A flexitarian lifestyle involves primarily plant-based eating with occasional inclusion of animal products. Whether you’re fully vegetarian, mostly plant-based, or just looking to reduce your meat intake, it’s essential to focus on obtaining sufficient protein from both plant and animal sources to meet your nutritional needs.
Protein for the majority of the population is fine – I would imagine we are even getting more than we need in some cases. We are the land of the breakfast roll in fairness. And now I know we have come a long way but still. I think for most of us over the last decade going about our daily business we have plenty of protein
The reason I am talking about it today is because there is a shift. The response to these wellness segments over the last couple of weeks has been excellent. It shows there is an appetite for and an interest in this shift towards a more flexitarian diet, towards getting in those 30 plants a week. The concern and it’s not a concern, it is nothing to be concerned about, but it is a query or a consideration I guess. “If I eat more plant-based foods, where do I get my protein from”. The conversation for the past 20/30 years has been two types of protein – animal based protein and plant based protein . Animal based protein is HBV and plant based portion is LBV. The higher the BV biological value the greater the number of amino acids the more valuable it is to the body (assimilation of amino acids into the body).
But I think the preconceived notion is that protein that comes from vegetables is incomplete, not as valuable and we are going to break down that myth today.
What is Protein?
Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way. Proteins are large, complex molecules that are essential for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. They are made up of smaller units called amino acids, which are linked together in chains.
There are 20 different amino acids that combine in different sequences to form proteins. They are categorized into essential amino acids (must be obtained from the diet) and non-essential amino acids (can be synthesized by the body). Because we don’t store amino acids, our bodies make them in two different ways: either from scratch or by modifying others. Nine amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—known as the essential amino acids, must come from food. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein intake varies depending on factors such as age, sex, weight, and physical activity level. Generally, it’s recommended that adults consume around 0.8g – 1.2/1.5g of protein per 1 kg body weight per day.
Once you reach ages 40–50, sarcopenia, or losing muscle mass as you age, begins to set in. To prevent this and to maintain independence and quality of life, your protein needs to increase to about 1 – 1.2 grams per kilogram or 75–90 grams per day for a 75-kilogram person. An average guide is 20-30g protein per meal – keeps you full, and satiety, repairs cells, and growth, and produces hormones, enzymes and antibodies. Historically, most research on protein needs has been done on men, but that’s starting to change too. New studies including women are finding that we may benefit from consuming protein during certain time windows. It’s super important to get in [protein] post-exercise because women’s bodies come back down to a baseline level a lot faster than men’s. Recent research has been instrumental in showing that the amino acid leucine is a key activator of mTOR, a signalling pathway that’s responsible for stimulating protein synthesis. It takes about 2.5 grams of leucine to “turn on” your body’s muscle-building process. Complete proteins (those that contain all the necessary amino acids in the most beneficial amounts, including leucine) are superior to incomplete proteins.
5 Myths About Protein
- Myth 1: You only need to worry about protein if you workout
This is absolutely not true, protein is required to support a wide range of body functions, regardless of exercise status, including; bone and muscle mass, hormone and enzyme function, antibodies for immunity, and skin health. However, to get the most out of workouts the amount and distribution of protein across the day is important to pay attention to. Those who exercise regularly are advised to consume 1.4-2g of protein per kg bodyweight per day consumed as 20-40g every 3 to 4 hours across the day, as compared with the recommendation of 0.75g of protein per kg per day for the general public.
- Myth 2: Protein is harmful to your kidneys
People with liver and kidney disease may be advised to follow a low-protein diet (with appropriate medical and dietetic support). However, for the general healthy population and athletes consuming a high protein diet has not been demonstrated as being harmful to the kidneys (1, 3). In fact, studies have found that resistance training adults who consumed upto 4.4g of protein per kg per day for 8 weeks or 2.5g/kg/day for a year for adults had no harmful effects on kidney health (4, 5).
- Myth 3: Vegans and vegetarian don’t get enough protein
Although vegans and vegetarians generally consume less protein than those who consume animal-based products, they tend to meet the recommended amount for the general population of 0.75g/kg/day . However, this may be more of a challenge for older adults and athletes who have higher protein needs. In fact, plant-based athletes are recommended to consume roughly 10% more protein than non-vegetarians due to differences in the digestibility of plant-based proteins. For most vegans and vegetarians it is more of a priority to make sure that they are consuming a variety of protein sources across the day, as most plant-based protein sources contain lower amounts of one or more essential amino acids (i.e. amino acids the body can’t produce by itself) . For example, pulses are lower in methionine and grains are lower in lysine.
- Myth 4: The more protein, the better when it comes to building muscle
Consuming 20-40g of protein (or 0.25g/kg) every 3-4 hours is recommended to maximise muscle building, particularly for athletes and those who exercise regularly. So again this is a simple, old school way of eating. It is balanced and simple – regular meals. Overall, the 20-40g protein hits regularly throughout the day seems to be the best option for building muscle, rather than consuming megadoses of protein.
- Myth 5: You need protein ASAP after a workout
Consuming protein after workouts is important for muscle muscle recovery and muscle building. But this doesn’t need to be immediately after exercise as muscle building peaks within 3 hours of exercise, and remains raised for at least 24 hours
Overall, the total daily intake and spread of protein across the day seems to be more important than consuming protein straight after a workout. The type of protein consumed is also important, as our body needs enough essential amino acids, including an amino called leucine, to optimise muscle growth and recovery
Again if you are meat-eating, this is super easy.
A slice of packet ham is 6g per slice, an egg is 14g, a 120g chicken filet is …. 90g fish, a cup of beans – kidney beans, chickpeas or 25g almonds.
Protein powders are not only used by bodybuilders or elite athletes, they have become a cupboard essential for many different lifestyles. With so many types of protein powders on the market, it can be hard to know what is best for you.
Firstly, do you need a protein powder?
We know the importance of protein in our diet, especially for active individuals, but protein powders are not necessarily needed.
Protein powders may be useful for those who…
- have high protein requirements, due being active or certain illnesses
- are vegan or vegetarian
- have a restrictive diet
- lead a busy lifestyle or travel a lot.
Are all Protein Powders Equal?
Protein powders vary by brand, but the source and type of protein they contain is important to consider, as not all protein sources are equal. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are like the building blocks of protein. Different proteins contain different combinations of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that are needed for bodily functions, but 9 of these are considered essential. Essential amino acids are the amino acids that we cannot make within our body and so they must be obtained from food. In general, animal sources of protein are considered ‘complete’ as they contain all nine essential amino acids. Whereas plant-based sources of protein are typically missing an essential amino acid or have lower levels of amino acids.
There are some exceptions though. Soy based protein sources contain all nine essential amino acids, and if you combine different sources of plant proteins, you can still obtain all of the essential amino acids in your diet. These are called complementary proteins. For this reason, plant-based protein powders are often blends of different protein types e.g. hemp and rice protein, to improve the amino acid profile of the protein powder.
Why is this important?
Some studies suggest that the ingestion of plant-based proteins leads to a lower rate of muscle repair and growth in comparison to the same amount of protein from animal sources. 20-40g of protein is required to maximally stimulate muscle growth and repair, but 3-4g of leucine, an essential amino acid, is also required to stimulate this process. Because plant protein sources are often lacking or low in leucine, this can influence the rate of muscle protein repair and growth.
Types of Plant-Based Protein Powders
Soy: Soy protein powders provide a high amount of protein and all essential amino acids
Pea: This is often derived from yellow split peas. Interestingly, muscle gains were similar in a study that compared pea and whey protein (5). This is likely attributable to the fact that pea protein is naturally rich in leucine.
Hemp: Hemp protein is often combined with another plant-based source of protein, like rice or pea protein as it is low in leucine.
Because plant-based sources of protein are typically higher in carbohydrates or fat in comparison to animal protein sources i.e. chicken breast vs beans, they often provide lower amounts of protein per serving. With this in mind, an isolate version of a plant protein can be preferable, like a soy or pea protein isolate. As the name suggests, an isolate protein powder means that it undergoes further processing than a standard protein powder. This results in a higher quantity of protein per serving and less carbohydrates, fibre and fat.
The Truth about Protein Bars
Protein is the hip and fashionable nutrient of the moment. There is a trend for products with added protein, but the reality is that most of us in the Irish population already get more protein than we need. Foods rich in protein can be more filling than those high in carbohydrates or fat, but ‘high protein’ does not necessarily mean it is healthier, however ‘wholesome’ the packaging or labels may look.
A new report launched by Safefood recently revealed that chocolate is the main ingredient in almost 40 per cent of protein bars surveyed, with many also being high in saturated fat and containing added sugar and salt. Of 39 protein bars surveyed by Safefood, 77 percent were high in saturated fat with 79 percent being a source of salt. The average bar size was 55g with an average price of €2.27 although some bars cost as much as €3.00 each making them more like expensive chocolate bars than a ‘healthy’ snack.
Peas as a Protein Source
Peas are funny little vegetables that come from the same plant family as beans and lentils. While they’re often grouped into a “plain Jane” side dish category, peas have a lot to offer nutritionally and for your health. And they can be delicious as well, despite what you might remember from your childhood. There are many types of peas, each with its own nutritional value. However, generally speaking, peas are a good source of plant protein. Health benefits include protecting against heart disease and improving gut health.
Peas are low in calories while providing filling fibre and protein. They are high in vitamin K, vitamin C, zinc, vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, folate, iron, and several B vitamins.
Peas Are Rich in Folic Acid
Folic acid is an important B vitamin. It is especially important for women who are trying to get pregnant and are already pregnant, as folic acid helps prevent certain birth defects. The daily recommended intake of folic acid is therefore higher for pregnant women. Peas naturally contain folic acid, making them a good natural food source. Folic acid helps with many functions in the body including blood formation and immune system function.
An 80g (cooked) serving contains:
- 63 kcal/263kj
- 5.4g protein
- 1.3g fat
- 8.0g carbohydrates
- 4.5g fibre
- 184 mg potassium
- 104mg phosphorus
- 1.2mg iron
- 13 mg vitamin C
Nutritionally, there is little difference between fresh and frozen peas, making frozen a useful and cost-effective alternative.
Top 5 health benefits of peas
1. Good source of plant-based protein
Being rich in fibre and one of the best plant-based proteins makes peas a satisfying component of a meal. They are also a useful vegan source of iron, which is needed for making red blood cells and transporting oxygen around the body.
2. May improve blood sugar management
With a low glycaemic index (GI) and a high fibre content, peas are a useful inclusion if you need to monitor your blood sugar levels. Peas contain starch in the form of amylose, which slows our digestion and as a result, studies support that they may help improve our blood sugar balance. Peas also contain nutrients like magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C, all of which help support blood sugar management.
3. May support digestive health
Peas are rich in fibre which both supports digestive health and fuels the beneficial gut microbes, which play a pivotal role in our health. Much of the fibre content is soluble, which may alleviate constipation. Eating more fibre is associated with a reduced risk of a number of conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
4. May support heart health
Peas contain heart-friendly minerals including magnesium, potassium and calcium and are also rich in antioxidant nutrients like vitamin C, as well as phytonutrients including carotenoids and flavonols which are heart-protective and support cardiovascular function. The soluble fibre peas contain helps us manage cholesterol levels, especially LDL cholesterol.
5. May be cancer protective
Regularly including legumes, like peas, in your diet may reduce the risk of cancer due to their high antioxidant levels. Peas also contain natural compounds called saponins, these compounds have been shown to help protect against some forms of cancer.