Nutrition Meets Food Science

Plant Proteins- An Overview

Recently, the health industry’s focus has now somewhat shifted from the nutrients to the source of the nutrients. For example, a diet high in plant proteins is considered healthier than a generally high protein diet. Let us find out the science behind this. 

Protein is an essential macronutrient that is the major building block of our body. It plays an important role in every process in our body including growth, hormone regulation, development of immunity, movement, nervous signalling, etc. 

How much protein do you need?

Your protein needs depend on your age, gender, weight, height, physical activity, any existing co-morbidity or disease condition, etc. For example, a sprinter may require much more protein than a corporate employee, and a patient who has undergone surgery may need higher protein than a healthy individual. On an average, a healthy individual requires 0.8 to 1 g protein per kg of body weight. That is, a healthy individual weighing 55kg should consume 44-55g protein per day to meet their protein requirements.

What is plant protein?

As the name suggests, plant protein is simply protein obtained from plant sources. This may include foods like pulses, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, and some millets. Soy is a torchbearer of plant proteins because it is possibly the only plant based complete protein.

A plant based diet can range from a strictly vegan diet that restricts all animal foods including milk and honey, to a vegetarian or lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet that allows consumption of dairy and eggs, but not other animal foods. Consuming an omnivorous diet while being mindful to make at least 30 to 50% plant-based food choices can also have tremendous health benefits.

Why does the source of protein matter?

Most foods contain more than one nutrient. For example, dal contains carbohydrates, fat, fibre, zinc, potassium, etc along with protein. Red meat on the other hand contains saturated fat (that has been known to be harmful for heart health), along with being high in protein and iron. Thus, the other substances in the food source matter when choosing the right source of a nutrient.

Plant proteins and diabetes mellitus

Various studies have found that replacing red meat with plant protein sources reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Milk protein has also been found to increase the risk for type 1 diabetes. However, further studies are required to confirm this finding. Plant protein foods like pulses and legumes are also a good source of complex carbohydrates, fibre, folate, etc which help in managing blood glucose levels for an individual living with diabetes. 

Plant proteins and weight management

Although a diet high in protein is effective in achieving weight loss, a diet higher in animal foods like red meat and full-fat dairy may counter the benefits of protein due to the high content of saturated fat. The fibre in plant proteins also helps to increase satiety and prevent overeating. Saturated fat has been found to cause maximum weight gain by the accumulation of excess fat in the body. Plant protein foods are also lower in calories because they generally contain lesser fat and higher fibre. Thus, plant protein foods are more suitable for weight watchers than animal foods.

Plant proteins and cancer

Consumption of processed meat and red meat, especially cooked at high temperatures is associated with a higher incidence of cancer. Plant protein foods contain soluble and insoluble fibre that helps maintain healthy gut microorganisms and protect against colon cancer.

Plant proteins and liver

Plant proteins contain much lower amounts of saturated fat than animal protein foods. In patients with deranged liver function, a high protein diet, lower in saturated fat helps to provide rest to the liver and help it recover faster. 

Plant proteins and heart

A high intake of saturated fat is known to increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. On the other hand, a regular diet containing adequate amounts of protein, low saturated fat, and a good amount of healthy fats like MUFA and PUFA along with fibre is known to protect the heart.

Plant proteins and women’s health

Soybean is known to contain an active compound that mimics the action of the female sex hormone estrogen. Thus regular consumption of small amounts of soybean in post-menopausal women prevents mood swings, excess weight gain, osteoporosis, and protects the heart. Moreover, in patients living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or polycystic ovary disease (PCOD), a diet higher in plant protein is known to help regulate the sex hormones and correct insulin resistance. These benefits are due to the lower saturated fat content and lesser artificially added antibiotics and hormones in the food, unlike with dairy and dairy products.

Thus a diet high in plant protein foods is known to have numerous health benefits from weight loss and diabetes management, to protection against heart attacks and cancer. Diets higher in plant foods are also healthier for the earth because growing crops requires fewer resources than rearing cattle and poultry. According to Ayurved, a diet higher in plant-based foods is considered a sattvic diet. Such a diet is known to calm the mind, improve overall health, and prevent diseases. Adopting a balanced and varied plant-based diet high in protein and essential nutrients can be a win-win for our body, mind, and environment.


Girija Damle

Dietitian, PFNDAI

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