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The Science Behind a Healthy Plant-Based Diet

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There are many reasons why someone opts to follow a plant-based diet. A number of analyses of the damage of farming to the planet concluded that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single most significant way to reduce our environmental impact.

One study revealed that if you live in a high-income country such as the UK, adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle could reduce your food bill by up to one-third (this is if employing a home-cooked whole foods focus; highly processed meat replacements, takeaways and eating out don’t produce the same level of savings).

Of course, health and animal welfare issues are also starting points for a plant-based journey, but whatever the reason, before embarking, it’s wise to pay attention to a little bit of science.

The protein problem

Protein has been increasingly recognised as necessary for sportsmen and women to support their performance. This is because protein can repair muscle and connective tissue in sufficient quantities. But protein is crucial in your diet even if you’re slumped in the couch potato club.

It plays a lead role in creating and maintaining every single cell in your body. It controls hunger, helps keep blood sugar levels, and regulates hormones.

Traditionally, meat has been considered the go-to for fulfilling our protein needs, along with eggs and certain dairy products. This is because protein is made up of amino acids – nine amino acids are considered essential (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) – and meat contains all of the nine essential amino acids, forming what is known as a ‘complete protein’.

Excluding meat and dairy from our diet can present challenges in providing our bodies with complete proteins, but only if we’re unaware of the science.

Protein doesn’t have to come from meat and dairy

Some plant-based foods do contain complete proteins. These include soy, quinoa, hemp and chia. So don’t worry if your tastebuds aren’t tingling; they’re not your only options.

Here’s an essential bit of the science you need to know: you do not need to consume all nine amino acids in one sitting. Instead, your liver will store amino acids. So, eating a combination of plant-based proteins throughout the day can easily consume all the amino acids you need (without troubling a single cow).

One study published earlier this year concluded that ‘the diverse composition of amino acids from plant protein sources offers simple opportunities to build protein blends that target certain amino acids profiles.

Brown or white rice combined with beans or lentils produces a complete protein, and there are numerous recipes from around the world providing a wide variety of flavour options this is a classic combo.

Are vegan protein sources healthier?

While a vegan diet can be more sustainable and ethical, is it healthier? Suppose you consume large quantities of meat to boost your protein levels. In that case, you are likely ingesting more significant amounts of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol and, therefore, your risk of cardiovascular disease. Consumption of large quantities of meat is also linked to cancer. But that doesn’t automatically make plant-based proteins healthier.

Take peanut butter on whole-wheat toast. This is widely heralded as an excellent way to boost protein, particularly as the amino acids in whole-wheat toast combined with those in peanut butter give you the magic nine in one sitting. Two average slices of peanut butter on toast boost protein intake by about 12g (around a quarter of our daily requirement).

However, it is also likely to contain over 500 calories and 40g of fat, including saturated fat and the dreaded trans fats, which should be avoided as much as possible.

If you want a quick, easy and cheap complete protein, baked beans on toast give you the magic balance and are much healthier.

So, like all dietary choices, there needs to be balanced, and you cannot just assume that vegan always equals healthier.

What are good sources of vegan protein?

If you want to consume vegan protein, look for simple ingredients that are high in protein and contain a good mixture of amino acids. The entire list is surprisingly long, but here are some I recommend that you keep an eye out for when making your food choices:

  • Grain contains almost all amino acids, although they lack lysine.
  • Beans: Beans are high in lysine and, therefore, are great combined with grain in the diet (not necessarily in the same sitting, as mentioned earlier). Fava beans (or broad beans) are a favourite of mine, as they are packed with nutrients and utterly delicious, particularly when young and tender. Try them with a little garlic olive oil drizzled over them.
  • Broccoli: This is a renowned superfood. It boasts more protein than most other vegetables. It is highly versatile, can be eaten cooked or raw in a salad, and goes with everything.
  • Chickpeas: Largely known as the main ingredient of hummus, chickpeas can also be used in curries and stews, making them filling and hearty while packing in protein.
  • Peas: Pea protein is considered a superior plant source because peas contain high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine and valine, which support muscle recovery and lean muscle mass.
  • Seeds: These are a convenient way to top up your protein. For example, they can be scattered over salads or avocado toast and easily transported in your bay. Flax seeds also contain branched-chain amino acids, not to mention being a great vegan source of essential fatty acids.
  • Pumpkin seeds are a tasty snack in their own right and great to have in a bowl by the side of your laptop while you work. They also contain all nine essential amino acids, albeit they are too low in threonine and lysine to be considered a whole protein.
  • Shakes and drinks: There are plenty of protein powders available, but these can be faffy and don’t always fit into a busy lifestyle. A great way to conveniently top up your protein is ready-made protein shakes.
  • You’ll find flavours for every taste; B’liev’s plant-based range includes chocolate brownies, blueberry muffins, and cookies and cream. Shakes are also great to have in the fridge for the end of a busy day when you might be worried that you haven’t packed in enough protein. Just grab and gulp.

Getting enough vegan protein

You can use an online calculator to determine how much protein you should have in your daily diet. On average, women need around 45g per day, and men need 55g, although sportspeople and/or gym enthusiasts may want to include more.

Aria Beheshtaein is the founder of B’liev.

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