Plant-based Protein Basics With a Registered Dietician

Posted by Brave Team on

By Maria Terry, MS, RDN, LDN

I’ve been tasked by Brave with the job of explaining protein and boy do I love this topic! Most of us know by now that protein is an important component of a balanced diet (obv.). What most of us don’t know, is that not all protein sources are created equal. I’m here to explain!

First, let's define a protein.

Proteins are a chain of amino acids. When we eat proteins, they get broken down into individual amino acids. 

Okay, so what makes a high quality protein source? 

The quality of a protein has to do with the presence of amino acids occurring in the food. A high biological value (HBV) protein contains all nine essential amino acids; these are typically found in meat sources as well as dairy and soy. 

So, do I just eat meat, dairy and soy? 

No, we don't need to solely rely on HBV proteins. We can have a mix of HBV proteins alongside lower biological value proteins (missing 1 or more amino acid) to have complete proteins in our diet. The name of the game? Vary your protein intake, rather than relying on the same foods all the time! This is especially important for those adopting a plant-based diet or have dairy and/or soy allergens.

One very important caveat: protein powder. 

Whey protein powder, for example, is a complete protein, providing all essential amino acids. However, supplements are not regulated by an agency such as the FDA. While we can be sure that our food is held to set standards, supplement quality varies tremendously. Unless third party tested, there is no way to confirm the quality of the product you're receiving!

Including whole food-based protein in your diet is a helpful way to ensure you're receiving quality nutrition without concern for additives, toxins, and metals that may be in supplemental protein.

Is more protein always better?

Not quite. While protein, an essential building block, is vital for recovery and satiety, more protein doesn't necessarily equate to bigger, better health. An excess of protein will still be stored as a fat in the body. Identifying how much protein your body needs for your specific activities, potential goals, and current health conditions is best.

Protein is a crappy fuel source! Your body relies on carbohydrates for fuel, followed by fat for longer duration activities and periods of time without food.

By eating more whole foods rather than relying on supplemented products, you're able to reap the benefits of the carbs, fats, and micronutrients in those foods as well! 

What about plant-based proteins, like chia seeds, hemp hearts, almonds, pea protein etc.?

Chia seeds and hemp hearts are complete proteins! Exciting! They also provide fat and fiber, which helps us sustain our energy levels and stay fuller for longer. They're micronutrient rich and incredibly versatile. Nuts such as almonds, while not a complete protein, can provide branched-chain amino acids important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. BCAAs are amino acids your body cannot make on its own. Same goes for pea protein assuming it is sourced from a reputable supplier!

So, if protein isn't everything, what should I be striving for in a balanced meal? Why?

Especially for breakfast, you want that first meal to provide nutrition that keeps you full. Folks who miss out on enough calories earlier in the day may have a tendency to graze or binge later. When breakfast provides protein, fiber, fat, and carbs, you're setting yourself up for success: long-lasting energy, satiety, and nutrition that supports an active brain and body. 

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