One common assumption that comes up when we talk Keto and adapting to burn fat is that plant-based proteins are bad. This is simply not true! I want to be sure that no one thinks that I am dismissing plant based proteins. I love plants and eat them daily. 🙂
In many of my most recent macronutrient spotlight articles I focused on animal proteins because much of the studies I have read talk about muscle synthesis and focus on a Leucine (amino acid) threshold. Today we are taking a different focus…so let’s talk about how to get the most out of our plant proteins.
Amino Acids Explained
There are around 20 amino acids that the human body uses to build proteins.
These amino acids are classified as either essential or non-essential. Essential amino acids, are named so because they must be obtained through your diet because your body is unable to make them.
Our body needs all the essential amino acids in certain ratios to function optimally.
Animal proteins are similar to the proteins found in our bodies and contain all the amino acids we need and are therefore know as “complete” proteins.
Plant protein sources, such as legumes, pulses and nuts are not considered complete, as they lack one or more of the essential amino acids that your body needs. Some plant proteins like soy get very close but two essential amino acids are found in very small amounts in whole soy. By isolating the proteins (think shake) they manipulate this to be more complete.
As plant protein food sources often have lower quality proteins, vegetarians and vegans should eat a wide variety of foods to ensure that they are getting all the amino acids that they need. Certain combinations of food get a near complete amino acid profile – think beans and rice (legumes and grains).
How to Optimize Bio-Availability
Carbohydrate to protein ratio aside, there are a few other considerations for plant protein bio-availability. There are so called “antinutritional factors” which may cause reduced protein breakdown and amino acid absorption and also decreased mineral absorption. These are phytates, tannins, and fibers.
The best way around this is to ferment or sprout (long soak is good enough) your grains, pulses and nuts. This makes them more readily available for uptake.
Another thing to consider is supplementation. Soy protein isolate and Pea Protein have very high bioavailability equal to egg and whey proteins.
Cautions With Soy
I must caution you around soy – upwards of 90% of soy produced in the USA is modified to be RoundUp ready. While the active ingredient in RoundUp (Glyphosate) does NOT appear to directly affect human cells it does appear in many studies to affect the micro-biome of the gut.
Poor gut health is now being implicated in a many chronic diseases and digestive dysfunction. The world is swimming in toxins and so are we. Give yourself a hand wherever you can and only buy Non-GMO certified soy. If eating tofu please buy sprouted tofu – you’ll notice it has a better protein to energy ratio (total calories) than non sprouted.
Soaking/sprouting or fermentation breaks down those “anti-nutrients” and some of the carbohydrates, too. This makes them easier to digest and the protein more readily available.
Digestive Enzyme Supplementation
Another strategy coming out of the supplement industry is to use more digestive enzymes.
Animal enzymes like chymotrypsin and trypsin have long been supplements to aid in protein breakdown and so have plant based enzymes like bromelain (from pineapple) and papian (from papaya).
These days there are specific targeted enzymes for breaking down cellulose in plant walls (human don’t do this), there are enzymes to digest lactose, casein, gluten, albumin (egg), etc etc etc. You can find these combo products all over the place and while they may make digestion easier in the short term I don’t believe there is any long term studies on whether the daily use of enzymes improves or harms our health. They are generally regarded as safe and I do use them in my practice.
There are targeted probiotics that also seem to increase protein uptake. There is some generalized effects on the digestive tract but most probiotics are limited to less than 14 species – a mere splash in the pan of the diversity in the gut.
As you can see, our guts are highly complex. There are many ways we can allow our plant-based proteins to become more advantageous to our nutrient absorption, though remember that diversity is key, as plant proteins are not considered “complete” proteins.
If you have questions about proteins or about finding strategies for a healthy lifestyle within your food choice preferences, please do reach out. We are each on our own health and wellness journeys and having a guide and someone to ask the tough questions to is infinitely valuable.
-Dr. Jerome Craig