Liz Robins is a wellness writer and content strategist with a B.S. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She's a contributor and former contributing editor for Organic Spa Magazine, and has covered health and spa stories for many outlets, including Deepak Chopra's JIYO.
The popularity of plant-based diets has skyrocketed, as more and more people cut back on animal products and instead fill their plates—and fuel their bodies—with mostly vegetables and other plant foods. That’s great news for human health, as well as that of farm animals and the planet. Thinking about trying it for yourself? Keep reading for the scoop on plant-based eating and its benefits.
What is a plant-based diet?
The term “plant-based” describes a diet rich in foods that come from plants, ideally eaten in whole-food or minimally processed form. A plant-based diet is made up mostly of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, tubers (potatoes, among others) and whole grains. “Animal-based”, on the other hand, refers to a diet concentrated in animal products: meat, dairy, eggs, and so on.
Within the realm of plant-based diets there are more specific types. A vegetarian diet excludes meat (poultry, beef, pork and the like), fish and seafood, but often includes eggs and dairy products (the term “lacto-ovo vegetarian” applies here). Some vegetarians eat honey too, whereas vegans do not. A vegan diet contains no animal-derived products whatsoever. A “pescetarian” diet refers to a plant-based diet that also includes fish and/or seafood, but no meat. Some pescetarians eat eggs and dairy as well.
It’s important to mention that adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t require giving up animal products entirely. The goal is to boost your intake of plant foods so they make up the majority of your diet. You can still eat smaller portions, less frequently, of your favorite animal-derived foods—ideally, choosing high-quality varieties (organic and grass-fed beef, for example, and wild varieties of fish).
Why you should eat plant-based protein.
Protein plays several critical roles in the body so it’s important to get enough. (How much you need depends on your age, sex, weight and activity level.) Plant protein can be a great alternative to animal protein and here are a few reasons why.
Plant proteins are complete proteins.
There’s a popular misconception that plant protein is inferior to animal protein, but that’s not the case. You don’t have to eat meat to get adequate amounts of protein.
Animal protein typically contains more protein per serving than vegetables and is often considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t make on its own. (These amino acids are called essential because we need to get them from our diet; our bodies make the others that we need.) Many plant foods don’t contain all nine essential amino acids and are sometimes referred to as incomplete protein.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and we need adequate amounts for the body to function normally. But it turns out we don’t need to take in all nine essential fatty acids at once for this to happen. As long as we eat a variety of foods over the course of our days that collectively contain all of the essential amino acids, the body has the raw material it needs to make proteins. In other words, the more varied the diet, the better.
Plant protein is more sustainable.
Climate change and diminishing natural resources make it more important than ever to factor in the health of the planet when choosing what to put in our mouths.
It’s no secret that our food system is a major driver of climate change, pollution, and depletion of natural resources—believe it or not, experts have found that up to 75 percent of total agricultural emissions come from producing animal products1. Without technological measures and dedicated efforts to reduce the impact, our food system’s impact will only get worse, rendering our environment unsafe and unlivable.
Sobering stuff, but the outlook isn’t entirely grim—and making the shift toward healthier, plant-based diets is a critical part of the solution. Plant protein is more efficient and less resource-intensive to produce than animal protein, making it the superior choice in terms of sustainability. Beans, peas, and lentils are prime examples of foods that require minimal resources to grow. Bonus: These foods act as a natural fertilizer by moving nitrogen from the air into the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers with negative effects.
Plant protein supports good health.
Plant-derived protein tends to be high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and other compounds we need to stay healthy. Some forms contain significant amounts of healthy fats, too. Beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains are all plant proteins that pack a nutritional punch.
Plenty of studies have shown the health benefits of a plant-based diet. In a study2 comparing vegetarians to non-vegetarians, researchers found that vegetarians took in more fiber, vitamins A, C and E, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, non-heme iron, magnesium and calcium. According to population-based studies, vegetarians tend to have lower body-mass index than non-vegetarians. Research has shown that plant protein, as part of a plant-based diet, decreased body weight and improved insulin resistance in overweight people3. So if you’re looking to reach your healthy weight, adding more plants to your diet is a great place to start.
Additional research4 has found that plant-based diets may lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index, and even reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks. In patients with Type 2 diabetes, a plant-based diet has been found to help control blood sugar levels. Additional research has shown that a more plant-based diet may lower the risk of developing diabetes5 as well.
There’s encouraging news for people already dealing with some of the conditions above: Patients being treated for chronic diseases and heart disease who eat a plant-based diet may not need as many medications4. Healthy, plant-based diets have even been associated with a decreased risk of all-cause mortality among US adults6. Considering the benefits, it’s easy to understand why doctors and nutrition experts are recommending a plant-based diet to most if not all of their patients.
Plant protein is kinder to animals.
Ninety-five percent of farm animals in the U.S. are raised on factory farms, according to the ASPCA. These depressing, polluted industrial farms, designed to meet the demand meat and other animal products, have led to an untold amount of animal cruelty and suffering.
While an increasing number of meat and dairy companies are working to improve conditions for their animals, not much legislation is in place to keep animals safe. In fact, there are no federal laws to protect animals on farms, and even states that have anti-cruelty laws rarely enforce them.
The simple fact of the matter is that eating more plants means (we would think) eating fewer animals, which is better for your health, the planet, and certainly the animals.
Plant protein is budget-friendly.
A plant-based diet doesn’t have to break the bank. On the contrary, plant protein can be incredibly affordable.
Beans, lentils and peas are some of the cheapest and most adaptable, recipe-friendly sources of plant protein. Other alternatives that cost a bit more but are very high in protein (nuts and seeds, for example) can still be a good value, especially if you buy them in bulk. They also provide good fats, along with other essential nutrients, giving you more bang for your buck.
What are the best plant-based protein foods?
There's a wide array of plant-protein sources to choose from. Below are some fan favorites, but there are plenty of others, too—you can mix and match based on your preferences and dietary needs. Add those you like best to meals, smoothies, and snacks to keep you satiated and energized all day.
(*signifies a complete protein)
Tempeh, 31 grams of protein per cup*
Tempeh is made from fermented whole soybeans and provides iron, calcium, and B vitamins. Because it's fermented, the nutrients are better absorbed from tempeh than they are from tofu. Tempeh also contains prebiotic fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our gut, improving gut health and reducing inflammation in the body.
Lentils, 16 grams per ½ cup
These legumes deliver complex carbohydrates for sustained energy and balanced blood sugar levels. The soluble fiber they contain feeds good bacteria in the gut to help keep us healthy and may lower total and LDL cholesterol (often called "bad" cholesterol). Lentils are rich in iron, too.
Beans, 12 to 15 grams per cup
Legumes including black beans, mung beans, pinto beans, and others are good sources of minerals and B vitamins (including folic acid—especially crucial during pregnancy). They also contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants associated with protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases7.
Quinoa, 11 grams per cup
This seed can be cooked and eaten as you would other whole grains, although it has some advantages over those foods. Quinoa is gluten-free and higher in vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients than most grains. It's a good source of fiber, too.
Walnuts, 10 grams per ½ cup
Unlike other nuts, walnuts contain a significant amount of the omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which benefits the heart and brain. They also boast more antioxidant power than other nuts, helping to protect the body from free radical damage. Walnuts have even been shown to improve cognitive function8.
Pumpkin seeds, 10 grams per ¼ cup
These tasty seeds contain health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids associated with maintaining a healthy heart. You'll get a healthy dose of fiber, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, and other nutrients when you snack on them too. Additionally, studies have shown that eating pumpkin seeds can help boost testosterone levels for men.
Nutritional yeast, 5 grams per tablespoon*
This vegan stand-in for cheese is a member of the fungi family that's rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B12—an important one for anyone eating a plant-based diet because plant sources of it are few and far between.
Spirulina, 4 grams per tablespoon*
Beyond its protein content, spirulina (aka blue-green algae) is rich in iron and other minerals as well as vitamins, antioxidants, protein, and gamma-linoleic acid, a beneficial fatty acid. It's a complete protein and a great source of vitamin B12, particularly important for vegans and vegetarians. Spirulina has also been found to lower "bad" cholesterol and raise "good" cholesterol in some studies.
Almond butter, 4 grams per tablespoon
Almonds and almond butter are rich sources of minerals (calcium, magnesium, selenium) as well as folic acid, potassium, vitamin E, and selenium, helping to cover your nutritional bases. According to research, almonds may reduce LDL (aka "bad") cholesterol and heart disease risk. They're also reputed to keep blood sugar levels in check and protect against colon cancer.
Hemp hearts, 3 grams per tablespoon*
Hulled hemp seeds, called hemp hearts, are high in fiber, vitamin E, potassium, and several minerals. In addition, they contain a perfect ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 EFAs, which we need for heart and brain health, immune system support, energy production, and other healthy functioning.
Maca powder, 3 grams per tablespoon*
This superfood energizes without being a stimulant and boasts substantial vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. As an adaptogen, it has a balancing effect on the body. Maca helps to maintain equilibrium and balance stress levels, and it may alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is recommended if you do enjoy this superfood to do so in the morning and not at bedtime.
Chia seeds, 2 grams per tablespoon*
The high-fiber content of these itty-bitty seeds will help keep you regular and might keep you feeling full longer9. They're high in heart-healthy omega-3s and also provide vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants to combat free radical damage that can lead to disease.
Flaxseeds, 2 grams per tablespoon
These seeds have the highest level of omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) of all plant foods, as well as an ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Flaxseeds help balance estrogen levels, alleviate menopausal symptoms10, and appear to offer prostate-cancer protection. In patients with coronary artery disease, they've been found to improve triglyceride levels and blood pressure11.
There are even more reasons to move to a plant-based diet and eat more plant-based protein than the ones I've listed here, but hopefully by now you understand just how beneficial making the change to plant-based can be. Not only will you likely end up healthier yourself, but you'll also be contributing to a more sustainable future for everyone.
Liz Robins is a wellness writer and content strategist with a B.S. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She's a contributor and former contributing editor for Organic Spa Magazine, and has covered health and spa stories for outlets ranging from Caribbean Travel & Life and Spa to Deepak Chopra's JIYO and New Hope Natural Media. Her specialty is simplifying the complex and her passion is inspiring and empowering people to lead healthier lives.