Eating habits are changing around the world. Animal foods were prized for their protein content for decades, leading many people to believe that vegetarians were protein deficient, and this belief still holds in some places. With perceptions changing, plant-based foods are now seen as good for the health of people and the planet. A healthy diet, the promotion of sustainable food systems and better animal welfare are cited as reasons for switching to plant-based protein.
Vegetable protein is nothing but protein that comes from plant foods like grains, legumes, dals, soy & soy products, nuts, seeds and so on.
Protein is made up of small units called amino acids, 9 of which are essential and must be obtained from the food we eat, which join together in a chain to form protein.
They are the building blocks of all cells and tissues in the body and are responsible for the growth, maintenance and repair/healing of cells and tissues.
A 2019 study published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal found that a large number of subjects were consuming less than half the recommended daily allowance of protein. Subjects who skipped breakfast were found to have hypothyroidism, diffuse hair loss, lichen planus, and alopecia areata.
Because many structures and functions of the body depend on protein, getting enough protein from the diet becomes vital. The next big question is, can plant-based foods provide all of the essential amino acids to meet protein needs in the body? The answer is yes.
Grain-legume combination is the best example of plant-based foods that provide protein with all the essential amino acids. Traditionally, Indian dishes always contain a combination of grains and legumes in vegetarian dishes such as eggs, roti & dal, rice & sambar. For breakfast, items like khichdi, idli, and dosa contain a combination of grains and legumes to provide all the essential amino acids. Modern foods such as granola and porridge mixes have incorporated traditional knowledge through the use of whole grains, dals, legumes such as soy, nuts such as almonds, and seeds to increase the protein value of ready-to-eat foods.
Why is it important to combine grains and legumes for protein? This must be done to achieve protein quality. Grains (wheat, rice, millet, etc.) lack an essential amino acid called lysine. Legumes and dals contain lysine, but lack another essential amino acid found in grains called methionine. Hence a combination of cereals and dals/legumes in one meal,
either in our traditional formats or a convenient format in multigrain muesli with 100% natural plant protein such as soy and dal, would provide full essential amino acid requirements and match the quality of the protein.
Can plant-based foods meet the amount of protein Indians need? The latest RDA
(Recommended Dietary Allowances) for protein intake is 0.83 g per kg body weight per day for Indian adults. Consuming protein at all three meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—can ensure protein needs are met. Those who rely on plant foods for their protein, including dals, legumes, nuts and seeds in the 3 main meals, will provide the protein in terms of quality and quantity without compromising on their food preference.
What are the benefits of foods that use plant-based protein? First of all, none of the plant-based sources of protein contain cholesterol.
The foods with plant-based protein are likely to be higher in fiber, which promotes gut health and weight management.
A study conducted on Asian Indians and published in Nutrients in 2021 suggests that lower plant protein intake may contribute to ethnic susceptibility to diabetes in Asian Indians. Increasing plant protein intake could be an effective approach to overcoming genetic risk of diabetes in urban Native Americans.
In a large prospective study conducted in Japan and published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019, higher plant protein intake was associated with a lower risk of all-cause and heart disease-related mortality. Replacing animal protein with plant protein was associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cancer-related, and heart disease-related mortality. The study also suggests that plant protein may have positive health effects and increase longevity (3).
The source of protein in India is mainly based on grains, but this does not meet the protein quality needed to maintain health. Combining grains and protein in the same meal or ready meal can increase not only the quantity but also the quality of the Indian diet. For example, using plant-based protein sources like moong dal and soy when mixed with multiple grains like wheat, rice, oats, and added seeds like flaxseed and chia seeds increases dietary diversity. According to current trends, vegetable protein is the future of nutrition and healthy eating!
The views expressed above are the author’s own.