Plant-based eating is popular these days — with vegans and vegetarians, but also with many others who are looking to improve their health.
“People are becoming more conscious of their meat intake,” says Reena Panjwani, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Whether you’re looking to decrease environmental impact, protect animal welfare or just improve your health, prioritizing fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein is almost always a healthy choice.”
In fact, Panjwani says, eating more plants is often the go-to nutritional advice for many health conditions.
“Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol — increasing plant-based foods is good for any chronic health condition, and for anyone who wants to feel healthier,” she says.
4 things to know about plant-based eating
1. You don’t need as much protein as you think
Panjwani: There’s a misconception that people need a lot of protein to stay healthy, but it’s not always true. I think it came from the low-carb craze, but in reality, the average adult only needs 0.36 grams of protein per pound.
Here’s what that looks like:
|Weight||Protein needs per day|
|220-pound adult||80 grams|
|110-pound adult||40 grams|
|55-pound child||20 grams|
Foods that contain roughly 40 grams of protein include:
- 1 cup of peanuts
- 6 oz chicken breast (1 cup chopped)
- 2 cans of tuna
- 2 cups of tofu
- 5 cups of black beans
- 3 cups of pumpkin seeds
- 5 slices of cheddar cheese
- 5 eggs
While these are larger portions than one might typically eat in one meal, protein comes from multiple sources and can add up quickly over the course of the day. And because the protein need is lower than many of us anticipate, most adults can meet their protein needs with food alone.
Two exceptions are people who:
- Have difficulty maintaining their weight, such as people who are ill or older
- Follow a vegan diet and don’t eat any animal products
In the latter case, we recommend vegans eat 10% more protein overall as some plant-based proteins are high in fiber and less digestible. Other nutrients that vegans may need to be mindful of are vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and calcium. These nutrients may need to be supplemented for some vegans and vegetarians.
2. Keep protein powder simple
Panjwani: If you’re considering a protein supplement, simple is better. Make sure you recognize the ingredients on the label. Vegan protein powders are typically derived from peas, brown rice or hemp, and each will have a unique set of amino acids. Some powders are filled with additives and artificial sweeteners, so choosing protein powders that contain recognizable ingredients is a good strategy.
3. Consider meat replacements carefully
Panjwani: One thing to consider with meat-replacement products is cost. It may take extra labor and ingredients to create a “burger” or “nugget” out of plants, and you may pay extra for that.
Nutritionally, be aware of added sodium, which is how some manufacturers get peas or soy to mimic meat, so always read the label.
As an alternative, consider tofu and tempeh. Both are fermented soy products that are less processed than most meat replacements. They’ve been eaten around the world for years, and they’re excellent plant-based proteins with only small nutritional differences:
- Tempeh has more protein, fiber, iron and potassium per serving, while
- Tofu is higher in calcium and is lower in calories.
Seitan is another good plant-based option. It’s made entirely out of hydrated gluten, which is the main protein found in wheat. Nutritionally, it’s a little higher in protein and lower in fat than tofu.
4. Eat a variety of plant-based proteins
Panjwani: All plant-based foods — grains, vegetables, beans, lentils, fruit — have a range of amino acids [link to article when live], which are the building blocks our bodies need to function. If you eat a variety of the proteins listed in the chart below throughout the day, you should hit your nutritional targets.
Two important things to note: Some of these proteins are very high in fat or calories. A cup of peanuts, for example, has 72 grams of fat, which is more than most people need in a day. But this gives you an apples-to-apples comparison of protein per cup.
The second thing is that some of these are complete proteins, which means they contain all 9 essential amino acids. So while quinoa, chia seeds, buckwheat and hemp seeds aren’t as high in protein as other things on this list, they are definitely worth adding to your diet.
Try sprinkling chia seeds on oatmeal, or put hemp seeds in your smoothie or on top of a salad. Folding in a second plant-based protein is a great way to boost the nutrients in your food.
20 plant-based proteins to try
|Plant-based protein||Protein per 1 cup|
|Kidney beans||43 grams|
|Pinto beans||41 grams|
|Sunflower seeds||29 grams|
|Blackeyed peas||13 grams|
|Pumpkin seeds||12 grams|
|Hemp seeds||10 grams|
More from Panjwani on WellTuned:
- What is intuitive eating? 10 tips
- How sugary beverages affect health in Tennessee (and what to drink instead)
- Glycemic index 101
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.