How to choose your plant protein sources without compromising your health.
By Stephanie Wharton, M.Ed, INHC
In the nutrition world, the types and how much protein we eat is largely debatable. It also depends largely on our bio-individuality. You’ll hear advocates that support a diet high in animal protein and others that claim a plant-based diet is the healthiest option. There are no one clear cut answers, but including MORE plants in your diet never hurt anybody. In fact, most people don’t eat enough plants. The rule of thumb I always coach my clients to adopt is one that is fairly simple to visualize. Build up your plate so that half is covered with plants. The remaining space on your plate is for your protein (which may be more plants) and fat.
Before we dive into some great plant based protein options, let’s talk about what a plant based diet IS NOT. Time and time again, I hear people claim that they are vegetarians, but they have a diet largely comprised of packaged and processed foods. They aren’t cooking their food at home or eating a balanced diet, but instead relying on fries, cookies, and grilled cheese sandwiches to sustain them. This is what we call a Junk Food Vegetarian. Nutrient rich foods make up very little of this person’s diet. So while they may be avoiding animal meat, their diets are far from optimal. If you have fallen into this trap, take an audit of your daily food intake and start to make sustainable changes with some of the following plant based protein recommendations.
Grains are a staple in all civilizations around the world and the nutrient content in grains vary widely. For example, refined grains (like white flour and white rice) have had their bran and germ removed and are therefore stripped of naturally occuring vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Whole grains are preferable! Some great gluten-free grains to experiment with are brown rice, wild rice,millet, quinoa, buckwheat and oats. If you do not have a sensitivity to gluten, you could look into farro, barley, and rye.
Beans are another great source of protein. They contain a more complete set of amino acids than other plant foods so they are a great option. However, many people are sensitive to beans or have not included them fully into their diet so being mindful when first introducing them could help alleviate digestive upset. At first, choose fresh beans that are smaller in size such as split peas, mung, and adzuki beans for easier digestion. Digestibility can be further improved by soaking beans overnight with kombu (seaweed), adding spices and vinegar, skimming off the cooking foam, pressure cooking or puréeing, and eating small portions. If buying in a can, read the label to make sure the beans are coming from a BPA free source to reduce toxin exposure.
Leafy greens are a great source of protein! Broccoli, spinach, kale, collard greens, bok choy, romaine lettuce, and watercress all contain varying amounts of protein. They also contain high amounts of calcium, magnesium and iron making them powerhouses of polyphenols, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory agents that synergistically work with the body to fight chronic illness! Aim to get leafy greens in your diet at least once every day!
Soybeans are the most difficult bean to digest and unfortunately, highly processed forms of soy are very popular. Soy milk, different types of soy meat and soy desserts like ice cream, may not be the best form of soy to eat because soy is one of the most genetically engineered crops. If you do choose soy, make sure to choose organic whenever possible. Whole food sources of soy included edamame, tofu, and fermented soy in the form of tempeh, miso and tamari.
Nuts are generally considered a heart-healthy fat, not a protein, and are high in fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, and antioxidants. Peanuts, which are actually legumes, are far higher in protein than other nuts.
Seeds are not only a good source of protein, but omega-3’s, Vitamin E, and fiber as well. Bonus is that they are super high in nutrients and low in caloric content, which makes them a great snack or addition to any meal. My favorite seeds are chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower. I love throwing them on salads and in smoothies!
Besides the whole food options listed above, I always get asked about protein bars and protein powders. Some are healthier than others, so consider these points when purchasing:
Many plant based protein bars contain refined carbohydrates, highly processed protein isolates, chemicals, sugar, and artificial sweeteners. Protein bars should not serve as meal replacements! Some to consider are the GoMacro Bars (they use brown rice and pea protein as opposed to soy protein isolates), Square Organics (who also use organic sprouted brown rice as their main protein source), Health Warrior Brand (a variety of ancient grains make up their protein sources), 22 Days Nutrition Brand, Rise Brand (usually using only 4 ingredients per bar), and RX Bar (which usually contains egg whites).
Similarly to the protein bars, check for high quality ingredients when purchasing protein powders. If someone wants plant based or vegan options, I always recommend a hemp protein powder like the one from Bob’s Red Mill, a mixture of hemp, pea and pumpkin powders like the one from Aloha, or the Amazing Grass brand which also throws superfoods like chia and spirulina into the mix. Vega, Plnt, and Ora are all other awesome brands to consider as well!
Regardless of your preference for plant or animal protein, adding in some more plants can contribute to your health in many beneficial ways like increasing immunity, lowering inflammation, fighting cancer, balancing hormones and contributing to heart health! Keep in mind that nutritional diversity is so important for optimal health so keep your plant proteinoptions flexible and clean and you’ll thrive!