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The Deconstructed Dish: The 3 Most Important Things You Need to Know about Plant-based Protein

By Jenn Randazzo, MS RD on March 30, 2015, categorized in Plant-based Nutrition

The Deconstructed Dish: The 3 Most Important Things You Need to Know about Plant-based Protein

Who has time to stay savvy about latest nutrition research these days? Besides, a nutritional breakthrough or wonder food makes headlines every Monday only to be disproved by Tuesday, right?  Even though you may be seconds away from tossing in the kitchen towel and just eating your favorite comfort foods because you’re so frustrated and confused, don’t yet.

Nutrition trends come and go, but I’m here to provide you with evidence-based, sustainable ways to improve your health.  Each month, I’ll focus on a nutritional hot topic, sift through tons of research, separate fact from fiction, and provide realistic solutions to help you improve your life.

If I had a quarter for every time someone has asked me a question regarding protein, I’d actually be able to comfortably afford my rental property here in Northern California. As a registered dietitian, I have had numerous questions about a variety of protein-specific topics, ranging from “How much protein do I need?” to “Should I consume protein before or after my morning workout?”

I totally don’t blame people for being interested and confused. Just about every day,  we are bombarded with information about protein from “health experts” on daytime talk shows,  social media conversations and bloggers just to name a few. And, of course, all of that information seems to offer different advice, leaving us, the public, even more confused and desperate for answers.

Sifting through the research

So now that I’ve shattered your dreams of finding straightforward, sound advice from our society’s most-valued media channels (I’m so sorry, by the way), I want to offer a protein-laden olive branch. Here are three things everyone must know about protein:

1.  Plant-based proteins are able to totally meet the protein needs of a vast array of individuals, ranging from mall walkers to body builders.

No, proteins are not “digested differently,” despite what you hear from the latest celebrity-turned-health expert. All proteins, including plant-and animal-based proteins, are all digested the same way.  For instance, almonds and eggs both begin experiencing the digestive process in the mouth, mix with pepsin, hydrochloric acid and rennin in the stomach, enter the small intestines as amino acids and become available for absorption1.

Now, each protein does have a unique composition and digestibility value, which evaluate how effective they are in supporting protein synthesis.  While, in general, single-sourced, animal-based proteins have higher biologic values and protein efficiency ratios than single-sourced, plant-based proteins, a mixture of plant-based proteins can and do supply the required amount of amino acids to support muscle growth1.

2.  Plant-based proteins are more sustainable than animal-based proteins.

Personally, I don’t think this point can be seriously debated.  Sure, we all know that individual who adamantly denies global warming, however researchers agree that plant-based diets are more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than those that include animals.2 Although both plant- and animal-based diets require fossil energy, a meat-heavy diet requires more energy, land and water resources than one plant-based in nature.  For example, according to recent findings, producing 1 kilogram of animal-based protein requires about 100 times more water than producing the same amount of plant-based protein2.

3. Plant-based proteins should be consumed throughout the day for optimal utilization.

There is a lot of confusion around eating. Period. When to eat. What to eat. How often to eat. And although I would love to address these in this article, I can’t. The topics are so broad that I would end up writing a novel and selling it at local bookstores. However, I will address protein consumption, and strongly suggest that proteins (of all kinds) should be consumed throughout the day for optimal utilization by the body.

Typically, individuals consume more protein at the evening meal than any other throughout the day. Carbohydrates tend to dominate the morning meal, which lunch can often be a hodgepodge, if even eaten at all. And it would be understandable to believe that, as long as you were consuming your required amount of protein during the day, it doesn’t matter when it’s consumed. Just get it in, right?

Wrong. Many researchers have studied dietary habits, and have identified that optimal protein utilization occurs when protein consumption is distributed fairly equally throughout the day for athletes and non-athletes alike3.

While it’s well known that protein helps stimulate and grow lean muscle mass, the public is often less certain on when it should be consumed to be best utilized by the body. And the confusion is understandable. The majority of research supports “protein distribution,” a concept that suggests protein should be consumed consistently throughout the day for optimal utilization3.  However, researchers are less united when it comes to recommendations for how the distribution should look.

Researchers, knowing that protein positively affected muscle growth and protein synthesis, wanted to identify the ideal way to ingest protein throughout the day to optimize the results. Twenty-four healthy athletic males participated in the study. They were divided into three groups, participated in the same bout of exercise, and ingested the same amount of protein throughout the rest of the day.  However, each group ingested different amounts of protein at each meal: group 1 consumed 10grams, group 2 consumed 20grams and group 3 consumed 40grams.  Results indicated that repeated ingestion of 20 grams of protein was superior for stimulating muscle protein synthesis during the 12-hour experimental period3.

But is that just for athletes?

Protein distribution positively affects non-athletes too. In 2014, a study examined the effects of protein distribution on skeletal muscle protein synthesis in healthy adult men and women. Researchers measured changes in muscle protein synthesis in response to diets that contained the same amounts of calories and proteins. The only difference was that some individuals consumed equal amounts of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner while others consumed protein skewed towards the evening meal. Blood samples and muscle biopsy samples were obtained during the study and evaluated. Based on the findings, it was determined that consumption of a moderate amount of protein at each meal stimulated  muscle protein synthesis for 24 hours more effectively than skewing protein intake toward the evening meal4.

If you’re still reading, congratulations! You’ve made it to the part of the article where I now take this evidence-based information, and break it down (like MC Hammer) to approachable, practical recommendations.

My Suggestions:

1. Choose high-quality, bioavailable plant-based proteins.

Several dietary factors may affect the nutrient bioavailability of plant foods when they are consumed, including: the chemical form of the nutrient in the food and the nature of the food matrix,  interactions occurring between nutrients and other organic components within the plant food, and pretreatment of the food during processing and/or preparation6.

Some of my fave bioavailable plant-based proteins are:

  • Brown rice
  • Sprouted tofu
  • Soaked beans (black, kidney, etc.)
  • Soaked quinoa

2. Choose multisource, plant-based proteins to fulfill the majority, if not all, of your daily protein needs.

Studies have shown that choice of food and diet can influence the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being diffused into the atmosphere. In fact, meals similar in caloric content may emit drastically different amounts of greenhouse gas emissions due to the resources needed to grow, harvest and transport them. After analysis, these studies generally identified animal products as requiring more resources and polluting than their plant-based counterparts7.

Grow as many of your own plant-based proteins in your backyard. If you can’t, shop your local farmers’ market for plant-based proteins. If you don’t have one, visit your local market and look for plant-based proteins that are either grown locally, or are manufactured by a brand that promotes and lives a sustainable mission. If you’re not sure which plant-based foods are rich in protein, check out this comprehensive list.

If you need protein that you can conveniently grab and take with you on the go, try Vega One All-in-One Nutritional Shake in the morning, Vega Performance Protein after your midday workout, or Vega Protein & Greens while sitting in traffic after picking up the kids from soccer practice.

3. Consume about 20grams of plant-based protein every three hours for 12 hours following strenuous exercise.

I get it. It’s not convenient to count how many grams of protein are in each of your meals and snacks.  So, for those of you who need the answer to, “What does 20 grams of protein look like in a meal?”here are some options:

Protein can be challenging to understand, and I don’t blame you for being confused. It’s hard to constantly sift through the information you’re inundated with on an hourly basis and find evidence-based guidance. Hopefully, you will find these three tips helpful in answering some of those protein-based questions, and make positive, life-sustaining changes.

1. SchlenkerE, Roth, S. (2006). Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition & Diet Therapy, 9e.
2. Pimentel D. (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and environment. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 78:3; 660-663.
3. Areta J et al. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. 591(9): 2319-2331. Accessed from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3650697/.
4. Mamerow M. (2014). Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-H Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults.  The Journal of Nutrition. 144(6): 867-880. Accessed from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4018950/.
5. Phillips S. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation.  Journal of Sports Sciences. 29: 29-38.
6. Gibson R. (2006). Improving the bioavailability of nutrients in plant foods at the household level. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society . 65: 160–168
7. Carlsson-Kanyama A, Gonzalez A. (2009). Potential contribution of food consumption patterns to climate change. American Society of Nutrition. 89(5): 1704-1709. Accessed from: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1704S.full.