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The Role of Good-Quality Plant Proteins for Health & Sustainability

Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular due to their many health benefits and positive environmental impact. One important aspect of a plant-based diet is the inclusion of good-quality plant proteins, which can be found in a variety of foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Importance of good-quality protein in the diet

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are crucial for the proper functioning of our brains and body. When we eat foods that contain proteins, our bodies break down these proteins into individual amino acids through the process of digestion. Once these amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream, they are transported to different parts of the body where they are used to build and repair muscles and other tissues, maintain hair, skin and nails, synthesise hormones and enzymes and make neurotransmitters and antibodies. Including protein-rich foods with meals helps to balance blood sugar levels, curb sugar cravings and improve satiety, which is beneficial for supporting mood and energy levels and maintaining a healthy weight.

Top plant-based protein sources

There are plenty of plant-based protein foods to choose from that will help you meet all your protein needs. Some of the best plant-based protein sources include legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, soybeans, peas, peanuts), nuts and seeds and their pastes (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachio, Brazil, hazelnut, and chia, pumpkin, flax, hemp seeds), whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, bulgar, buckwheat), soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame), nutritional yeast, spirulina, Ezekiel bread and certain vegetables (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts).

Plant-based protein powders made from hemp seeds, brown rice and pea are a great way to help boost your protein intake. Look for a high-quality, organic, all-natural protein powder that is free from additives, fillers, artificial flavours and sweeteners. Sprouted plant-based protein powders offer additional health benefits. Sprouting legumes, seeds and grains helps to break down some of their complex compounds that can be difficult to digest, such as phytic acid. This can make protein powders gentler on the digestive system and reduces the risk of digestive discomfort. Sprouting also helps increase the bioavailability of their nutrients and can enhance the nutritional value of the protein powder, making it easier for your body to absorb and utilise these nutrients. Sprouted plant-based protein powders may have a higher protein content compared to non-sprouted plant-based protein powders, because sprouting can help increase the concentration of protein in some plant-based foods such as legumes and seeds.

Protein comparison of plant-based foods

Soybeans are one of the most protein-rich legumes, with around 28g of protein per half cup of cooked soybeans. Firm tofu provides 10g of protein per half cup, tempeh 15g per half cup, edamame beans (immature soybeans) 8.5g per half cup and unsweetened soy milk around 7g of protein per cup. Other legumes range from around 5 to 9g of protein per half cup, depending on the type. Legumes are also great sources of iron, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and fibre, and soybeans provide calcium for bone health.

Nuts are particularly high in protein compared to other plant-based foods, with some nuts such as almonds, cashews and pistachios containing up to 6g of protein per 28g serving. On average a 2 tablespoon (32g) serving of nut butter provides approximately 6 to 7g of protein. The protein content of seeds ranges from 4 to 9g of protein per 28g serve, with hemp seeds being one of the richest sources. Quinoa contains approximately 8g of protein per cup, and 2 tablespoons of tahini contains around 5g of protein. Nuts and seeds are also great sources of fibre, beneficial unsaturated fats, vitamin E, zinc and magnesium.

Spirulina is a blue-green algae that has 4g of protein per tablespoon. Spirulina is also rich in minerals including iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium.
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that is often used as a condiment or ingredient to enhance the flavour and nutritional value of vegan and vegetarian cooking. It has a nutty, cheesy flavour and is typically sold in the form of flakes or powder. Nutritional yeast is a good source of protein, with a 2-teaspoon serving packing 3g of protein. When fortified, it becomes an abundant source of B vitamins, particularly B12, which is commonly deficient in vegan diets.

Certain vegetables and some fruits also offer some protein. A large baked potato contains 7.9g of protein, a cup of chopped broccoli contains 2.5g of protein, a cup of Brussels sprouts will provide 3g of protein, a cup of cauliflower 2g of protein, a cup of kale offers 2g of protein, and 5 medium mushrooms offer 3g of protein. A medium avocado contains 3g of protein, and a cup of raw apricots, kiwi or blackberries provides 2g of protein.

Benefits of eating plant-based protein sources

There are several benefits to incorporating plant-based protein-rich foods into the diet. Plant-based protein foods are typically lower in saturated fat compared to animal protein sources, and they contain beneficial unsaturated fats, which can help improve heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Many plant-based protein sources, such as legumes and whole grains, are high in fibre, which helps regulate digestion, improve gut health and lower cholesterol levels, and improves blood sugar control.

Plant-based protein sources are often rich in essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants, which are important for maintaining optimal health and protection against chronic disease. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has shown that diets that include a higher proportion of plant protein are associated with lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Eating a plant-based diet can also be beneficial for the environment, as the production of animal products tends to have a greater environmental impact than the production of plant foods.

Complete vs incomplete proteins

It’s important to note that not all proteins are created equal. Different foods contain different types and amounts of amino acids, and some foods may be incomplete sources of protein, meaning they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need for good health. Nuts, seeds, legumes and some grains are considered “incomplete” proteins.

Your body needs 20 different amino acids to function properly. Nine of these amino acids are called essential amino acids, which must be consumed through the food you eat. The other 11 non-essential amino acids are naturally produced by the body.

When a food contains the non-essential and all of the nine essential amino acids they are called a “complete” protein. Animal proteins are the richest food source of complete proteins. Some plant-based foods contain all nine essential amino acids, including soy, quinoa, walnuts, nutritional yeast and buckwheat. However, you get all the amino acids you need by combining incomplete protein sources. You can combine foods to make what are called “complementary” proteins. For example, legumes and rice alone both lack certain essential amino acids; however, combining them creates a complete protein. You don’t have to eat complementary proteins within the same meal either; just make sure you consume a combination over the course of the day.

If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, including a diverse range of plant-based protein sources in your daily diet will ensure you’re consuming all the necessary amino acids and other nutrients you need for optimal health.

Some other complementary combinations include wholegrain flatbread or pitta with hummus, wholegrain toast with peanut butter, spinach salad with nuts and seeds, oatmeal porridge topped with mixed seeds and nuts, lentil soup with a slice of wholegrain toast, and a spirulina smoothie bowl topped with oats, nuts and seeds.

Delicious ways to enjoy plant-based protein foods

Tofu is a highly versatile food that readily adopts the flavours of the dish it’s cooked in, making it an adaptable ingredient for
a wide range of meals. Tofu and tempeh can serve as a meat alternative in sandwiches, burgers and soups, or in stir-fries, curries and noodle dishes. Soft tofu can be used in vegan cheesecake recipes. Try scrambled tofu with veggies and brown rice, marinated barbecued tofu skewers, crispy baked or sesame-crusted tofu with peanut dipping sauce or pan-fried tofu strips in veggie rice paper or nori rolls.

Legumes are a protein staple for vegans and vegetarians. Legumes are extremely versatile and can be used in soups, salads, dals, curries, stews, chilli beans and veggie patties. Hummus makes a nutritious snack with crackers or veggie sticks, a healthy butter alternative on sandwiches or a tasty toast topping with tomato and sprouts. Falafel salad bowls and wraps go beautifully with a spoonful of hummus. Try oven-baked chickpeas with paprika and other spices for a crunchy snack or to add extra protein to your next salad.

Add extra goodness to salads, wraps and sandwiches with a handful of nutritious bean sprouts. Mung beans provide 3g of protein per cup, lentil sprouts provide 7g of protein per cup, pea sprouts have 11g of protein per cup, chickpea sprouts provide 36g of protein per cup and adzuki beans have 31g of protein per cup.

Chickpea flour, also known as besan or gram flour, is a great gluten-free and high-protein alternative to regular flour. Besan flour can be used in veggie patties, Indian-style flatbreads, pancakes, muffins, bread and batter for fritters. It can also be used to thicken sauces, curries and stews. Besan flour contains 10.5g of protein per half cup.

Legume pasta is a great alternative to traditional wheat pasta for people looking to increase their protein intake and who follow a gluten-free diet. Legume pasta contains around 20–30g of protein per 100g, which is significantly higher than wheat pasta, which contains only 12g of protein per 100g.

Nut butters are a delicious way to add more protein to your diet. They make a nutritious toast or pancake topping, and addition to energy balls, cookies and salad dressings. Try a healthy PB&J with almond butter and chia berry jam. Add a spoonful of nut butter to your next smoothie, with banana, nut milk, cacao powder and cinnamon. Spread some nut butter on apple wedges for a quick nutritious snack, or drizzle it over smoothie bowls and porridge. Almond and peanut butter make a tasty satay sauce for stir-fries or noodle dishes. Look for healthy nut butters that are 100 per cent natural, without any added sugars, salt or hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Nuts and seeds add crunch and protein to muesli, porridge, salads and rice dishes. Granola with nuts and seeds make a healthy yoghurt or smoothie bowl topper. They also make delicious gluten-free bases for raw cheesecakes and desserts, or fruit crumbles and protein balls. Trail mix is a healthy portable snack with your favourite sun-dried fruits. Oven-bake nuts tossed with spices and a little maple syrup for a crunchy treat. Almond flour makes a healthy protein-rich substitute for regular flour, and a great option for people sensitive to gluten, in baked goods and pancakes. Soak cashews overnight to make a vegan cheese with nutritional yeast, or try a raw vegan cheesecake with coconut cream and coconut nectar. Top stir-fries, curries and noodle dishes with toasted cashews, peanuts or almonds. For a dairy-free milk alternative, try making your own nut milk by blending almonds, macadamia or hazelnuts with water, vanilla bean paste and a few dates or a little maple syrup.

Tahini, the paste made from ground sesame seeds, is widely used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Tahini makes a creamy salad dressing with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. Drizzle tahini and a little raw honey over porridge, or add it to baked goods and cookies, protein balls and raw desserts. Tahini is the base for hummus (with chickpeas) and other dips like baba ganoush (with roasted eggplant and capsicum), and tzatziki (with cucumbers and yoghurt). Use tahini as a healthy sandwich spread and substitute for butter and oil in baked goods recipes. Sauces made with tahini, tamari, honey and ginger make a delicious marinade for tofu or to toss through veggies. Try a nutritious breakfast smoothie with banana, cinnamon, tahini, macadamia milk and a spoonful of muesli.

Spirulina powder can be used to supercharge veggie juices, salad dressings, green smoothies with mango, banana, spinach and avocado, or just with water. Try adding a spoonful of spirulina to your next smoothie bowl and top it with granola, nut butter, banana, berries, kiwifruit, almond milk and nuts and seeds. Spirulina can also add extra goodness to coconut chia pudding, protein balls and raw treats.

Quinoa is a seed, although it is often referred to as a grain due to its grain-like appearance and culinary uses. Coloured quinoa, such as red, black and purple, contain protective phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Quinoa makes a nutritious gluten-free grain alternative, served with curries, stir-fries and Buddha bowls in place of rice, and as a stuffing for chicken, pumpkins and capsicum. Quinoa can be used instead of bulgar wheat in tabouli for a gluten-free option. Quinoa goes perfectly tossed through salads. Try a kale, quinoa and roast veggie salad. Use quinoa in veggie patties or add a spoonful to the top of your next soup.

Buckwheat is not a type of wheat, despite its name: it’s actually related to rhubarb. Buckwheat noodles are gluten-free and can be enjoyed with shiitake mushrooms or in stir-fries, Asian salads or miso soup. Buckwheat pancakes or porridge topped with pear, almond butter and hemp seeds make a hearty protein-rich breakfast.

Look out for sprouted buckwheat and besan flour, sprouted nut butter and bread, and activated nuts. Soaking and sprouting help remove enzyme inhibitors or “anti-nutrients”. This makes nuts, legumes and seeds easier to digest and their nutrients more bioavailable. You can try activating nuts and sprouting legumes at home.

Nutritional yeast can be used to season popcorn, salads, dips, soups and stews. Its cheesy, nutty flavour makes nutritional yeast a perfect vegan substitute for cheese in pasta dishes, creamy sauces, kale chips, crackers, sprinkled over potatoes or other roasted vegetables or as a tasty garnish
on avocado toast. Nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavour to vegan cashew nut cheese or vegan pesto.

Article Featured in WellBeing 206

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy

Lisa Guy is a respected Sydney-based naturopath, author and passionate foodie with 16 years of clinical experience. She runs a naturopathic clinic in Rose Bay called Art of Healing and is the founder of Bodhi Organic Tea.

Lisa is a great believer that good wholesome food is one of the greatest pleasures in life and the foundation of good health. Lisa encourages her clients to get back to eating what nature intended: good, clean, wholesome food that’s nutrient-rich and free from high levels of sugars, harmful fats, artificial additives and pesticides. Her aim is to change the way people eat, cook and think about food.

Lisa is an avid health writer, being a regular contributor to The Sunday Telegraph's Body and Soul, and leading magazines including WellBeing. Lisa is an author of five books to date, including My Goodness: all you need to know about children’s health and nutrition , Pregnancy Essentials, Heal Yourself, Listen to your Body and Healthy Skin Diet .

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