Whether it’s for health reasons, the environment, or for the treatment of animals, the move towards a “meat-free” lifestyle has never been trendier. And since a more moderate approach to meat consumption behooves us as global citizens, protein-loving fitness folk ought to start thinking about how we can meet our nutrition needs with less meat.
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Does this mean sacrificing your swole to a greener future? Nope. Actually, upping the plant-based protein may be the trick to getting leaner. Here’s why.
Plant-Based Protein Vs. Animal Protein: What’s The Difference?
Many people are initially reluctant to lean heavily on plant-based protein, believing that plant proteins aren’t sufficient for maintaining and building muscle mass. This myth may be so ingrained because there is a kernel of truth to it.
Not all proteins are equal. Animal proteins like meat, fish and dairy (not collagen) are all complete proteins, meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids (EAAs) the body needs to function, but cannot make on its own. Although there are complete plant proteins, too, animal proteins are still typically of “higher quality,” meaning that each gram of meat or dairy protein is more densely packed with EAAs — and far more muscle-crucial branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) in particular.
Furthermore, plant-based sources are usually far less protein-dense than animal sources. Take kale, for example. Despite being “high quality,” there are only 3 grams of protein in 100 grams of raw kale. Seitan (wheat gluten, often used in mock meat products) is pretty much the opposite, in that it is quite protein dense at 75% protein by weight, but it has a poor amino acid profile.
How To Get What You Need From Plant-Based Nutrition
Though it seems that the deck is stacked against plant-proteins, the shortcomings in quality and quantity are easy to compensate for. This is primarily achieved through complementary protein combining, which is when multiple, lower-quality proteins are eaten together in order to achieve a complete amino acid profile for the meal altogether.
For example, though neither rice or black beans are by themselves complete proteins, together, they have all the EAAs we need. This, along with strategic inclusion of plant-based protein powerhouses like soy, shores up the protein predicaments in plant-based eating. While it takes a bit more attention to quantity and quality, plant-based proteins can be every bit as gains-friendly as their animal-based counterparts. In fact, a high-protein, plant-based diet may be particularly useful to those looking to get leaner.
Many plant-based protein sources are high in complex carbohydrates and fibre, and very low in fat, whereas meat and dairy usually have a fair bit of fat tagging along with the protein. While dietary fat or a lack of fibre themselves do not prevent fat loss or cause fat gain, eating too many calories does. Out of all the macro-nutrients, protein is the most satiating per calorie, followed by carbohydrates and then fat. Replacing meat with plant-based proteins, like legumes and beans is a fairly effortless way to feel fuller on fewer calories. Feeling fuller on fewer calories often leads to eating fewer calories altogether which, over time, leads to fat loss. As a nifty budgetary benefit, eating less meat generally causes food costs to plummet (barring an uptick in purchasing artisinal non-GMO free trade granola bars).
The takeaway? Don’t be afraid of relying on plant-based proteins to fuel your workouts. There are plenty of good reasons to consider adding more legumes, kale, soy and other vegan protein sources into your diet, and even more good reasons to cut back on your meat consumption while you’re at it. Your body — and the earth — will thank you.