According to a new CFANS Insights survey from the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, 80% of consumers prefer animal-based protein, but plant-based protein is on the rise as 31% suggest they will eat more in the next five years.
Among the three macronutrients, protein is arguably the most important, and plays a role in so many aspects of human growth, development and function. From growth and repair of tissues, to vital biochemical reactions, to hormone function to structural integrity within the body, Protein is absolutely essential for the human body. In fact, when you think of “essential”, there are nine essential amino acids that must be consumed exogenously (externally consumed; cannot be made within the body) in order for life to sustain. They are:
Flexitarian Popularity On The Rise
As we’ve discussed for years, the quality of food you eat is absolutely critical, and protein is no different. Whether you ingest protein from animal sources, dairy sources (ie, cheese, whey) or plant sources, make sure your protein source:
- Is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids and a healthy serving of the big 3 branched chain aminos (isoleucine, leucine and valine) for optimum athletic performance.
- Is non-GMO and free from pesticides like glyphosate.
- Is sourced from regenerative farming techniques, which in the case of animal protein, would include grass-fed and grass-finished sources.
- Is free of fillers, nitrates, vegetable/seed oils and sugars, and is minimally processed.
- Is compatible with any allergies or food intolerances you might have. A good way to test out if you have any intolerances is to try a Whole 30 or FODMAP dietary intervention where you will eliminate foods, assess your response, then gradually add back one group of foods at a time to test whether they cause you any discomfort.
With the above quality applications in-mind, more consumers are becoming what is commonly referred to as “flexitarian” as it relates to protein. A flexitarian is someone who regularly consumes a vegetarian or vegan diet (plant-based protein) but on occasion, incorporates some fish and/or animal-based protein into his/her diet. Typically, flexitarians choose this lifestyle because (1) they perceive plant-based protein as healthier, but struggle with habits or behaviors that are ingrained or with taste & flavor profiles; (2) believe shifting at least partially away from animal protein is better for the environment, so they feel a sense of pride for doing what they believe is “the right thing for the planet.” Regardless of the reason, plant-based proteins are very popular right now, but do have some watch-outs, so if you are planning to incorporate more plant-based protein into your diet, be aware of some important facts:
- Most plant-based proteins are not complete, which means your body is not receiving adequate amounts of the nine essential amino acids, and will therefore be in a nutrition deficit on arguably the most important macronutrient. Some examples of complete plant-based proteins are Soy & Quinoa.
- Be careful with Soy, as it comes in a range of styles, some of which are processed and of very poor quality. Tofu, the more firmer variety, tends to be higher in protein, while soybeans tend to be lower in essential amino acids like methionine. Also, Soy has a high risk of being GMO, which is a definite avoid on our top five list above. Finally, be aware that concerns about Soy and the impact on hormones have been circling for decades. There seems some directional evidence, but not solid and consistent, so do your homework and evaluate the studies based on what is best for your lifestyle.
- Quinoa would be my favorite plant-based protein, as it not only is complete, but has a solid nutritional profile for those not following keto (it is very carbohydrate dense), including protein & fiber as well as micronutrients. Plus, it hits about 53 on the glycemic index, so not too aggressive on the insulin response. Just be aware you need to consume A LOT of Quinoa to deliver a medium amount of protein, as one cup of Quinoa only has ~ 8 grams.
- What about Pea Protein? It’s tricky because it technically is a complete protein, with all nine essential amino acids. However, it is low in a few of them, especially methionine, which is a critical pre-cursor to cysteine and glutathione. So, for Pea Protein to be in its best form, you would want to combine it with something high in methionine. That said, Pea Protein can be a good option, is likely to cause less allergic issues, and can provide other key minerals. Here’s a good comparison of Pea vs. Whey protein for reference.
- Nuts & seeds, while in many cases contain protein, are generally not sources of complete protein, so don’t plant to use those as your dedicated protein source. You would need to combine them with other foods in order to create a complete protein solution, and remember that most nuts & seeds are quite high in fats, which may or may not fit your dietary lifestyle.
- More and more plant-based solutions are combining foods to try and deliver a complete nutritional profile, but be careful about the processing, seed oils, fillers and sugars that are used to create a finished product. Also, be aware that because plant-based proteins tend to be much less dense, you will be eating a lot more volume of real food to try and match the amount of protein delivered in an animal-based solution.
- If you’re interested in plant-based protein as a way to “save the planet”, I would encourage you to read the book “Defending Beef” for an evidence-based review of some of the claims against animal-based protein, with a clear admission that not all animal-based proteins and farming methods are the same.
Protein is critical. It plays an important role in so many human functions and is essential for both growth/development and recovery. Plus, the body cannot make the nine essential amino acids (unlike sugar, which the body is more than capable of making on its own), so acquiring protein through dietary choices is simply mandatory. Whether you choose to consume animal or plant-based protein, use the five guide points I highlighted above to ensure you are choosing the best inputs for health and wellness. The Flexitarian dietary philosophy, incorporating some fish and animal protein into a largely vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, can be a very productive and healthy lifestyle. As with any dietary lifestyle, however, quality matters, so choose the best quality ingredients, ensure the protein you consume is complete, avoid processed foods, and make sure you’re doing your homework on the science and evidence vs. listening to a mainstream media narrative that is full of misconceptions.