As health and nutrition trends go, getting more plant-based proteins into our diets is right on the money. Leading health bodies, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to Public Health England (PHE), are championing plant-based protein for health reasons – plus it helps the environment into the bargain.
In the UK we have no problem meeting our daily protein target, with the Reference Intake (RI) set at 50g. In fact, on average, we tuck effortlessly into 75g protein a day. However, almost two-thirds of this is obtained from animal products – red meat and poultry account for 38% of our average intake, dairy products and eggs 16% and fish 8%.
Eating so much animal protein, especially red and processed meat, has implications for our health, in particular our risk of developing bowel cancer. As a result, health guidelines recommend we cut down on red meat and switch to plant-based types of protein instead.
Health experts such as Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, are encouraging us to see meat as an occasional rather than daily addition to our diets. Think of meat-free Mondays, then going veggie on several more days each week.
The health benefits
Eating protein-based foods is an excellent way to keep tabs on our waistlines – they’ve been shown to keep us feeling fuller for longer. This is because it takes longer for the body to digest protein, which in turn means it takes longer for hunger to kick in – so in theory we eat less.
That said, it’s important to eat the right type of protein. For many people, that means choosing meat-free options.
“Many plant-based proteins tend to have fewer calories and are typically lower in total fats (especially saturated fat), and higher in unsaturated fat and fibre than meat-based protein,” says Helen Bond, Healthy Food Guide expert and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “These dietary features are associated with lower body mass and less weight gain over time.”
The benefits go beyond weight loss, though: “Studies have shown that replacing animal protein with plant protein can be beneficial to enhancing glycaemic control (blood glucose levels) in people with diabetes, ” Bond adds. “And certain plant-based foods, such as soya protein, nuts, oats, barley and plant sterols have been shown to reduce blood cholesterol, which is beneficial for heart health.”
What to choose
Plant protein may not sound sexy, but once you know what counts it becomes easy to include more in your diet. For example, add tofu and Quorn to stir-fries instead of beef or pork; serve cereals with fortified and unsweetened soya milk instead of dairy, and bulk out salads with lentils and pulses.
Healthy Food Guide expert and dietitian Jennifer Low recommends choosing a plant-based protein snack if you need a mid-morning boost, or when you hit that 4pm slump and it’s a long time until dinner. Grab a handful of unsalted almonds or a slice of wholegrain toast with no added sugar or salt peanut butter. See guide to plant-based protein (below) for more snack-ready ideas.
Hot on the shelf
Manufacturers are taking a lead with snack options made entirely from plant-based protein – or products that have plant-based protein added. The Healthy Food Guide team is already smitten with a few of them, including the Alpro Go On range of fruity soy yoghurts (the passion fruit flavour was highly recommended in July’s HFG Food and Drink Awards), which provides 7.8g protein per 150g pot.
Bond also recommends fortified soya yoghurts and dessert, plus unsweetened soya milk and shakes, as they’re generally great sources of hunger-busting protein.
“A 200ml glass of fortified soya milk is a source of high-quality soya protein (around 6g; 12% of your daily protein needs), is naturally low in saturated fat and is a source of calcium,” she says.
Protein, often in the form of soya, is increasingly being added to cereals, bars and porridge, too. Mornflake Go! High Protein Porridge has whacked up its protein content to 15.5g per 70g pot, compared to 8.1g protein in its Oats2Go! pots. Eat Natural has added soy to its Protein Packed Crunchy Nut Bar for a 10g protein hit. Weetabix is offering a higher-protein variety with added wheat protein – two biscuits contain 7.6g protein compared with 4.5g protein in its classic cereal.
There’s strong evidence to suggest that eating high-quality protein within one to two hours of completing weight training can help muscles to recover. Better still, studies have shown eating protein after resistance training over a period of 10-24 weeks can help to increase muscle mass and strength.
“You need around 10-20g high-quality protein to stimulate protein synthesis in the muscles,” says Low. “Plant-based sources can be just as good as animal sources, so choose a wide variety to ensure you reap the benefits. Baked beans on wholegrain toast is a great post-workout meal as it provides all the essential amino acids.”
References: Public Health England (2014). National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Results from Years 1 to 4 (combined) of the rolling programme (2008/2009-2011/12) Harland, J. & Garton, L. (2015). White Paper: The Plant-based Plan. Alpro Foundation. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Cananda, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance (2016). Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practise & Research 77 (1), 54. Wolfe, R.R. (2006). Skeletal muscle protein metabolism and resistance exercise. Journal of Nutrition 136 (2), 525s-528s. Biolo, G. et al. (1997). An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. The American Journal of Physiology 273 (1 Pt 1), E122-9. Tipton, K.D. & Wolfe, R.R. (2001). Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism 11 (1), 109-132.
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