious diet should contain a balance of whole, unrefined carbs; lean plant-based proteins; and healthy whole fats. Strike that balance, and you can enjoy your carbs in all their delicious unrefined forms without worrying about “getting fat.”

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Vitamin K, Plant-Based Health & Your Gut

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There’s a lot of buzz about vitamin K and whether or not people consuming plant-based diets get enough of all its forms. Just what is it that makes this nutrient so important, and do you really have to worry about being deficient?

What is Vitamin K?

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin “family” that includes three forms:

  • Phylloquinone (K1), found in plant foods
  • Menaquinone (K2), found in animal foods and formed in the body from phylloquinone
  • Menodione (K3), a synthetic form often used in supplements

Why Do We Need Vitamin K?

Vitamin K has several “jobs” in the body:

cabbage vitamin k greenSupports bone health

Interactions between vitamin K and specific cells and proteins keep bones healthy and strong. Vitamin K aids in bone health in two ways: It moderates the function of osteoclasts, cells involved in bone demineralization, and it converts osteocalcin, an important protein in bone, to its active form, allowing it to bind with calcium so that the mineral stays in the bones where it belongs.

Aids blood clotting

By modulating the enzymatic processes involved in the production of clotting factors, vitamin K ensures that blood doesn’t clot too little or too much.

Prevents arterial calcification

Calcium deposits in blood vessels are responsible for the hardening of arteries that is the precursor to to heart disease. Vitamin K aids in the activation of proteins responsible for blocking this process.

Other benefits of getting your daily dose of K:

  • Brain and nerve support
  • Prevention of oxidative damage
  • Inhibition of cancer cell growth
  • Regulation of inflammation

Where Do We Get Vitamin K?

Common plant-based sources of vitamin K include:

  • Kale

    green spinach smoothie vitamin k

  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Asparagus
  • Romaine lettuce

So remember, for vitamin K, eat lots of kale—and other leafy greens! If you’re particularly fond of brassicas, also called cruciferous vegetables, you’ll have no trouble getting enough of this important nutrient.

How much vitamin K do you need?

The daily recommended intake (DRI) for vitamin K is 120mcg/day for men and 90mcg/day for women..

Although vitamin K, like other nutrients, is best obtained from foods, it may be supplemented therapeutically for certain conditions, including osteoporosis. Therapeutic doses range from 100-500mcg/day. High-dose supplementation should always be overseen by a health professional.

Since vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, your body is better able to absorb it if you include a healthy fat source along with your leafy greens. Sprinkle raw nuts or seeds on salads, add ground flax to soups and stews or try one of these delicious recipes:

Do Gut Bacteria Play a Role?

Your body needs both vitamin K1 and K2 for optimal health. Evidence shows gut bacteria do synthesize some vitamin K2 from dietary sources of K1, and antibiotic use can affect the level of production by reducing the overall population of bacteria. However, there’s currently no hard science showing where in the intestines this conversion takes place and whether or not humans are able to absorb enough from the process to meet nutritional requirements.

Other studies demonstrate K2 is created from K1 in peripheral body tissues, suggesting direct consumption of K2 may not be necessary. The only substantial plant-based source of K2 is natto, a fermented soybean product that’s not a big hit in the Western world, although after trying some myself recently, I’d like to point out that it isn’t as bad as some descriptions make it sound.

The jury is still out on whether or not the body converts enough vitamin K1 to vitamin K2 to meet nutritional needs. Until more extensive studies are done on people who have been eating exclusively plant-based diets for years, we probably won’t know for sure how well the conversion works or if a healthier diet may improve the ability to convert the vitamin from one form to another. My advice is to consume a variety of whole plant foods every day, including lots of leafy greens, and avoid processed junk that can interfere with the natural processes your body uses to stay healthy.

(As an aside, it seems strange to me that our gut bacteria — or anything in our bodies — would produce a nutritional compound we can’t or don’t utilize in some way. I’ll be interested to see what science uncovers about vitamin K conversion as more plant-based populations are studied!)

Additional References:

Bauman, E., Friedlander, J. (2013). NC202 Men and Women’s Health. Therapeutic Nutrition Part I. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College

Bauman, E. NC106.4 Micronutrients: Intro to Vitamins, the Fat Soluble Vitamins A, E, D, &K [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from Bauman College: http://dashboard.baumancollege.org/mod/resource/view.php?id=1454

Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., Pizzorno, L. (2005). Vitamins. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Simon and Schuster

Vitamin K (n.d.). In World’s Healthiest Foods. Retrieved November 22, 2013, from http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=112

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