Losing weight, minimising animal cruelty or lowering one’s carbon footprint — there are several reasons why someone would choose a plant-based diet, whether for a short period or in the spirit of embracing veganism as a lifestyle. But when discussing the pros of a plant-based diet, the “protein” factor is often mentioned.
Protein is an important nutrient that can be found in various foods. It provides the body with energy, and is essential for the following reasons: Growth and development, building and repairing cells and tissues, for the health of bones, skin, teeth, hair and internal organs, and in support of other bodily processes like blood clotting.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in a review of evidence on the health impact and sustainability of plant-based diets, cited considerable evidence to “support shifting populations towards healthful plant-based diets that reduce or eliminate intake of animal products”, in particular calling for gradual reductions in consuming red meat from one’s diet. However, it is important to choose your plant-based foods carefully so as to achieve nutritional balance. “For any plant-based diet, it is prudent to consider the types and quality of plant foods included in the diet,” the report notes.
Right combinations and balance
It is often said that life is all about balance. This applies as much to diets as to work and work-outs. According to Ruchira Hoon, a chef and restaurant consultant based out of New Delhi, balance is key to sustaining a plant-based diet. While she does believe that one can reach their nutrition requirements through purely plant sources, she says there is a thin line between understanding how to combine the various sources you are consuming, and what your body needs.
“Someone following a vegan diet needs to balance out their plant-based protein sources with fats. I don’t personally recommend protein powders, and there are ways to get that naturally, too. For example, isolated pea protein is a great option,” Hoon says.
Athletes or those working out regularly need to be extra careful and committed to their goal if going plant-based, says Wasim Akhtar, a certified sports dietician and strength trainer based out of Noida. “It is definitely possible to reach our nutrition requirements with a plant-based diet, but it is tough and needs consistency,” he says. There are 20 amino acids that our bodies need to function effectively which can be found in protein. Eleven of these are produced by our bodies, while nine are external sources that we get from our food, he explains. “Can I get these nine from plants? The answer is yes,” Akhtar says.
Amino acids are compounds that combine to make proteins. When a person eats a food that contains protein, their digestive system breaks the protein down into amino acids. The body then combines the amino acids in various ways to carry out bodily functions. Akhtar adds that most plant sources have these essential amino acids, but in different combinations. “Store-bought protein sources are easily available, but they are not something we really need. If planned well, a plant-based diet can satisfy these needs,” he adds.
Can an athlete follow a vegan diet?
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that while vegan diets are difficult to maintain due to issues around digestion and absorption of key nutrients, it is possible for most athletes to achieve their dietary needs from plant sources with careful management. Citing the paucity of data in sports nutrition literature, it said veganism creates challenges like insufficiency of energy and protein, inadequacy of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D and the lack of the long-chain n-3 fatty acids (Omega 3) in most plant-based sources. However, with “strategic management of food and supplements”, it contended that a nutritive vegan diet can be designed to meet an athlete’s nutrition needs. The study concluded that “empirical research is needed to examine the effects of vegan diets in athletic populations…to ensure that the health and performance of athletic vegans is optimised in accordance with developments in sports nutrition knowledge.”
Variety to spice up that diet!
Sarini Bhattacharya, a whole food plant-based nutritionist based out of Kolkata, says that eating a variety of foods throughout the day is important when following a vegan diet.
“Plant-based protein sources, such as lentils and legumes, are a little difficult to digest. Your gut needs to practically be trained to consume such foods. I would suggest starting slowly, and then gradually easing into a fully plant-based diet,” she says. Of course, this differs from person to person and involves experimentation to finally understand what your body needs, she adds. “Consulting an expert is the best way to understand what your body needs and how much,” Bhattacharya says.
Talking about some of her go-to plant-based sources, Hoon recommends sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds, all of which are very protein-rich. Chickpeas and white peas that can be roasted, baked, toasted or even pureed are also high up on her list of recommendations.
Ten healthy plant-based sources of protein
- Pulses (lentils, chickpeas and beans, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, etc.)
- Chia seeds
- Oats Brown rice
- Other grains (amaranth, sorghum, etc.)
- Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, cauliflowers, etc.)
As the experts says, the road is bumpy, but the goal is very achievable with some focus, determination and consistency.