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Whether you’re looking to build muscle, cut down on meat or simply make sure you’re eating healthily, it’s useful to understand what your options are when it comes to sources of plant-based protein.
‘There are a wide range of plant-based protein sources,’ says Laura Marchese from Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. ‘There are legumes and pulses, which includes beans, lentils and peas, as well as tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds.’
This is putting aside the fashionable ‘fake meat’ alternatives to products like burgers, sausages and nuggets, which usually consist of protein extracted from soy, wheat, pea, legumes, or mushrooms – but aren’t necessarily as healthy as you might think.
‘When looking for a plant-based meat replacement, it’s best to stick to whole plant foods such as legumes, beans, chickpeas or tofu, which you flavour yourself with spices,’ Marchese recommends.
While your required protein intake varies depending on age and sex, as long as you are following the Australian Dietary Guidelines you should reach your required amount of protein.
When it comes to meat-free protein options, the first thing to understand is the difference between complete and incomplete proteins.
While most protein-rich foods from animal products (meat, dairy, etc.) offer complete proteins (i.e. a complete chain of amino acids that the body needs), many plant-based alternatives need to be built by pairing different foods together.
‘There are different nutritional qualities of proteins and this is dependent on the number of essential amino acids they contain,’ Marchese explains. ‘Complete sources of protein contain all nine essential amino acids and include plant proteins such as soy products, quinoa and amaranth. Incomplete sources of protein are lower-quality protein sources but can be combined to form complete sources of protein. These include nut pastes, legumes and wholegrains.’
Many people don’t realise common wholegrains such as wheat, rice, oats and buckwheat can become good sources of protein when combined with certain foods.
‘While they are incomplete sources of protein, they can be combined to form a delicious complete source of protein, such as peanut butter on wholegrain crackers or lentil soup with wholegrain toast,’ Marchese says.
You’re probably familiar with tofu as a great source of protein in your stir fries or curries, but Marchese recommends experimenting with other ways to use it, too.
‘Tofu is a protein rich food, which can be incorporated into your diet in a variety of ways even through a protein rich smoothie.’
Adding nuts and seeds to muesli or salads is another good habit to get into if you’re looking to add a punch of protein.
‘There is a huge range of nuts and seeds that are rich in protein, for example brazil nuts, pine nuts, chia seeds and sesame seeds,’ Marchese says.
Whatever your motivation for adding plant-based wholefood proteins to your diet, your health is likely to benefit.
‘There is a lot of research outlining how regular consumption of legumes, nuts, and seeds are linked to heart health,’ Marchese says. ‘Legumes and beans are not just great sources of protein, but as a replacement to animal-sourced meat also provide excellent fibre and less saturated fat.’
This is particularly relevant to note in comparison to ‘plant-based protein’ versions of burgers and sausages, which can often have quite low nutritional value.
‘It is important to check their nutrition information panel to choose low sodium and low saturated fat alternatives,’ Marchese recommends.
Another positive of having a diet rich with these protein sources is they tend to be highly cost-effective.
‘These are all not just great for people who are following a plant-based diet, but also excellent for people who consume animal products,’ Marchese adds.
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