When deciding if to switch to plant-based protein sources, or, when determining which one to buy, it can be overwhelming. What is important to understand before making these choices however, is what protein is, how it works, how much you need for your goals, and the best sources for you.
What is protein?
We hear a lot of people talk about the importance of protein, without actually describing what it is. They say it is a macronutrient, which, although is true, only tells us protein is a substance needed in a large quantity in order to provide energy and allow us to survive. It doesn’t tell us what protein is made up of on a cellular level. Proteins are large molecules composed of one or more amino acids. Without getting too granular, amino acids are made up of organic molecules - mostly amino (-NH2) and Carboxyl (-COOH) groups. The elements of an amino acid are: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. When these amino acids form together, they build a protein. Due to the enormous range of possible different amino acid sequences, there are thousands of different types of protein.
We know of about 500 amino acids, but only 20 are found in our human genetic code. Of these 20, 11 of them can be synthesised (produced and used) by the body. For that reason, these 11 are called ‘non-essential’ amino acids. The remaining 9 however, cannot be naturally produced by the body, and required to be consumed through our diet. These are called ‘essential’ amino acids. Protein sources that contain all 20 amino acids, such as quinoa, are termed ‘complete proteins’. Protein sources that don’t contain all 20, such as vegetables, are called incomplete proteins. More on this further down!
Why do we need protein?
Protein is needed by nearly all living animals. Protein is needed for a variety of different functions such as DNA and RNA repair and replication, structural support for cells, molecular transportation within the body, and catalysing certain metabolic reactions (enzymes). Perhaps the functions most familiar to us, protein is also essential for growth and repair of the body and maintenance of good health. It contributes to increased muscle mass, and can also be used as a source of energy for movement; albeit not a particularly efficient one.
How much protein do we need?
The amount of protein required depends on the individual. As a basic guide, it is recommended to consume between 0.8-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. For example, if you weigh 60kg, then you should roughly aim to consume between 48-72 grams of protein each day. You’d consume the higher amounts of this if you were exercising more, specifically within a muscle mass and strength gain. If you struggle to consume this amount through your diet, this is where protein shakes can be so helpful.That said, only about 3% of the population are deficient in protein, so it is not necessary for you to track if you aren’t worried about gaining significant muscle, and/or losing weight unintentionally. Consume the amount that is achievable for you based on your accessibility and lifestyle.
Sources of plant-based protein
Now that you know what protein is and how much you need,, it's time to address where you can find it in your diet. As discussed above, there are complete protein sources and incomplete protein sources. It is not always necessary to have complete proteins if you can’t access them however, as by combining two incomplete proteins, you get the same thing. For example, beans and wholegrain rice make a complete protein. Below are four examples of each.
- Quinoa (check out our premium protein blend)
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia Seeds
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Whole Grains
- Vegetables such as our fermented pea protein
Why plant-based protein is superior?
We could dedicate an entire article to this topic (and we might), but essentially, plant based protein sources are superior to animal product sources. This is because although they may not always have the same level of protein concentration, they come without all the nasties. Plant based sources tend to be extremely low in saturated fat and absent of cholesterol (both enormous contributors to coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes II, heart attacks/strokes, obesity, cancer, - shall we go on?). They also tend to have significantly lower sources of sodium in them, and are hormone free. After all, who wants loads of oestrogen and testosterone in their chocolate milk shake? No thanks!
In addition to not containing nasties, they’re full of benefits. Plant based protein sources are often fibre rich, and micronutrient dense, containing a variety of minerals and vitamins necessary for optimal health. Finally, because animal products often cause an inflammatory response in the body, plant based protein sources and protein powders tend to be far more gentle on the digestive system - which is great if you went plant based for health and digestive reasons.
If you’re deciding whether to switch to plant based, the answer is go for it. And if you’re wanting to buy a protein powder but unsure where to start, check out some of our reviews to see what flavour and type of product would suit you.