Plant-Based Proteins: What Are The Benefits?

Plant-based foods are hip. But does plant-based also mean rich in proteins? Yes. Plants provide a lot of healthy protein. This is good for the body, the environment and the climate.

A plant-based diet not only brings healthy proteins to the table, but also other health-promoting ingredients.
Most plant-based proteins include legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pseudo-cereals like amaranth.
Human protein requirements can be met with a purely plant-based diet.
Vegetable proteins are not in short supply. The supply of proteins is not a problem in a balanced, plant-based diet. On the contrary: Plant-based foods provide extremely healthy proteins. But what vegans and vegetarians have long known is still met with prejudice.

What does the human body need proteins for anyway? The answer is: For much more than just strong muscles. Because the body’s own proteins also play an important role in fighting off infections, building connective tissue and transporting oxygen.

The proteins themselves are as varied as their tasks. Proteins are based on 21 amino acids. These arrange themselves in groups and thus form proteins. Eight of these 21 amino acids are particularly important for humans. Because the body cannot make them itself. Humans must therefore get these essential amino acids through food.

How healthy are plant-based proteins?

Although animal proteins are superior in terms of protein quality and digestibility, there is some evidence that plant-based proteins are healthier than their animal counterparts. In a 2016 cohort study with over 130,000 participants, researchers at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health observed that a high consumption of animal protein was more likely to lead to death from cardiovascular disease than a diet rich in plant protein. On the other hand, when animal protein sources were replaced by vegetable proteins, general mortality fell.

Another research team led by Maryam Farvid was also able to demonstrate a connection between the consumption of red meat in young adulthood and a higher prevalence of breast cancer in a study involving almost 89,000 women. Legumes and nuts, on the other hand, reduce the risk of breast cancer.

But what makes animal-based foods so risky and plant-based proteins so healthy? The explanation lies less in the proteins themselves and more in the entirety of the foods in which they are found. For example, the saturated fats and high levels of salt and nitrites found in processed red meat are detrimental to health. For example, the consumption of red meat and processed meat products was often examined in the studies mentioned above. Fish and poultry meat did not show these effects.

Plant-based nutrition brings more than healthy proteins

“When we eat plant-based foods, we not only take in high-quality proteins, but also other health-promoting substances. Above all, minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium. But also fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals,” says doctor Ludwig Manfred Jacob, who himself engaged in plant-based diets.

So, plant-based nutrition brings much more to the table than healthy protein. The fact that the “biological value” of vegetable proteins is lower than that of their animal counterparts plays only a minor role in practice.

Where are vegetable proteins in?

Most plant-based proteins include legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pseudo-cereals like amaranth. For the nutritionist and author Niko Rittenau, legumes and products made from them are a must on every vegan plate. These include lentils, beans, lupins, peas and chickpeas as well as soybeans and products made from them.

“On the one hand, they can be used in a variety of culinary ways and are extremely inexpensive. On the other hand, they contain a high concentration of the essential amino acid lysine,” says Rittenau. This is important because lysine is found in such large quantities in few other plant foods.

Vegetable proteins in nuts, seeds, and seeds

In principle, however, every plant-based food contains a certain amount of protein, as this occurs in all plant cells. But while vegetables such as cucumbers, zucchini, carrots and lamb’s lettuce provide a maximum of two grams of protein per 100 grams of product, cooked legumes such as lentils are convincing with five times as much protein.

Other good sources include whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta. However, nuts, seeds and seeds are the frontrunners in terms of protein content. 20 to 30 g per 100 g of food are not uncommon here. However, since they provide a lot of energy, the portion sizes are better to be smaller. Legumes and whole grain products, on the other hand, can enrich the diet in much larger quantities. They can make a significant contribution to protein supply.

Cover your needs with vegetable proteins?

Germans eat more protein than they should. The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for healthy, normal-weight people between the ages of 19 and 65. Even with people who eat vegan, the protein intake is above the reference value. Numerous studies show this.

In their review published at the end of 2019, F. Mariotti and C. Gardner therefore conclude that a vegetarian diet provides sufficient high-quality protein. Nutritionist Markus Keller does not see a fundamental protein problem for vegans either.

Vegans need to watch their protein intake

“The protein requirement can also be met with a vegan diet,” says Markus Keller. However, the protein intake of vegans in studies is lower than that of vegetarians or omnivores. In some vegans, especially young women, an intake below the reference value was sometimes observed. However, this occurred above all when too little food energy was consumed overall, says Keller, explaining the studies.

Conversely, this means that if you eat a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet and eat enough, you can easily achieve the recommended amount of protein – without additional protein powder.

How sustainable are vegetable proteins?

While cereals, legumes and vegetables serve directly as human food, the breeding, husbandry and fattening of livestock requires far more resources and produces large amounts of environmentally harmful greenhouse gases. Instead of eating plant-based protein directly, people feed it to chickens, pigs, and cattle. These convert it – with losses – into animal protein.

In order to produce animal proteins from meat, dairy products and eggs, it therefore takes many times more energy, water and space than is required for proteins from plant-based foods.

Nutritionist Markus Keller explains what this means for the water consumption of animal and vegetable proteins. “On average, 98% of the water used in the production of beef goes to growing the feed,” he says.

In relation to the protein content, this means that around 10-30 g of protein can be produced from beef per 1,000 liters of water. “Compared to plant protein, that’s little,” says Keller. With 1,000 liters of water, for example, around 12-50 g of protein can be obtained from rice, 50-150 g from wheat and even 90-150 g from lentils.

Extrapolations by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO also make clear the enormous land requirement: While 77% of agricultural land is used for the cultivation of feedstuffs and as grazing land for animals, the meat and dairy products produced from it contribute just 18% to the global energy supply and 37% of the global protein supply. The rest is covered directly by plant-based foods, which are produced on 23% of the global area.

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