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Do plant-based “meats” have enough protein? A sports dietician reveals one overlooked factor

You might want to pay attention to a different nutrient instead.

FRANCE - CIRCA 2002:  Still life with a quarter of meat, 1864, by Claude Monet (1840-1926), oil on c...
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Plant-based “meats” are essentially the best of both for the planet-conscious eater — they satisfy the burger craving and avoid the carbon cost of cattle farming. As a bonus, they also tend to have less saturated fat (not good) than red meat, but for some, plant-based “meats” pose a different nutritional conundrum: Do they have as much protein as red meat? In fact, do they have enough protein at all?

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

The short answer is “sort of.” But the long answer reveals an intriguing disconnect between how we think about protein on the plate versus the actual chemistry of different proteins themselves.

“All plant-based foods, meaning beans and legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds are missing one of the [essential] amino acids,” says Leslie Bonci. Bonci is a sports dietician for the football team Kansas City Chiefs. Amino acids are molecular building blocks that the body needs to synthesize new proteins.

Essentially, if you eat a diet of just lentils, which have a decent amount of protein per serving, it still wouldn’t amount to an optimal protein intake because you’re missing out on one or more of these amino acids.

Only one plant-based “meat” alternative contains all the essential amino acids the body needs, and it’s soy. That’s likely why concentrated soy protein is the first ingredient in an Impossible Burger. But still: Humans cannot live on soy alone.

A better question than “does it have enough protein?” may be “does it have enough of everything else?”

Do plant-based “meats” have as much protein as real meat?

Three ounces of 90 percent lean beef has about 22 grams of protein and Impossible Burger “meat” has 19 grams per three ounces.

The other advantage of eating plant-based meats is that it’s easier to get concentrated protein in a smaller volume than eating beans. To get the same amount of protein as a three-ounce, plant-based patty eating beans, you’d need to consume at least a cup and a half of beans. That’s a lot of beans.

Plant-based alternatives have enough protein to be a part of a healthy meal, but Bonci says plant-based “meats” can take away from your fiber intake overall.

The rule of thumb for daily protein intake, Bonci says, is 0.4 grams of protein per pound of an individuals’ body weight. To calculate your own protein needs by this metric, multiply your body weight by 0.4 and you get a daily protein recommendation. But remember one food doesn’t comprise a balanced diet.

Are plant-based meats nutritious?

Just because something is full of protein doesn’t mean it’s nutritious. And meat, which is full of protein and iron, is not a nutritious diet in isolation but it can be part of a wholesome diet.

Likewise, plant-based “meats” are just one puzzle piece on the plate. It’s not a substitute for eating vegetables. It’s a good source of protein but doesn’t have as much fiber or vitamins as whole vegetables. Some of this does depend on whether the plant-based meat is made from soybean isolate or a whole soybean, too, which would confer more fiber.

Then again, meatless meat isn’t trying to replace a whole meal — just the meat part.

Bonci stresses while sufficient protein is important, including a serving of plants with each meal — real, unprocessed plants — is tantamount. With plant-based meat, it’s easy to stack a patty with other vegetables on a sprout bun and have a salad.

Is there a better plant-based protein than meat substitutes?

There are other popular protein-rich, plant-based foods like seitan and tempeh. Tempeh is fermented soy, and three ounces have 15 grams of protein.

For a single meal, 15 grams of protein is enough, provided the other meals throughout the day bolster it.

Tempeh is also a good source of iron, calcium, manganese, and other nutrients. So, maybe it’s more nutritious on its own than plant-based “meat,” but an Impossible Burger paired with whole veggies can be just as wholesome.

Seitan, made from vital wheat gluten, is also a good option. It’s not as densely packed with protein — a 28-gram serving of seitan has 21 grams of protein. It’s not necessarily that these options are “better,” just meeting different criteria. Not everyone wants their plant-based food to resemble meat.

It’s absolutely possible to get a full serving of protein from plant-based meat. Just make sure you pair it with real veggies, too. As Bonci says, “It takes a village to make a plate.”

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

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