Why is Protein Important in Your Diet?
Whether you follow a plant-based diet or are carnivorous, chances are you’ve heard something about how you need to include plenty of protein in your healthy diet. Put simply, protein is one of the essential macronutrients needed by the body to maintain optimal health and functionality. Alongside carbohydrates and fat, these macronutrients are the building blocks of the body and critical to the health of every cell. More specifically, protein helps to grow muscle, repair damaged tissues, and produce biochemicals vital to the body’s functions, such as enzymes and hormones. Protein contains amino acids, which are key to the play many critical roles in the body, including protein synthesis and processing.
While we can “recycle” the amino acids that build those muscles, tissues and biochemicals, we need to eat protein daily to supply our bodies needs.
Animal protein naturally supplies the body with what is commonly referred to as the nine essential amino acids, at optimal levels. The term “complete protein” is often used. These nine elements are deemed essential because the body cannot produce essential amino acid itself. Instead, they must be ingested.
Plant based proteins are a little different. While they contain the same amino acids, they are always lower than optimal in at least one of the essential amino acids and are sometimes referred to as “incomplete” proteins In a way, the terms “complete or incomplete protein” are a little inaccurate, since all the amino acids are present, it is just the levels and amounts that vary. As a result, herbivores must be more conscientious of the foods they eat and regularly switch up different proteins to ensure balanced nutrition.
How much Protein is Needed?
As plant-based diets have grown in popularity, many have wondered if they will be able to get the healthy protein they need when subscribing to this lifestyle. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the average adult should consume approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight, or 0.35 grams per pound, daily. For example, a woman weighing 153 pounds would need to consume at least 53.5 grams of protein per day, while a man weighing 212 pounds would need about 74.2 grams. However, it is necessary to acknowledge this is just a recommendation. Many other lifestyle factors such as your activity level, health goals like weight loss or muscle gain, and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding also impact one’s protein intake they should be eating.
It is also pertinent to recognize that the recommendation for protein intake does not specify the protein source. Over the past several years, we have seen a rapid increase in people choosing to follow plant-based diets, whether for their health, the environmental benefits, or any other reason! However, a common concern many people have when switching to a plant-based lifestyle is protein deficiency and if they can maintain their body’s health and functioning without animal protein or red meat. This is especially true for athletes and exercise enthusiasts, who typically emphasize their ability to perform and have a greater protein requirement to sustain their activity. Fortunately, recent research has found that many plants are high in protein and, as a result, those subscribing to a plant-based diet can get all the protein they need from some of the best plant best protein sources. Although, as discussed above, the vast majority of plant-based proteins are not “complete”. So, those wishing to have a well-balanced diet with total nutrition should expect to plan and prepare their meals in order to ensure all their dietary needs are being met.
Plant-Based Diet for Athletes
As mentioned above, the amount of protein you must consume for optimal health depends on various factors, including your level of activity, and we have increasingly seen many athletes, both professional and amateur, switch to a plant-based diet. Unfortunately, while there is significant support and evidence for the health benefits of incorporating plant protein-based meals, the majority of this research has centered around individuals leading an average lifestyle. As a result, many have wondered if those who lead a reasonably active lifestyle can sustain their health with only plant-based proteins.
To better address this concern, it is critical to understand the physical changes and demands that take place when exercising regularly. This activity leads to biochemical training adaptations, including increased antioxidant enzymes and growth in blood cells. As a result, these physical changes lead to more significant nutritional and dietary requirements1, which must be met with an appropriate diet. While some research shows that a plant-based diet could lead to deficiencies of both macronutrients (ex. Protein and n-3 fatty acids) and micronutrients (ex. vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine)2 when poorly planned or executed, others have found that a plant-based diet may aid athletic performance as a result of increased polyphenols and antioxidants, which support certain micronutrients like vitamin C and E, greater tissue oxygenation, and reduced blood viscosity3.
These benefits are likely behind some of the anecdotal evidence that is commonly leveraged by professional athletes who have chosen to make the switch and report an improvement in their performance. For example, Venus Williams found a plant-based lifestyle helped her auto-immune condition while David Haye suggested it helped him recover from an injury. Though there has not been a great deal of research done to identify how a plant-based diet may impact athletes and their performance, stories such as these are an encouraging sign that with some planning and preparation a plant-based diet may not only meet an athlete’s dietary needs but could also enhance their performance.
Health Benefits of Plant-Based Protein Intake
Unlike research surrounding the benefits of plant-based proteins for athletes, studies concerning the general health benefits of this lifestyle have been abundant. As a result, we are now well-informed of the numerous health benefits that plant-based protein offers. For example, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests regularly incorporating plant-based proteins into your diet may reduce the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure, help with regulating body weight and decrease inflammation throughout the body.
More specifically, some of the most impactful research that has contributed to the collective understanding of why a plant-based lifestyle is beneficial to our health, include:
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease Long-term research4 revealed that individuals who followed a vegetarian diet had a significantly reduced risk (about 22% lower) of heart disease than non-vegetarians. This research was most significant as it took place over a much greater period than most other studies in the field and identified the benefits of plant-based diets over time.
- Digestive Benefits Data analysis from another study5 showed that a plant-based diet also lowered the risk of bowel disease.
- Lower Mortality Similarly, a cohort-based study6 found that increased consumption of plant-based proteins, as opposed to animal proteins, was associated with lower mortality rates in participants.
- Decreased Diabetes And yet another cohort study7 found that those adhering to a plant-based diet had a lower incidence of insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes than their carnivorous counterparts.
In addition to these purported health benefits, switching to a plant-based lifestyle and limiting your consumption of animal proteins has a significant benefit for the environment as well. In fact, the United Nations has stated that a global shift toward a more plant-based diet is necessary to combat the negative environmental impact of meat production. Such negative effects include increased greenhouse gas emissions and pollution which contribute to climate change, elevated water utilization, and expanded land use and deforestation. You can read more about the environmental impact of the meat production industry here.
Meatless Farm Plant-Based Proteins
At Meatless Farm, we are proud to create, produce, and distribute a wealth of meat-free products that make delicious plant-based proteins more accessible to the average consumer. You may be wondering, what plants have protein? Our products utilize a mixture of pea and rice protein to create a complete and balanced source of nutrition for our customers. In addition to these proteins, we include a variety of other vegetables and plant-based foods, including coconut oil, shea oil, inulin, carrot fiber, caramelized carrot concentrate, fruit and vegetable extracts (such as beetroot, radish, and tomato), and plenty of vitamins and minerals. All of these ingredients were thoughtfully selected to create the most nutritious and delicious product imaginable so you won’t even miss the meat – we promise!
Ready to make the switch to a more plant-based lifestyle? Check out our helpful resources on how to start a plant-based diet and three of our favorite high-protein plant-based meals to get you started!
About the Author
Angela Walker is a BANT and CNHC registered nutritional therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience, including 8 years with the award-winning, Optimum Health Clinic. Angela is a Nutrition Consultant for Meatless Farm, where she develops nutrition research and communicates the personal health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Angela is also a nutritionist and performance coach of Food for Thought, a program designed to change the way people think about food, diet and nutrition, based on the principles and practices of personalized nutrition and functional medicine. Angela is a published author of many well-known articles including ‘Case Studies in Personalized Nutrition’, a core text at many of the training providers for nutritional therapy and personalized nutrition in the UK and US.
Nebl, J., Schuchardt, J.P., Ströhle, A., Wasserfurth, P., Haufe, S., Eigendorf, J., Tegtbur, U., Hahn, A., 2019a. Micronutrient Status of Recreational Runners with Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns. Nutrients 11, 1146. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051146
Rogerson, D., 2017. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 14, 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
Barnard, N.D., Goldman, D.M., Loomis, J.F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S.M., Neabore, S., Batts, T.C., 2019. Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010130
Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Bradbury, K.E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R.C., Clarke, R., Key, T.J., 2019. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ 366. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897
Crowe, F.L., Appleby, P.N., Allen, N.E., Key, T.J., 2011. Diet and risk of diverticular disease in Oxford cohort of European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): prospective study of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians. BMJ 343, d4131. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4131
Huang, J., Liao, L.M., Weinstein, S.J., Sinha, R., Graubard, B.I., Albanes, D., 2020. Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern. Med. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2790
Chen, Z., Zuurmond, M.G., van der Schaft, N., Nano, J., Wijnhoven, H.A.H., Ikram, M.A., Franco, O.H., Voortman, T., 2018. Plant versus animal based diets and insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes: the Rotterdam Study. Eur. J. Epidemiol. 33, 883–893. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-018-0414-8