Getting the Best Plant-based Protein and Its Food Sources
When it comes to Protein, Quality is king, not quantity. use these tips to identify how to choose the highest quality sources of plant-based protein for your health.
Updated February 21, 2019 - 8 Min Read
It's no secret that getting plenty of protein is vital for building muscle, preserving lean body mass, and keeping us satiated, but not all protein sources are equal. Finding premium sources of protein is important for optimal health, longevity, and recovery but it can be tough to navigate all the options out there to know what's best. To help you sort through the marketing hype we've put together this guide that will provide the highest quality plant-based protein sources for health.
Protein Fundamentals Explained
For some reason, it's a common misconception that humans need to eat a large quantity of protein every single day to survive and thrive. While it's true that protein is essential, most of us already get plenty of it, especially here in the U.S. The United States consumes the most amount of protein per capital in the world, with the majority of it coming from animal-based sources. There is a growing protein disparity between the wealthiest nations versus the poorest, meaning Americans, Europeans, and Chinese are getting their fill while populations in India, Sub-Sahara Africa, and parts of Asia struggle to get enough. While there are certainly problems with not getting enough protein, there are also challenges with getting too much.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
One of the most common questions that plant-based dieters and vegans have to answer is, "where do you get your protein?" The simple answer...EVERYWHERE! The idea that protein must come from an animal in the form of meat or dairy seems to be one that is uniquely American. For most of human history, a diet rich in plant-based foods was the norm, however, the introduction of industrialized agriculture and farming has drastically changed that. The majority of cultures around the world have largely consumed plant-based sources of protein while consuming animal-based protein sources in moderation...if and when it's available, which isn't very often. In contrast, the wealthiest nations consume the majority of protein from animal sources. With the majority of calories coming from steaks, burgers, and dairy products, many Americans fail to meet the daily requirements for fiber and nutrient-dense greens and plant-based food sources.
So what's the problem with consuming too much protein, especially from animals? Consuming too much protein can result in undesirable effects such as headaches, constipation, and acne. It puts additional stress on the kidneys and organs and can ferment in the gut, disrupting and destroying the healthy bacteria that are critical to our health.
What About Plant Based Protein for Building Muscle?
Increasing protein intake as part of a plant-based diet, together with regular exercise, is an effective way of building and rebuilding damaged muscle cells. In spite of what you've probably heard, animal protein is NOT necessary for building muscle and gaining weight. In fact, almost all plants contain some level of protein. This is a fact that a health enthusiast like you must keep in mind. Although most plant sources of protein are "incomplete", meaning that have a limiting essential amino acid (EAA), it doesn't mean that you can't get a complete source by consuming a variety of sources and combining plant proteins. For example, pea protein contains the majority of all 20 amino acids in suitable quantities but is lacking in methionine and sulfur amino acids, tryptophan and threonine. When combined with a rice protein that is higher in these limiting amino acids, you get a complete protein that provides all the EAAs your body needs that you must get through dietary sources.
Based on research, this kind of plant-based protein powder combo of pea and rice is a high-quality protein that can build muscle and accelerate recovery just like whey protein without all the nasty and undesirable negative health effects. As stated by the Utah Department of Health, complementary proteins do not need to be eaten at the identical time. A comprehensive protein is a protein source which comprises an acceptable proportion of all the nine (9) essential amino acids that the body needs to create cells since it is unable to make it on its own. When it comes to health, plant-based protein sources are a better choice compared to whey protein and other animal-derived proteins.
Another good reason to consume more plant protein is that our bodies slowly lose their capacity to fight off free radicals as we age. Consuming elevated levels of polyphenols (only found in plants) will help to age more gracefully and protect the body on a cellular level. How's that for an anti-aging secret?
Related: Whey Protein vs Plant-Based Protein
Not All Protein is Created Equal
Now that you know why just getting more protein in your diet isn't the answer to better health or building muscle, it's important to know how you can integrate higher quality plant proteins into your diet. One of the most common misconceptions people have when going plant-based is that they will miss the taste of meat, but when is the last time you bit into a raw fleshy piece of meat and said, "that was delicious!" All the flavor in food and the majority of nutrients come from plants. It's the herbs and spices that bring flavor to meat in the first place. This means that there is a multitude of diverse ways to replace meat on your plate with flavorful plant-based choices. If you're struggling to find new recipe ideas or challenged with how to make this work for you, the LYFE Transformation program is a comprehensive guide to get you started with developing healthier choices and habits. It's plant-based protein eating made simple.
Whether you want to slim down or gain weight, a plant-based approach can be very effective. Some specialty diets, like the keto diet, rely on elevated levels of protein as an energy source in place of carbohydrates and at times fats. If this is something you're experimenting with or interested in trying, it's vitally important to do it the right way. Keto can be very effective when done correctly (i.e. plant-based keto) but many use it as an excuse to eat more bacon and dairy. You may lose weight temporarily but following this for too long is problematic. A diet high in animal protein and fat will negate any short-term gains with long-term negative undesirable health consequences. In terms of how much protein you're able to eat on the keto diet, there is not an official limit, but eating too much can kick you out of ketosis. For folks that are underweight, a plant protein diet can offer a lot of healthy fats and nutrient-dense foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados. The point here is that regardless of diet and your health goal, filling your plate with nutrient-dense plant based protein, veggies, and healthy fats should be the goal. The following is a list of our favorite plant-based protein sources:
Whole Food Plant-Based Protein Sources
In aggregating this list, we focused primarily on the total amino acid content in each source. Since protein is a macronutrient that is broken down into smaller chains of amino acids that work as building blocks to build muscle and contribute to bodily functions, it's important to consider this when making choices. There are 20 amino acids that are vital to our body to function correctly; nine of which are essential, meaning we have to get them through food or supplementation because the body doesn't produce them.
The advantages of getting your protein from whole foods are they also provide additional vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that aren't common in protein powder supplements. That isn't always the case, however. Whole food plant-based proteins, like those created by LYFE Fuel, that contain additional superfoods and micronutrients can replicate what you should get in a whole food meal. Additionally, supplementing your diet with these options can give you a nutrient boost that is difficult to get from whole food alone. Integrating a whole food meal powder or recovery shake into your daily routine adds convenience by saving you time not having to cook and ensures you get the nutrition your body needs to function optimally.
Top 10 Highest Quality Plant Sources of Protein
Below you'll find our top choices for plant-based protein foods. We intentionally left soy protein off the list because soy is one of the highest GMO produced crops. We love organic foods like whole soybeans, natto, and tofu in limited amounts, but advise against using any soy isolate powders that are common in most soy-based plant protein powders, nutritional bars, and supplements. Soy isolates and oils use hexane, a classified, neurotoxin for processing. Hexane is linked to neurological issues - something you want to avoid when choosing healthy forms of fuel.
Protein quality is determined by its EAA composition and the digestibility and bio availability of its amino acids. Using the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) method and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). The DIAAS protein quality score accounts for 9 different values based on the digestibility of the 9 essential amino acids in a protein versus PDCAAS which accounts for just one overall value. This means that DIAAS is a more accurate measurement for determining protein quality. For optimal bio availability and to get the most out of your protein, aim for sources with a DIAAS score of .75 or greater. A score of 1.0 or greater is excellent.
Best plant protein sources by diaas
- LYFE Fuel Pea + Rice Protein Blend (1.0)
- Pea Protein Isolate (0.90)
- Lentils (0.70)
- Cooked Rice (0.60)
- Cooked Kidney Beans (0.59)
- Cooked Peas (0.58)
- Cooked Chickpeas (0.57)
- Cooked Rolled Oats (0.45)
- Roasted Nuts (0.43)
- Rice Protein Concentrate (0.37)
This list is to provided to help you understand that not all protein sources are equal. When it comes to determining protein quality, you need to consider the limiting amino acid along with the overall protein bio availability.
Our suggestion is to eat a wide variety of whole foods, mostly plants. When you think about food, try to think of it as a bunch of building elements put together that empower you to be the best version of yourself. To put it simply, food is fuel for life. You can choose to put low-grade octane in your tank but you should know that doing so will inhibit your performance and decrease lifespan. Opting for premium plant-based nutrition as fuel will amplify your health reveal the superhero within you.
Eating clean doesn't need to mean going vegan, but you should think about swapping out meat for plant-based protein, no less than a few times each week. Although whole foods are the ideal source of antioxidants, you may also gain nutritional benefits and superior protein quality in the form of supplements. Your health is your choice, but choosing products and brands that adhere to strict no-dairy, no whey, no-soy principles will provide more bang for your buck without the undesirable side-effects of whey and soy.
Fuel Up with Premium Plant-Based Nutrition
Getting started on a whole food plant-based diet is now easier than ever with LYFE Fuel's free nutrition course. The LYFE Transformation program was created to help you make healthy and sustainable changes to amplify your health and empower you to live your fullest everyday. The 21-day program distills years of nutritional research and personal experimentation into an easy-to-follow program that will guide you along your journey toward better health & happiness.
Read Next: How to choose the right plant-based diet for your health.
Written by Chris Manderino
Co-Founder of LYFE Fuel in Newport Beach, CA. Chris was an NFL fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs before embarking on a journey to pursue his passion for health & nutrition. Chris is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and earned a completion certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Course in Plant-Based Nutrition.