What’s the Deal with Plant Based Protein?
I was at the gym the other day chatting with a friend about eating protein to build muscle. He mentioned that he likes to eat rice and beans after lifting since it’s a “perfect protein.” I have another friend who is a savvy recipe developer and chef who posted on facebook that she was very excited that she finally found a doctor who told her to focus on plant based proteins for optimal health. A third friend, a very well known health educator and coach posted that she sucked down a thick slurry of spirulina mixed with water every morning and gave it a hashtag #veganprotein.
It’s true that all of these are good quality proteins, not to mention imho, delish, but if you’re trying to increase your protein intake significantly, and you’re not actually vegan, plant based proteins are not your best bet (please note my caveat that if you’re an ethical vegan and trying to avoid or not overdo soy and wheat gluten, these are your best bet!)
Here’s the catch. Plant-based proteins are almost always higher in either carbs or fat than protein, and often by leaps and bounds. Additionally, most of us pair these proteins with carbs by rote, and suddenly our attempt at higher protein turns into, well, not so much higher protein.
I wanted to work up a detailed breakdown for you to so you can figure out exactly how to eat them to greatest benefit. If you do eat meat and/or dairy, one of the best ways to make use of plant-based proteins is to combine them with high quality animal proteins (or whey or pea protein powder). Almond butter gravy for turkey, mixing beans and grass fed/finished beef for chili, spirulina added to your protein smoothie, etc.
Here are a few of the things my patients will ask me about as plant-based protein options with their actual nutritional breakdown included.
Nut butter and Nuts.
Nuts are generally a very healthy food for most people. Easier to digest if soaked, they have good fatty acids (best raw and ALWAYS keep them in the fridge or freezer or they’ll go rancid before you can shake a stick at them) and lots of fiber. They are not, however, a concentrated protein. Here is the breakdown for almonds and almond butter as an example.
Almonds ¼ cup
Carbohydrates 7g: Protein 8g: Fat 18g: Fiber 5g
Now add some almond butter to a piece of toast, let’s say whole grain toast, and here’s the profile for 2 slices- again, note the total number of carbs vs protein:
Almond butter 2 TBSP, 2 slice whole wheat toast
Carbohydrates 34g: Protein 14g: Fat 20g: Fiber 8g
I love this grain. Mostly because it’s not a grain, it’s a seed. High in fiber and high in protein for a grain because, well, it’s a seed, not a grain. Still not a concentrated protein in any way. That said, if you are trying to increase your protein, having quinoa instead of rice or quinoa chips (yum) instead of potato chips is a fabulous call.
Quinoa 1 cup
Carbohydrates 39g: Protein 8g: Fat 4g: Fiber 5g
This superfood is nutrient rich and is indeed high in protein compared to other nutrients. But one tsp has a mere 2 g of protein. To get the equivalent of, say, 2 eggs, you’d need 6 tsp of spirulina, hardly a reasonable breakfast choice (challenge: if you come up with a recipe that’s edible I’ll post it on the blog with attribution, of course!)
Beans are mostly carbohydrate, some protein and a little bit of fat- lots of fiber which is great but people often think they’re grabbing protein when they add beans to a meal. Here’s the breakdown for black beans.
Black Beans 1 cup
Carbohydrates 45g: Protein 15g: Fat 1g: Fiber 15g
Beans and rice.
Of all of the questions about good plant-based proteins this is probably the most common. As a vegan for years (I even briefly ran and owned a vegan restaurant with my ex-husband) I used beans and rice as a source of protein almost daily. I personally need a diet with more protein than that. When I was eating beans and rice several times a day I wasn’t getting what I needed- I was tired and overweight no matter how much exercise I did.
Here’s the deal, beans and rice are a complete protein when you eat them together. This means that between them they contain all of the building blocks necessary to build proteins in your body. Meat and other animal products as well as quinoa contain everything you need on their own. And, if you eat animal products at all you already have all of the amino acids you need to build those proteins so don’t need to worry about combining them. Oh, and no, they don’t have to be eaten in the same meal to make a complete protein, just within about 24 hours, even if you are vegan as your body will store what it needs. But (back to the point here) when you combine beans and rice you end up with a very high carbohydrate meal.
Take the black beans above and pair it with a cup of brown rice and look at the breakdown!
Carbohydrates 91g: Protein 20g: Fat 2 g: Fiber 19g
All healthy food but far from high protein. Consider that this combo is often also wrapped in a tortilla and dubbed “vegetarian burrito” and that pushes the carbs up another 20g and the protein up only a few grams if that.
The take home.
If you eat grains and beans these are good choices. But, if you’re trying to get your protein up significantly, these plant based proteins aren’t going to do it. Of course if you’re vegan for ethical reasons plant based protein sources are your only choice. It’s doable to get higher levels of protein, just not easy. Here is a post about how much protein people typically need (minimum and ideal), and who might need more, or less. Feel free to reach out if you have questions!
Yours in Health,