All aboard the plant train! As we chug along into a new year, interest in plant-based protein shows no signs of slowing down.
According to the International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health Survey, 12 percent of Americans now follow a plant-based diet and 31 percent say they’ve been eating more food from whole-plant sources.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of novel plant-forward protein sources to choose from, with new powders, milks, and meat substitutes emerging every month. And, of course, old standbys like beans, quinoa, and tofu are always available to add animal-free protein to your diet too.
As interest in plant-based protein continues to grow, more individuals are exploring this dietary choice. The surge in popularity is evident from statistics showing 12 percent of Americans adopting a plant-based diet and 31 percent consuming more whole-plant foods.
An array of plant-forward protein sources is available, ranging from traditional options like beans, quinoa, and tofu to new substitutes like powders and meat alternatives.
Video [10 BEST Plant-Based Protein Sources]
How plant-based proteins compare
|Black beans, canned, without saltTrusted Source
|Tofu (extra-firm)Trusted Source
|Chickpeas, canned, low sodiumTrusted Source
|Peanut butter (smooth, no salt)Trusted Source
|Quinoa (cooked)Trusted Source
|Vital wheat gluten (seitan)Trusted Source
|Pea protein powderTrusted Source
|1 scoop (22 g)
The science behind plant-based protein
When evaluating plant-based protein against animal protein, several factors, including health benefits and essential amino acids, come into play.
While there was concern about obtaining complete proteins from plant sources, studies now suggest that a well-balanced plant-based diet can supply sufficient amino acids.
Vitamin B12 remains a concern for individuals on a strictly vegan diet as it’s primarily found in animal products.
Vegetarians (and their well-meaning mothers) have long been concerned about obtaining so-called “complete” protein from plant sources.
Complete proteins are those that provide all nine essential amino acids the body can’t produce on its own and must get from food.
Still, there is one nutrient where plant-based proteins can’t compete with their animal counterparts: vitamin B12, responsible for proper brain function and red blood cell formation. If you choose to go totally vegan, you’ll likely need to add this nutrient to your diet with a supplement.
Are there adverse health effects?
Opting for plant proteins over animal proteins tends to have positive health impacts, such as maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. However, processed plant-based foods and certain food sensitivities need consideration.
Some plant-based protein foods (like plant-based meats and cheeses) are highly processed, which could come with some unpleasant surprises for health.
“Depending on the type, the sodium and saturated fat content (components many of us may want to reduce) could be comparable or even higher than meat,” says Christine Milmine, RDN, founder of Plant Powered You. “However, the opposite may be true as well, so check the nutrition facts panel.”
“Options such as plant-based meat are delicious and keep things interesting, but these are a food I recommend eating in moderation and not with every meal,” she says.
People with allergies to soy or nuts (two of the eight most common food allergens) may also find a diet high in plant-based protein tricky to follow.
And folks with digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome may need to be careful with the higher fiber content of many plant-based foods.
Soy side effects?
Another concern that requires clarifying: the health effects of soy. For years, soy foods have been plagued by rumors that they alter hormone balance or even cause cancer.
Fortunately, current research shows that there’s little reason for concern around including a tofu-packed stir-fry or steamed edamame at dinner.
A 2020 studyTrusted Source that tracked over 300,000 women revealed that eating soy foods actually reduced their chances of developing breast cancer. Meanwhile, the American Cancer SocietyTrusted Source contends that soy foods are both healthy and safe.
The environmental benefits of plant-based protein
Shifting towards plant-based proteins can positively impact the environment by reducing carbon emissions and conserving water resources. The reduction of meat consumption aligns with global recommendations to combat climate change.
A 2019 studyTrusted Source showed that shifting from an omnivore diet to veganism reduced personal greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, while moving to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian eating pattern brought them down by 35 percent.
Water usage is another key area where plant proteins outshine animal ones.
According to data from the Water Footprint Network, an advocacy group devoted to solving the world’s water crisis, meats like beef, poultry, and pork use significantly more water than plant-based proteins like pulses, nuts, and cereal grains.
The water footprint of beef, for example, is six times higher than that of pulses.
Where can I find plant-based protein recipes?
Want to incorporate more plants into your meals and snacks? The internet is teeming with ideas, but we’ll start you off!
And for dinner, try this easy black bean and spinach enchilada casserole, a seitan piccata, or a veggie-packed lentil soup.
Plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, nuts, and more provide an array of benefits, including affordability, nutrient density, and a variety of flavors.
With both personal and environmental advantages and misconceptions about their nutritional value debunked, incorporating plant-based proteins into one’s diet is encouraged.