Home > Blog > Bioenergetics > Plant Based Protein: Pros, Cons, and Research

Plant Based Protein: Pros, Cons, and Research

An image of roasted chickpeas next to other vegetablesEating less meat has some advantages. It can be good for your health and for the planet. It’s also a great way to save a little extra money on your groceries, as alternatives can be very cost effective. Lots of people are trying to eat less meat or avoid meat entirely these days, moving to plant based protein instead.

There are a number of benefits to making this change in your life, which is why there are so many plant-based options in your local shopping center. If you’re thinking of trying some of these options, then here’s what the research says about them.

What You Need to Know About Protein

Before we explore plant based meats, you need to understand what protein actually is. Protein is an essential macronutrient that’s part of almost every cell in your body. It helps with a number of essential functions including muscle and tissue construction and repair. It's also involved with the creation of enzymes and hormones.

Your body doesn’t really store protein the way it does nutrients like fats and carbohydrates. So, you need to eat it regularly to be healthy. However, this isn’t as simple as it may sound. Protein is made up of nine essential amino acids and your body needs specific levels of each of them. The protein in animal products contains the full complement of amino acids at the right levels for the body. This is why meat is often called a "complete protein."

In contrast, most plant-based protein still contains all of these essential amino acids, only at lower levels. Many contain high levels of a few amino acids, but low levels of the others. This means you may struggle to get adequate levels of all of the amino acids. Often, people on vegan diets must plan to combine certain foods to get an adequate supply of all the amino acids, eating quinoa with beans, for example, or rice with tofu.

The average adult needs around .35 grams of protein per pound of weight or .8 per kilo. This is the minimum recommendation and can change depending on life circumstances and medical needs.

What Is Plant Based Protein?

A plant based protein is basically a source of protein that comes from plants. There are two different types of foods in this category. The first group is made up of those that occur naturally and don’t require any human intervention. This group includes:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, and split peas
  • Certain grains

Obviously, these sources of protein are very healthy as they’re unprocessed and contain lots of essential vitamins and nutrients. Then there’s the second group, which are meat-like products that are made using plant ingredients. They can be used in recipes that traditionally use meat and are meant to mimic the texture and taste of meat. Some common plant based meats are:

  • Seitan, which is made from vital wheat gluten
  • Soy based foods like tofu, tempeh, and other soy-based meat alternatives

These alternatives are quite heavily processed, more than actual meat is, so this could be an additional health concern if you’re eating them.

The Benefits of Eating a Plant Based Protein

An image of a woman eating a sandwitch as she smilesEating plant based protein instead of meat has been shown to have a number of benefits for your body. This type of diet is linked to:

  • A longer life expectancy
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • A lower risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Inflammation reduction
  • Reduced oxidative stress
  • Increased levels of nutrients like potassium, magnesium, fiber, iron, and folate
  • Improved brain function, particularly memory
  • Reduced cholesterol levels

Eating a meat-free diet may also help you live in congruence with your personal ethics. Modern farming methods tend to have negative effects on the environment and on the animals themselves. So, if you’re concerned about public health, animal welfare, or the environment, you may choose to eat less meat or eliminate it altogether from your diet.

Digestion and Plant Based Protein

Eating plant based protein instead of meat may have a number of health benefits. But there is one issue with these meat alternatives. Studies have shown that they may be harder to digest than animal meats. The protein in the alternatives may also be more difficult to absorb than the protein in natural chicken.

This can be a serious issue. If you need to eat more of the meat alternatives to get the same amount of nutrients and protein, it could cause weight gain. It also may be very difficult to eat enough of the products to get all the protein that you need without feeling overfull and bloated for the rest of the day. Getting enough protein may require eating a lot of added fiber and fats.

Here’s a look at the results of testing performed on the digestibility of plant-based meats vs natural meats.

Plant Based Protein vs Chicken

Researchers used a plant-based meat that could be used to replace chicken. It was made from wheat gluten and soybean concentrate, and had a protein count of 24.2%. The sample was cooked and ground along with actual chicken meat and then tested to determine protein absorption during digestion.

The testing uncovered several interesting results for the plant based meat.

  • 8% became water soluble after gastric digestion and 14% after intestinal digestion.
  • It contained 110 peptides, which are amino acid chains, before digestion.
  • It still contained 50% of its peptides after digestion.

The results of testing the natural chicken meat were quite different. In the chicken meat, peptides were:

  • More plentiful, with more than 500 of them found in the meat before testing.
  • Much more soluble than the peptides in the plant meat.
  • Were absorbed better, with only 15% remaining after digestion.

This strongly suggests that the chicken meat peptides were more easily absorbed than those found in meat alternatives.

What’s the Difference?

There is a clear difference in the digestibility of plant based protein vs the protein found in animal meat. This may have to do with how the body digests and absorbs protein, which depends on several factors including:

  • Protein type
  • Antinutritional factors
  • Protein aggregation
  • Food matrix effects
  • Protein denaturation
  • How the protein is processed and cooked

This suggests that there may be several relevant factors that affect how the body absorbs and digests certain plant based meat products.

An image of the intestinesThe human body processes proteins before they’re absorbed by human intestinal epithelial cells, which are found in the intestines. During digestion, they become peptides, and the size and polarity of these peptides determines how well they’re absorbed.

In the recent study, the plant based meat was 28% wheat. And the research found that when this meat was digested, the peptides that were created were larger and less water soluble. As a result, they passed more slowly through the cells in the intestines and weren’t absorbed as well. These barriers to absorption may not occur if you eat a meat product made from soybeans. However, plant based meats that contain soybeans also contain phytate and tannins which may cut down on water solubility and cause the same problems anyway.

In contrast, chicken meat proteins are very water soluble, which promotes the release of more digestive enzymes and better, faster digestion.

What This Means for Plant-Based Meats

This doesn’t mean that you should dismiss the idea of eating plant based proteins. It just means that you need to consider what the food is made from and how it might affect your nutrient absorption and overall nutritional profile. After all, you can’t get all the protein you need from one meal. So, if you eat a variety of foods throughout the day, you can get all the protein you need even if you eat a plant based protein instead of animal meat.

This study also suggests that changes need to be made in the raw materials used to make plant-based meats. Creators of plant based products also need to assess their production conditions and methods to ensure that they positively impact digestion and absorption when possible. This will help ensure that plant-based foods are just as good for your body and nutritional profile as the animal products that they replace.

Stress and Your Diet

Ensuring that your diet is healthy and provides you with all the nutrients your body needs is essential for your health. Eating processed foods or not getting all of the nutrients that you need will prevent your body from functioning correctly. This can increase your stress levels.

This kind of ongoing stress can be incredibly damaging to your body. Stress activates the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response, which causes the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. The resulting high cortisol levels in the body then cause changes in the body’s organ systems to help you survive a threat. These organ systems are arranged in six related circuits.

But stress in the modern world is often long-term. This results in the ongoing activation of the NEM stress response and ongoing high cortisol levels. Over time, the adrenals start to fatigue because of their high workload, resulting in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) and a range of health problems and issues. These occur as the body’s circuits start to become unbalanced.

Plant Proteins With AFS

The problems caused by the malfunctioning of the Bioenergetics Circuit are perhaps the least understood and the most widespread. The Bioenergetics Circuit consists of the thyroid, the liver, and the pancreas. This circuit is responsible for metabolism, which produces energy for every cell in your body. The ongoing and debilitating fatigue that you feel when you have AFS is often due to malfunctions in this circuit.

An image of a man laying on the couch holding his stomachDysfunctions here result in metabolic dysfunction as well as issues like chronic fatigue, weight gain, and dyslipidemia or imbalances in cholesterol levels. If this situation isn’t corrected, your energy levels will continue to decrease.

When you have AFS and your Bioenergetics Circuit is unbalanced, it’s absolutely essential that you fuel your body well. This means eating a balanced diet that contains all the nutrients that your body needs, including adequate levels of the 9 essential amino acids that are found in protein.

Eating plant based protein can be a great way to get the nutrients you need. However, if you have AFS, your digestion and absorption may be poor. In this case, it may be best to follow an adrenal fatigue diet involving some animal meats and gentle bone broths until you are healthier.

Working with a medical practitioner who’s aware of AFS and the effects of Bioenergetics Circuit dysfunction will help to ensure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

The Takeaway

If you don’t like to eat meat or prefer not to do so because of your personal ethics, there are good alternatives. Plant based products can be a good way to take care of animals and the environment, and they may have benefits for your health at the same time. If you want to eat more plant based protein, then here’s what you should know about it:

  1. Talk to your doctor before making this dietary change to ensure that it’s right for your body if you have medical conditions like AFS.
  2. You may struggle to get adequate levels of all the amino acids, so you may need to balance your protein intake carefully.
  3. Make sure you’re eating a varied diet to ensure that you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs.

For more advice on the best diets for you and for the environment, talk to our team at +1 (626) 571-1234 or click here.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

A plant based protein is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a source of protein that comes from plants and includes both natural sources of protein like nuts or seeds as well as products that are made from plant ingredients and can be used to replace meat products.

Ready to Start Your
Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Journey?
Dr. Lam Coaching is rated 4.7 / 5 average from 70+ reviews on Google