The Science Behind Plant-Based Proteins
Are High-Protein Plant-Based Foods the Real Deal?
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Here's how you know plant-based diets have gone mainstream: Marketers and food companies are now on board, trying to milk our shifting food philosophy for all its worth. I've noticed that GNC's window display is now filled with ads for vegan pea and rice protein powders, rather than the usual "mega" whey concoctions. There's also been a flood of new high-protein plant-based snack foods: lentil crackers, hummus chips, and vegan protein bars. In fact, bean- and lentil-based foods were one of the biggest trends spotted at this year's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, an annual meeting attended by registered dietitians from across the country.
It makes perfect sense from an economic perspective. A traditional plant-based diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other unprocessed foods with minimal profit margins. So, manufacturers are creating plant-based packaged foods that satisfy consumer tastes with an added advantage — the convenience factor associated with packaged snacks and meal-on-the-go foods like bars and shakes. Whether that benefit is real or imagined, it comes at a cost.
I completely understand the value of convenience in today's world, and it's great that we have these new options available to us, but I also see some irony in the situation. Many people are turning to a more plant-based diet because it's more environmentally friendly, economical, natural, and nutritionally balanced, and eating more processed plant-based foods doesn't seem like the best way to accomplish these goals. Take protein powders, for example. Many vegan brands are made with stripped down protein from peas, brown rice, and other sources, so you get a concentrated source of protein, but you're missing out on much of the fiber and micronutrients found in the original whole foods. Then, some companies add inulin (a processed, isolated fiber ingredient) to up the fiber content and fortify the powders with a multitude of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It just seems silly to try to create a single, 8-ounce drink that provides all of the nutrition you need in one day, or to create a more perfect version of what nature offers in the form of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer, or discourage you from buying some of these creative new products (I buy some of them too). I'd just like to reinforce that eating a variety of whole foods, in as close to their natural state as possible, is the most basic and cost-effective way to ensure you're meeting your nutrition needs and not getting too much of other ingredients, like sugar, salt, and fortified vitamins and minerals.
There are so many convenient, easy ways to incorporate more whole (or minimally processed), plant-based proteins into your diet. Here are some of my favorites:
- Rather than using protein powders, make a "whole food" vegan protein smoothie using nuts or nut butters, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, chia, hemp, etc.), raw oats, silken tofu, and/or soy milk — and of course fruits and veggies.
- Make a quick vegetarian dinner by tossing cooked pasta (or quinoa or farro) with canned, drained beans and sauteed or roasted veggies.
- Make a simple lentil soup. Start by sauteing carrots, onions, and celery in olive oil. Then add lentils and water or broth and simmer until the lentils are soft. I like to wilt in some chopped spinach or kale near the end of the cooking.
- If you'd like to eat more tofu but aren't sure how to prepare it, try this foolproof technique: Press a block of tofu to squeeze out excess water (I use this handy ), cut the tofu it into 1-inch cubes, and lay the cubes out on a baking sheet (mist with a little canola or grapeseed oil if desired). Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes, turning the cubes once about halfway through the cook time. You can bake a big batch of these cubes ahead of time and add them to stir-fries, stews, soups, and salads.
- Snack on nuts, seeds, and steamed edamame. I may be alone on this one, but I also like munching on plain canned chickpeas (no-salt-added or low-sodium varieties).
Video: Do I need PROTEIN POWDERS on a VEGAN diet?
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