5 Health Benefits of Proteins from Plants

Jessica Lewis
September 9, 2016

In a world that is more and more affected by air and water pollution, stress and poverty, the notion of health appear to be pressured from all sides. In a sense, it depends on all the mentioned factors. People come in contact with some of them on a daily basis. What is there to do, if the environment affects us to such extent? It is impossible to seclude oneself in a glass ball and live in it for the rest of one’s life.

A World Without Meat

Reality has little to do with science fiction movies. Even so, everyday life does resemble dystopian movie scenarios from time to time. The environment’s contamination is worse than ever before. Still, the fact that he keeps hope inside his heart is something typical for a human being. There are currently many organizations spread all over the world that try to help the planet and its inhabitants. In this regard, more trees are planted. Electricity is generated by wind turbines or solar panels. All in all, people have become more conscious that they can restore what was damaged by those before them. And the exterior world is not their limit. Many of them have started to educate themselves in regards to the body’s functions and how important its health is. It is no wonder that they eat better and in moderate quantities.

Vegetarian and vegan recipes are not common only in the eastern society anymore. Slowly but surely they have become a regular part of western menus as well. No one can argue the fact that meat lovers are larger in number. When correctly cooked and consumed wisely, meat can be very beneficial. It contains proteins and fats, essential for the body’s proper functioning. It is also one of the most nourishing foods and the main ingredient in so many cuisines. In spite of all that, today’s meat industry concentrates more on the income rather than one’s well-being. As of 2013, 80% of the U.S. cows were injected with hormones to increase their size, thus making them a more efficient product for slaughterhouses. Food has a strong impact on the human body. It can be both positive and negative. Meat consumption could affect our hormonal levels. In the absence of research projects conducted in this regard, the statement remains a pure assumption.

On the other hand, food industry offers people healthier alternatives. From various point of view, vegetables should be more appreciated than they are now. They are extremely diverse, come in all shapes and sizes, and have beautiful colors. Some vegetables, such as beans and chickpeas, can easily replace meat in the diet. They are low in fat, full of nutrients and cheaper than most animal products. Many of them are available on the market all year long. They can be served as either side or main dish. Eastern countries are better at showing their appreciation. Around 30% of India’s population is vegetarian and many other Indians consume meat occasionally. Statistically speaking, the number of vegetarian Indians is higher than the United States’ population. In the Western society, things are quite different.

What in Asia is regarded as normal, it may be considered odd in Europe and America. That is because here the meat is the most used ingredient. Their reluctance to vegetarian and vegan diets is only natural, coming from people raised with certain beliefs. One of them is that proteins, so important for our muscles and overall health, are found in animal products only. It is ignorant to believe so, given that fruits and vegetables are much more diverse in the everyday diet of the regular individual. If such is the case, then at least some of the legumes must have considerable protein amounts. Nonetheless, a healthy diet is comprised of all nutrients. Where a food class lacks, another one comes and contributes with its nutrients. All food categories are equally important. Each of them fulfills a different role in our body’s structure.

What are proteins?

The body needs nutrients for it to function. Nutrients are the main fuel for this complex mechanism made of skin, bones and muscles. Proteins are chemical compounds classified as macronutrients. Together with carbohydrates and fats, they constitute the essential substances the body needs to exist. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, up to 30% of the daily calorie intake should come from proteins. Given that the body needs them to either build or repair cells, it is no wonder we need them so much. The protein contains in its structure smaller units called amino acids. Only 20 out of the 500 known amino acids are found in the human being’s genetic code. 11 of them are labeled as non-essential. This means the body can make them by itself. The body does not produce the remaining 9. They are essential, therefore the individual must obtain them from external sources. Proteins are vital for the physical and mental development, especially that of children. They are also essential for tissue repair and energy release when there is a carbohydrate absence in the diet. Proteins are naturally found in animal products and plants. Both sources are good but there is something which sets them apart: animal ones are complete protein sources while plant based ones are regarded as incomplete. This is because some of the essential amino acids are absent in the plants’ structure. Meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and milk products contain them all. The misconception surrounding animal products as the only viable protein source is possibly linked to the amino-acids’ presence or absence. Nutritionists and mass-media promote meat as the main protein source and for good reason.[1]

The essential amino acids are grouped into four classes, based on chemical similarity. One should consume foods containing all nine of them:

  • Aspartame family: lysine, threonine, methionine
  • Pyruvate family: leucine, isoleucine, valine
  • Aromatic family: phenylalanine, tryptophan
  • Histidine

Two plants own the same status as meat in regards to essential amino acids content. One of them is quinoa. Aztecs acknowledged its properties and named it the “mother of all grains”. It contains 8 grams of proteins per cup and is rich in manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc and folates. It is part of the whole grains family, in spite of not being a grain. Many cereals contain most of the amino-acids, minus lysine. Some of them have it in their structure but lack other compounds. Quinoa supplies the body with this amino-acid. Lysine is essential for carnitine production. Carnitine is responsible for fatty acid transportation towards the mitochondria. Lysine is important in the collagen formation if applied on the skin as a treatment. It is also beneficial for calcium absorption. The consumption of foods containing this amino acid can prove to be an excellent choice for bones as well.[2]

Soybeans are another complete protein source. Commonly used amongst vegetarians and vegans, soy is consumed by meat eaters as well. In spite of its popularity, many of today’s varieties are genetically modified. Soy contains isoflavones, phytates and enzyme inhibitors. The last two can either impede or stop mineral absorption. It is no surprise that many nutritionists regard it as controversial and recommend other foods as an alternative. Animal products, quinoa and soybeans have all nine essential amino acids. Even so, vegetarians and vegan can easily obtain them by combining different foods, either animal or plant based ones.[3]

Vegetarianism and veganism

Vegetarianism and veganism are two of the terms which are gaining more and more popularity by the day. Be it for moral reasons, weight loss or just because they are regarded as trends, increasingly more people follow such diets.

Vegetarianism implies the consumption of foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy. Some vegetarians eat fish; they are also known as pescetarians. Veganism is vegetarianism’s more severe counterpart. Vegans eat only fruits and vegetables and abstain from animal product consumption. Many of the turn the diet into a real lifestyle, completely avoiding clothes, footwear or any other objects that may be made of either animal skin, fur or bones. There are notable differences between the two approaches. Even so, they are both usually included under the “vegetarianism” umbrella term.

Many plants lack necessary amino-acids. In the case of prolonged absence, the body’s functions may suffer. That is why the issue of whether vegetarians and vegans lack essential nutrients is bound to appear. Vegetarians as well as pescetarians receive them through milk, cheese, eggs and fish consumption. The diet based only on fruits and vegetables is both the strictest and lowest in amino-acid levels. With enough education on the subject, vegans may procure them from quinoa and soybeans. Likewise, certain combinations of legumes and grains can quickly solve the issue. While cereals are low in or entirely lack lysine, the amino acid is a natural part of many vegetables. Pulses in particular are rich in proteins. Some of the most consumed pulses include beans, lentils and chickpeas. They are high in nutrients, cheap and available on the market all year long. These are some of the most important vegetarian and vegan protein sources:  beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, seeds( chia, flax seeds, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), spirulina, seitan, broccoli, spinach asparagus. Out of all those mentioned, pulses are the most nourishing because they contain complex carbohydrates as well. Their presence allows for a gradual energy release.

People who seek to follow such diets should first consult a specialist. Following an appointment, the nutritionist will establish a dietary plan by one’s health status and body type. All in all, vegetables are the healthier alternative to animal products. They are lower in saturated fats. Also, when compared to processed foods, they lack simple carbohydrates. Nonetheless, a good diet includes all food classes. Everything from meat, poultry and fish to fruits and vegetables should be consumed on a regular basis and in moderate quantities.

Health benefits of proteins from plants

Animal proteins are much closer in structure to those synthesized by the human body. That is why they are more readily used than plant proteins. Animal products have all nine amino acids the body cannot produce. On the other hand, there are only two plants regarded as complete protein sources. Them being fairly different from one another points towards various roles in the human body’s structure. This also implies that animal based and plant based products have distinct benefits. The following are some of the ways plant based proteins help the body. Various research projects are currently conducted to establish more positive aspects in regards to this subject.

  1. Diabetes prevention

Plants are the primary carbohydrate source. Following their harvest, many of them are found on the market in their natural state. Others are directed towards factories and go through various processes, thus becoming processed foods. There are two carbohydrate types: simple and complex. Vegetables, seeds and cereals are rich in complex carbohydrates. These are divided into two other categories: polysaccharides and oligosaccharides.

By being more complicated in structure, they are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream at a slower rate than simple carbohydrates. Due to their ability to gradually release energy and for longer time periods, they are considered as healthier than monosaccharides and disaccharides. Vegetables in particular are low glycemic index foods. This means they can counterbalance the adverse effects of cholesterol. As opposed to them, simple carbohydrates are found in the structure of high glycemic index foods. They enter the bloodstream without needing to be digested.

As a result, the energy release is sudden. Frequent simple carbohydrate consumption and the absence of sustained physical movement are directly linked to an increased risk of diabetes. Diabetes is the direct consequence of major glucose and insulin level fluctuation.Insulin is responsible for normalizing the blood sugar levels. In addition to this hormone, the pancreas also releases glucagon, which raises them. When the body is subjected to simple carbohydrate consumption for extended periods of time, the natural process suffers modifications. The regular insulin production is no longer sufficient. This forces the pancreas to increase its activity. After a while, the large hormone quantities become insufficient. This leads to higher fat levels in one’s blood stream, causing diabetes.

Also, European researchers have conducted a study to show the effects a protein based diet had on diabetes patients. 37 participants were split into two groups. For six weeks, a group was fed an animal based protein diet while the other one was offered vegetables. Both diets had similar calorie intakes. The subjects’ blood sugar levels and liver fat were measured before and after the study. Following the project’s closure, the group fed with animal products registered an increase in insulin sensitivity and the blood sugar levels were stabilized. The pancreas was no longer forced to produce more insulin than needed[4][5]

The second group’s overall kidney function was improved. Healthy kidneys can filter various compounds before releasing them into the urine. The process is done through tiny filters which in people with diabetes are damaged as a consequence of high blood sugar levels. This way proteins flow into the urine. The process can lead to chronic kidney disease which can in turn cause renal failure.[6]

Nutritionists advise people to avoid simple carbohydrates as much as possible. They lack nutrients and are linked to numerous diseases. Plants are much more beneficial. Regardless of their being consumed raw or cooked, they have numerous positive aspects. Including them in the everyday meals is compulsory. Therefore, one can keep the risk of diabetes at a distance.[7]

  1. Lower blood pressure

Nuts are one of the best allies the human body has against high blood pressure and possible cardiac diseases. While they are not exactly low in fats, theirs are high quality, unsaturated ones. Nuts are beneficial in lowering cholesterol levels as well because they are rich in proteins, magnesium and calcium. These minerals reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. [8]

  1. Lower cholesterol levels

Nutritionists appreciate plants, pulses in particular, for being low in saturated fats, high in proteins and incredibly nourishing. They contain most of the essential amino-acids. There is a plant that is not classified as a pulse but bears many similitudes with them. Soybeans are probably the most popular alternative to animal products. In addition to a cholesterol absence, soy is one of the two plants containing all nine amino acids. Soy-based product consumption can reduce cholesterol levels.

  1. Cancer prevention

It is no secret that animal products are linked to cancer occurrence. Research conducted for 18 years on some 6000 participants aged over 50 revealed the negative impact of animal proteins in one’s diet. The study concluded that the risk of cancer was up to four times higher in milk and meat product eaters than it was in all the other participants. Following an increase in plant consumption, most of the symptoms were diminished. Moreover, milk’s main protein, casein, has been linked to cancer cell development numerous times.An experiment done by Indian researchers on rats fed with casein showed an increased risk of cancer. Also, casein is broken down rather slowly. Milk and cheese can damage the digestive system if frequently consumed. Casein’s compounds, casomorphins, cause addiction and makes one want to eat even more.[9]

  1. Weight loss

Many people follow a vegetarian diet because they want to lose weight. Less meat and dairy naturally means lower cholesterol and saturated fats levels. Weight loss is a normal body response to a diet high in fibers, minerals and vitamins. Beans, green peas or chickpeas are the best meat alternative. Aside from being packed with proteins and many other nutrients, beans are also rich in complex carbohydrates. The digestive system breaks them down slower, thus the energy takes longer to be fully released. Also because the stomach’s activity stretches for more extended time periods, the brain receives the information that the stomach is full. The need to eat immediately afterward like in the case of sweets disappears.

Including plant based proteins in the diet is something easy to be done. Even the most greedy meat eater will accept at some point a vegetable side dish. There is no need to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Still, if one does so, he is more prone to experience the benefits of vegetable proteins. Beans are possibly the most healthy choice on the market. Aside from them, there is such a variety of legumes, pulses or seeds rich in proteins, complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients have negative counterparts found in animal products. People should consult a doctor before making drastic changes in the diet. Even so, the specialists will most likely direct the patient towards cleaner dietary habits. One of them will be the partial replacement of meat and dairy with vegetables and cereals.