You’ve heard about protein. You know the hype. You might not be able to explain its every rhyme and reason, but you know it’s important. And even if you don’t fully get the ins and outs, you’ll still make sure your post-workout smoothie gets a scoop of that protein powder you threw in the shopping basket a month or two back. Strength gains, and all that. But there’s so much more to protein than a gym-junkie fix, especially when it comes to plant protein - or more technically, protein from plants.
Protein is essential to a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. Every single cell in your body contains protein and relies on it for muscle growth, regulating hormones, the building, repairing, and maintenance of cells, as well as improving your overall health. In short, it fuels your cells, helps you maintain muscle, and is an essential macronutrient needed to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
However, it’s important to note that because protein isn’t created by the body (like essential amino acids), it’s important to get enough protein from your diet. On top of that, research shows that plant-based foods do not contain as much protein as animal sources, meaning you may need to pay closer attention to ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s break it down.
What is protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient needed to build muscle mass and maintain overall health. In its most basic form, proteins are complex molecules made up of chemical ‘building blocks’ (think lego blocks) called amino acids. Twenty, to be specific. While the human body is able to create eleven of those amino acids, the remaining nine must come from your diet. Therefore, they are called “essential amino acids”. A protein that contains all nine of these essential amino acids is known as a “complete protein”. Still with us?
Why is protein important?
Well, like we touched on above, protein is an essential in any diet. Here’s why you should be packing more protein into your day:
Animal protein vs Plant protein: what’s the difference?
There are two main sources of protein: protein from animals, and protein from plants. Aside from the obvious, perhaps the most important difference between the two is that the protein found in meat, dairy, poultry, fish, and eggs are classified as complete proteins - they contain all nine essential amino acids. This is great, unless like us, you’re on a plant-based journey and are doing your best to either cut out or cut back on the above. So what does this mean for you?
The good news is that you can still get your protein intake from plant sources. However, some plant-based foods are missing a few of the essential amino acids our body requires, meaning they are classed as ‘incomplete’ proteins. The trick? Ensure you are including a variety of plant-based proteins in your meal throughout the day, or ‘mixing’ your sources. For example, you could mix proteins from grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds to create ‘complementary’ proteins. That all being said, there are several plant protein sources that fit the description of complete proteins, including quinoa, hemp, soy, and buckwheat. Here’s to them.
Another difference to note between animal and plant products is that animal products tend to contain iron that is better absorbed by the body than that from plant products. Other important nutrients can also be lower in plant sources, such as vitamin b-12. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet to experience low iron. Good thing our plant-based goods are sources of iron. Just saying. Though, if you’re worried about your iron levels, always check with your GP first.
Is plant protein better than animal protein?
In short, not exactly. Much like different diets, there are pros and cons to both sides of the equation. One benefit to plant-based products is that in their natural form (ie beans, lentils, etc) they have less saturated fats associated with them, they contain antioxidants and minerals within their colour, and they can help lower cholesterol levels through fibre (which also keeps our digestive system moving). This is why plant-based foods can provide alternative benefits to animal products for those trying to keep a better handle on their health.
How to maximise your plants and their proteins in your diet
Lucky for you, there are a wide range of plant-based foods high in protein that you can integrate into your diet to make sure you’re getting sufficient protein. Here are some of the best sources of plant protein:
- Chia seed*
*Foods with complete proteins.
Don’t forget to get your protein from a mixed range of plant-based sources to cover your bases. This is why vegetarian meals are traditionally paired with rice and bread to create a ‘complete’ meal. You want the full range of essential amino acids, so do your homework.
When it comes to integrating more protein into your diet, here are a few simple steps you can take to make sure you’re ticking off the right levels of protein on the daily:
2. Sort your snacks.
When you’re feeling peckish, are hard at work or on the go, make sure you’ve got some high-protein snacks nearby that’ll help you feel fuller for longer, while also stocking up your body’s key nutrients. Ahem. Plant-based jerky or biltong oughta do it.
Whether that’s a protein shake to get you out the door, scrambled eggs on grain toast, or a healthy cereal with yoghurt, get your protein early in the day to start you off on the right foot.
Whole grains are higher in protein and taste just as delicious, with the added bonus of being great for heart health. Enough said.
Our favourite plant protein-packed snacks
Aside from the obvious? We’ve got a few favourites alright. Here’s a few of our top protein-packed snacks when you’re low on time and need something quick smart.
1. High protein bread
You heard me. Though, not all bread is created equal - aim for those stacked high in healthy seeds and grains to really milk the protein hit. Try this delicious recipe by Jamie Oliver, and thank us later.
2. Trail Mix
Almonds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, peanuts, and pistachios are all high in protein, among many other nuts and seeds.
3. Edamame Beans
Slap some salt on there and pop it like a pea.
4. Bananas and peanut butter
This one will satisfy that sweet tooth without compromising on protein. Peanut butter and celery is also a great combo.
5. Chia pudding
Chia seeds are a high source of protein, as well as being a complete protein with all the essential amino acids. Plus, it’s pretty damn good.
6. Vegan protein bliss balls
Quick to make, full of protein, and guaranteed to disappear quicker than expected. These might just be up there with the best plant protein snacks.
7. Plant-based jerky
And we’re not throwing this in lightly. Plant-based meat makes a great substitute - you could add OPP into a breakfast burrito instead of the sausage or bacon, you could sprinkle it on a Crunchy (OPP) Jerky Salad, or mix it into Nadia Lim’s Gourmet Baked Beans situation. You could even sub it out for real jerky in this Jerky Fried Rice recipe - the world is your jerky oyster.
So there you have it, the unofficial beginner's guide to all things plant protein. While there are a few key differences between the proteins in animal and plant-based sources, it’s important to figure out what works for you. If you want to optimise your nutrition, it’s a good idea to chat to a qualified and NZ registered nutritionist or dietitian.
Key takeaway? If you’re on a plant-based journey, you may need to eat more foods high in protein to meet your daily requirements, as well as mixing your sources to make sure you’re keeping all the essential amino acids happy. (Of course, if you’re worried about your iron levels, go chat to your doctor.)
Oh, and if you’re after some high protein, savoury tasting, gluten and soy-free plant-based snacks that are also a source of iron? We know a guy. In case we haven’t mentioned that enough today.