Your Complete Guide to Plant-Based Proteins and Weight Loss
For whatever reason (Keto, Whole 30, are a couple of my best guesses), many people think that you can’t eat plant-based proteins if you’re trying to lose or maintain your weight. Full disclosure: I eat animal foods, like chicken, turkey, seafood, eggs, and Greek yogurt, but I also believe that a healthy diet consists mainly of plants (which include fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans), and that you can cut back or even eliminate meat and support your healthy-weight goals. Science backs this up, too. But before we dive in, let’s cover a few basics about plant-proteins.
What are they?
Plant proteins include pulses—the umbrella term for chickpeas, beans (like black beans), peas, and lentils—as well as whole soy foods (think: tofu or edamame), nuts and seeds, and to a lesser extent, some whole grains. Here’s how their protein stacks up:
½ c quinoa = 4 g
½ c dry oats = 5 g
2 Tbsp Tahini = 5 g
2 Tbsp almond butter = 6 g
¼ c. pistachios = 7 g
¼ c. almonds = 8 g
3 oz tofu = 9 g
3 Tbsp hemp seeds = 10 g
1 c chickpeas = 11 g
1 c black beans = 15 g
1 c edamame = 18 g
For comparison’s sake, 3 oz of cooked chicken breast has about 22 grams.
Do you need to combine plant proteins?
All proteins are comprised of a chain of building blocks called amino acids. There are nine essential ones, meaning your body needs them to support healthy protein functions (not only to build muscle tissue, but also to support collagen and elastin structures, supply the precursor to neurotransmitters that regulate your sleep and mood, and more). Animal proteins supply all nine of these building blocks, but plant proteins usually fall short on one or more of these puzzle pieces. We used to think that you needed to combine plant proteins—say, by eating rice and beans or peanut butter on whole grain toast—in order to get all nine of these compounds at once since the combo would ensure that whatever is missing in one source is provided by another. We now know there’s nothing to this theory. Your body does miraculous things, including storing amino acids for use later in the day. It’s still key to include diverse sources of plant proteins throughout the day, and as always, it’s important to fill up on adequate amounts of protein at each meal. A good range is about 20-30 grams per meal.
Benefits of plant proteins
The benefits of these nutritional powerhouses are extensive! They supply important plant substances (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and sometimes healthy fats) that are linked with better body weights, healthier gut bacteria, lower levels of body-wide inflammation and oxidative stress (both of which are linked poorer mental and physical health), and improvements in memory and thinking skills as we age. Impressive benefits, to say the least!
What’s the deal with plant proteins and weight loss?
Because many plant proteins also contain starchy carbohydrates or fats, many people mistakenly believe that they’re aren’t good for weight loss. Here’s some proof that just isn’t true: A notable study that pooled data from 21 trials found that adding pulses to people’s menu was linked to weight loss, even when that wasn’t the goal. Six of those 21 studies also suggested that pulses may prompt body fat loss. Among the reasons for this effect: These foods curb our appetite!
Despite being high in fat, evidence points to the fact that nuts may have a favorable impact on your body weight. Studies suggest that when adding nuts to the diet, participants experienced reductions in waist measurements, even when they didn’t lose weight. And while they’re high-calorie foods, studies also suggest that we don’t absorb all of the calories from the nuts we eat. (It should be noted that we absorb slightly more from nut butters.) There are a lot of theories about why nuts may lead to weight loss benefits, including the fact that they displace other, less healthful foods, and they may lead to shifts in our gut microbiome that could support a healthy body weight.
And even though whole grains get a bad rap, they can be part of a weight loss diet. One recent study compared a whole grain diet to a refined grain diet in 60 overweight adults. This was a study designed to look at the same participants on each diet for a period of eight weeks with six weeks off in between each one. When consuming whole grains, the participants lost weight, and researchers concluded that eating a diet rich in whole grains (think: quinoa, brown rice, oats, and whole wheat) is linked with weight loss and improvements in inflammatory markers that can indicate a reduced risk of certain diseases. There are many other studies that back up these findings.
Plant proteins, like edamame and pulses also contain carbs, and where people may run into trouble on a plant-based protein diet for weight loss is by doubling or tripling up on starchy carbs. For example, eating a bean and rice burrito supplies carbs from the beans, rice, and burrito shell. If you want to lose weight, a better way to go would be a burrito bowl with a base of greens topped with fajita veggies, salsa, avocado or gauc, and a cup of black beans, which eliminates the excess carbs. I’ve also seen vegetarians and vegans who have trouble losing weight because their whole grain portion sizes are off balance. For instance, a serving of oatmeal is ½ cup, but that amount may not be enough to satisfy your appetite. Instead of eating more oatmeal, bring balance to the meal by including protein (maybe some hemp seeds or nut butter or even a plant-based protein powder stirred in), along with some fruit, and even veggies (think: carrot cake-flavored oatmeal with matchstick carrots or zucchini bread-inspired oatmeal with grated zucchini). For weight loss, it’s key to embrace generous portions of veggies, whether you’re eating plant-based proteins or including some animal protein in the mix.
Tell me more about soy’s safety
In the plant protein chart above, I included tofu and edamame. These are considered whole forms of soy, and while there used to be questions around soy’s safety and potential link to cancer, the American Institute of Cancer Research suggests we can safely consume one or two servings of whole soy foods a day without worry. This is true even for breast cancer survivors. However, what’s less clear is processed forms of soy (soy protein isolate, for example), which may be found in some veggie burgers, protein bars, and protein powders. I generally suggest avoiding this form of soy. Also, soy is one of the most common allergens, and it’s also a common trigger of bloating from food sensitivities, so there may be other reasons to avoid or limit whole soy foods.
What about protein powders, veggie burgers, and imitation meats?
I always favor whole foods over processed foods because our bodies were designed to consume foods in their natural state. Several studies suggest that eating more whole foods over processed ones is linked to a healthier body weight. Still, there can be a role for foods like these, which are a convenient source of protein. For protein powders and meat imitators, including veggie burgers, I prefer pea protein-based options.
I hope this helps clear up some confusion about plant-based proteins and weight loss! If you’re looking for a few plant-based recipes that can be included in a weight loss diet, I have some in my FREE booklet: 10 easy meals & snacks that can be made in 10 minutes or less! You'll find 10 recipes to rejuvenate your body and mind so you can discover a healthier and more energetic life. You can grab your copy here.