It is well documented that plant-based diets are one of the most healthful patterns of eating, however, a topic that can get confusing when going plant-based is protein.
If you are active, then nailing your protein intake is important, so when starting with a plant-based diet, getting a solid understanding on how to get plant-based protein right should be on the top of your priority list.
To start, let us take a step back and look at some protein basics, Oxygen Crew. Protein is one of the three macronutrients required in the diet and is mostly used to build structures in the body, like hair, skins, nails and muscle, but can also be used as energy if required. Protein is a larger molecule made up of smaller individual units called amino acids.
It can help to picture protein as a necklace, and the amino acids as the individual beads linked together. There are 20 amino acid ‘beads’ which can be used in hundreds of different combinations to make up the many different protein structures that keep out body moving.
Of the 20 amino acids, 11 our body can make all by itself, however, the other nine need to be consumed from the food we eat- which brings up to the topic of plant-based proteins versus animal proteins.
Animal protein, derived from meats, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy provide all of the nine essential amino acids making them ‘complete’, whereas as plant-based sources of protein are commonly missing one or more of the nine, or contain low amounts of a specific amino acid, making them 'incomplete' protein sources.
Two amino acids that can be difficult to get in ample amounts are methionine and lysine, and if you are looking to maximise muscle development, you will need to pay extra attention to leucine too due to its critical role in muscle protein synthesis.
If following a vegetarian diet, which includes eggs and milk products, then it is very easy to hit daily protein targets, and if following a strict vegan diet all you need to do is plan ahead.
The easiest way to manage this protein situation is by eating a variety of different plant-based proteins across the day. Many plants are rich in protein and either complete or almost complete, such as soy, tempeh, quinoa, legumes, edamame and sprouted grain and seed breads.
Then it’s just a matter of ensuring that across the day you have a few different sources of plant-based protein in your meals. Some plants are natural pairings, for example, rice is low in the amino acid lysine, whereas beans are low in methionine, but contain plenty of lysine, making these two foods a perfect mix for main meals.
Plant-based protein powders can also help boost protein intake and bump up the leucine content of your diet, particularly if you are active and looking to increase lean muscle mass. Most powders should contain at least 15-20g of total protein and check for 2-3 grams of leucine per serve also.
Overall being plant-based does not mean you have to compromise on your body composition goals. It can take a bit of concentration initially when learning the ropes of a plant-based diet, however, as you can see, once you get the basics down optimising your protein intake while following a plant-based diet is easily achieved.