Written by Mary Lynch - Nutritionist.
I am a big believer in plant based proteins for a multitude of reasons. As a general rule I think it is better to promote healthy foods rather than reprimand naughtier items. It is certainly true that no one ingredient can make up for a bad diet, a healthy balanced diet always needs to be the priority, but, with so many nutrient packed foods on the market, why not take advantage of these.
We need protein in our diets for growth and repair and for strong bones. Protein plays an essential part in our diet, especially for those who are active. Plant based proteins are a fantastic way to help you achieve your protein intake. But before I go into the reasons why, first I think it’s essential to debunk the common myth that vegetarians and vegans can’t get enough protein in their diet. This is categorically untrue; yes meat is a great source of protein but you can absolutely get all the protein you need from plant sources.
The reason that such a myth exists is because animal sources of protein are ‘complete proteins’ while some plant sources are ‘incomplete proteins’. What this means is that complete sources of protein contain all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies require and have to get from food because our bodies can’t produce them on their own. Some plant based proteins are incomplete proteins, they contain some but not others. There are some exceptions to this rule however, such as hemp, soy, chia and quinoa but often to combine sources of incomplete proteins to create complete ones, these are called complimentary proteins. Some of these combinations are below to help you;
- Rice with beans
- Nuts or seeds with wholegrains
- seeds with legumes
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So why should we choose to include these complimentary proteins in our diet if you can just get complete proteins from animal sources?
- Firstly plant based proteins naturally contain less saturated fat, something that is bad for our heart when eaten in excess.
- As a result of being naturally lower in fat they are also naturally less energy dense and more fibre rich, great for someone who is trying to lose weight or become leaner.
- Some plant based proteins such as beans and pulses are considered one of our five a day.
- Research suggests that a sufficient consumption of plant based proteins has a protective effect against chronic degenerative diseases.
And why are particular sources so great?
- Legumes are high fibre, low fat, super filling and they contain lectins which have been shown to reduce inflammation and reduce our risk of cancer.
- Nuts and seeds contain a number of minerals that we often don’t get enough of such as phosphorus, manganese, selenium and calcium which help to keep our bones, teeth, hair, nails and immune system strong.
- Surprising to some, the protein in wholegrains such as rice and quinoa make up a large % of our protein intake. While some are complimentary and others are complete proteins, research shows that wholegrain intake in general is protective against cancer, CVD, diabetes and obesity.
- Hemp is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, a nutrient our diets are lacking. The essential fatty acid in hemp helps to keep the cardiovascular system healthy.
Other great weird and wonderful ingredients on the market today include the following. But what are they are why are they good for us?
- Goji berries are bright red edible berries originating from China. They are a good source of copper. Copper helps keep our metabolism, nervous system and immune system functioning properly. It also protects our cells against oxidative stress.
- Sweet potato is a large, starchy, sweet-tasting, root vegetable. They are a good source of thiamine, which helps to keep our heart healthy and our nervous system function properly.
- Matcha green tea is a finely ground powder of specially grown green tea. Green tea plants are shade grown for 3 weeks before harvest and the stems and veins are removed so you get only the leaf. Green tea contains EGCG, a natural phenol and antioxidant. Research shows that EGCG is good for cardiovascular health and that matcha green tea contains 137 times more EGCG than normal green tea.
- Baobab is an exotic fruit from Africa. It is very high in Vitamin C, which helps to keep our immune system, skin and teeth healthy.
- Spirulina is a blue green microalgae that contains all the essential amino acids that our bodies need and so it is a complete protein. It is also jam packed full of micronutrients.
- Acai berry is a berry harvested from a special species of palm tree originating from South America. They contain potassium, manganese, copper, iron and magnesium, needed for lots of different things including proper muscle function, healthy bones, healthy teeth and a strong immune system.
- Pomegranate is a widely cultivated fruit that contains vitamins A, C and E, iron and other antioxidants (notably tannins). Combining Vitamin C and iron is important, especially for vegetarians as it helps improve the bioavailability of the iron or in other words allows your body to make more use of the iron within the pomegranate, with iron helping to reduce tiredness and fatigue.
Plant based protein is a great addition to your diet. It’s good for you and exploring all the weird and wonderful ingredients on the market today is an amazing way to keep your healthy diet new and exciting. We can often get into a diet rut, finding something safe and eating it over and over. Different foods contain different cocktails of nutrients, and so one of the best bits of healthy eating advice is to try and have as much variety as possible. Just remember these ingredients can no doubt add a nutritional boost to your diet, but they do not justify or counteract a poor diet. A balanced, healthy and varied diet is the platform from which additional nutritional boosts should stem from.