Plant Protein

March 21, 2017 in Health, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

On February 23, I attended a Continuing Professional Education webinar called: Through the RD’s Lens: A Look at 2017’s Nutrition. One of the top trends forecasted for 2017 is clean eating. There is really no consensus definition of clean eating; but you can read some of the popular factors in Eating Well’s article 10 Tips for Clean Eating. A positive feeling washed over this dietitian, when I realized that each and every suggestion identified as “clean eating” is an issue that I frequently write about. Frankly, it made me happy to realize that those of you dedicated to reading this blog are not only getting reliable nutrition advice but are keeping current with the trends. Another trend that is being adopted by the public is the issue of sustainability. The environmental sustainability trend is connected with water, atmosphere, and land management; all of which are negatively impacted by a diet based upon significant amounts of animal protein. As I have discussed before, plant-based diets are far more sustainable than diets of animal protein; check out the graph provided on the Harvard School of Public Health ‘sustainability’ page. I might add that plant-based diets are also more economically and socially sustainable as well. Plants, compared to meat can feed many more people for the same amount invested.

Why are more people choosing plants for their sources of proteins? I think that the sustainability issue is only one part of their decision. Although some researchers and dietitians believe that the environmental sustainability issue is the biggest factor in driving the interest in plant-based eating; let’s not forget that there is a large body of research that points to replacing animal proteins with plant proteins for health benefits.

The main point that I want to make today is that you don’t need to be a vegan (eat zero animal products) to benefit both your health and the environment. It’s fine to be a vegan; if you’re that committed to your decision. The point that I’m trying to make is that you can benefit both the environment and your health by eating more plant products, along with a healthy (meaning a small to moderate) amount of animal protein foods. It’s much easier to sustain health as a flexitarian - a person who consumes animal protein (eggs, milk, fish, poultry and may or may not occasionally eat red meat) and sometimes eats vegan meals – flexible – that’s the idea.

One of the marketing surveys for this year’s projections found that 70% of meat eaters in the United States are substituting a non-meat protein meal at least once per week, and 22% say they’re doing it more often than they did a year ago.

One of the signs that there is a plant-based shift is that the fast foods establishments have taken notice. Denny’s, Wendy’s Subway, Chipotle, White Castle, Taco Bell, and Chili’s all have plant-based meals. Target, while not a fast food establishment, has an entire section for plant-based protein products. It is reported that Tyson, the ginormous meat processor, has invested in Beyond Meat, a company that makes meat alternatives. Heads up! This is not just a fringe movement.

Complete or high quality proteins have all the amino acids that the human body can’t make; so if you’re eating proteins from soy products and animal foods; you don’t need to give it a second thought regarding the quality of your protein intake. But if you have decided to embrace the vegan eating style, then you need to pay attention to the quality of protein that you choose. Being a healthy vegan is not just omitting all foods from animals; it’s paying attention to the protein content in the plant foods that you do consume. One way to ensure that you will consume all the necessary amino acids that make complete protein is to eat a variety of plant protein sources during the day. It used to be taught that you needed to consume it in the same meal, but that has been shown to be incorrect. Soy protein is comparable to whey protein (from milk); which is considered by many to be the gold standard. So including soy protein and eating a varied diet are two main ways to ensure adequate quality protein intake if you decide to follow a vegan eating plan. In addition, I should mention that eating adequate calories is important; because if you don’t get enough calories, your body will take the protein you consume to supply energy rather than using it for the body’s protein needs. If you want to get into the issue of the assuring you have the right mix of amino acids and how to ensure that you get enough, try the website at

If you want to know more about how different protein sources compare there are a couple of methods. One is Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) another is Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). But most Americans are getting, by far, more high quality protein that they need. So the issue is really more frequently one of improving health by replacing some of the animal protein sources with high quality plant protein sources. Consider making a goal of having at least one meatless meal a week.