There are many reasons why people choose to follow a plant-based diet, including for their health or allergies, reducing environmental impact, or to cut out animal products. As the popularity of plant-based diets increases, so has the demand for vegan protein sources. Whilst protein is important for any diet, some people such as bodybuilders, have a particular interest in the quality and quantity of protein in their diet as they are looking to maximise their muscle growth and repair. Plant-based proteins not only support muscle growth but have other associated health benefits which make them an important part of a balanced diet.
Before we look at some of the key benefits of plant protein, it is important to understand what it is.
What is plant protein?
All protein, including protein from plant-based sources, is made up of “building blocks” called amino acids. There are 20 principle amino acids, 9 of which are known as essential amino acids, meaning we must consume them in our diet as we cannot synthesise them ourselves. Whilst protein is often heavily associated with animal-based products, all essential amino acids can be obtained from plant-based sources.1 Protein is an essential part of any healthy diet as it plays a crucial role in the formation of tissues in the body including muscle, skin and tendons. Protein is also needed for normal physiological processes such as metabolism, as protein supports the formation of substances such as enzymes and hormones.
Plant protein means any dietary protein that is originally sourced from plants, such as quinoa, lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, and peas. Not all foods contain equal amounts of protein – different sources contain varying levels of each amino acid. One of the benefits of a varied diet is that it increases the likelihood of consuming all the 9 essential amino acids we need in our diet. Vegan protein powders harness the power of plants by sourcing the different amino acids from plant-based sources and converting them into a convenient single-source powder. This can be useful for those that want to easily increase their protein intake, such as those meeting specific fitness goals.
4 benefits of plant protein
1. Muscle growth and repair
Muscle is made up of two types of filaments called actin and myosin which are both proteins. For protein to be created, it requires the “building blocks” known as amino acids. We produce some of these naturally (non-essential amino acids) and consume others through our diet (essential amino acids). For the body to repair muscle damaged by physical activity, and to create new muscle, it must have enough of the different amino acids needed to form the proteins in muscle tissue.
A little bit about leucine
Leucine is one of the 9 essential amino acids and is crucial to muscle growth and repair as it ‘switches on’ the process of protein synthesis.2 When levels of leucine reach a certain threshold, it triggers an enzyme called mTor which acts as the signal needed to start protein synthesis. Without the activation of this enzyme by the amino acid leucine, protein synthesis won’t occur.
Consuming protein from plant-based sources provides us with the necessary amino acids to support muscle growth and repair. Different plants, however, contain differing levels of each amino acid, so it’s important to consume protein from various plant-based sources to ensure you are providing your body with the full range of amino acids.
2. Micronutrients in plant protein sources
Vegan protein sources such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, are packed with a wide variety of micronutrients which are vital for our health and wellbeing. Recent scientific reviews have indicated how plant-based diets are associated with improved heart health and blood sugar management, lower overall mortality, reduced risk of obesity and hypertension, as well as supporting weight management.3,4,5,6 For example, one study suggests that swapping red meat for more vegetables results in significant improvements in levels of key indicators in people with Type 2 Diabetes.3
The benefit of consuming plant protein as a whole food means you also introduce vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals into the diet, and these are what contribute to many of the additional health benefits.3,5 For example, edamame beans are one of the best vegan sources of protein, but also contain micronutrients such as iron, magnesium and Vitamin C, which help to reduce tiredness and fatigue.
3. Plant protein and the environment
Plant-based proteins are not only beneficial for your health, but can also have a significantly positive impact on the world we live in. Vegan protein sources typically use less land, less water, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions during production compared to animal-based proteins. For example, producing 1kg of protein from kidney beans requires 18x less land, 10x less water, 9x less fuel, 12x less fertiliser, and 10x less pesticide than it does to produce 1kg beef protein.5
Environmental resources such as land and water are used to produce protein-rich plants to feed livestock, leading to animals bred for consumption acting as unnecessary ‘middle-men’. Instead, it is far more sustainable to consume plant-based protein directly from plants, as this prevents expansion of pastureland into natural forests and savannas.6
4. Fibre in plant protein
Plant-based protein sources not only have the benefits of providing essential amino acids and micronutrients, but also contain the important macronutrient fibre. Dietary fibre, also known as roughage, is a type of carbohydrate that is found in all plants. Any plant-based food source, from fruits and vegetables to the numerous varieties of wholegrains, contains fibre. It is important to eat enough fibre daily as it is known to support digestive health and reduce the risk of gut inflammation.
Plant-based protein sources are suitable for everybody including athletes, children, seniors and pregnant women.5 Not only can consuming plant protein be more beneficial to the environment but it also a great way to increase levels of essential amino acids, fibre, and micronutrients in your diet. Plant protein sources are often lower in calories and fat than animal-based ones, as well as being higher in fibre and micronutrients. This means consuming plant-based protein within a healthy, balanced diet can be beneficial for weight loss as it helps to reduce caloric intake and increase the daily nutrient profile in one’s diet. Whether you are working towards specific fitness goals or just want to improve your overall health, the benefits of plant protein can help you to achieve this.