Plant based protein

The science

The Nurses’ Study found that ovulatory infertility was 39% more likely in women with the highest intake of animal protein compared to those with the lowest. The reverse was true for women with the highest intake of plant protein, who were substantially less likely to have had ovulatory infertility than women with the lowest plant protein intake. These results suggest that eating more protein from plants and less from animals is good for fertility health.  

Your body gets all the proteins it needs from just twenty or so building blocks called amino acids. By stringing them together like beads on a chain, it creates thousands of different kinds of proteins. Protein provides the structure for most tissues and an untold number of biologically active molecules. It can also be converted to blood sugar and burned for energy. As a guard against amino acid shortages, our bodies can create a number of nonessential amino acids from scratch. The others, called essential amino acids, must come from food. The protein in animal products (meat, fish, dairy) contains all the amino acids your body needs. This is complete protein. Protein from beans, grains, and vegetables is often incomplete, meaning it lacks one or more essential amino acids. Combining incomplete proteins, either in the same meal or over a course of a day can give you all the protein you need. Some classic food pairs like rice and beans, peanut butter and bread, and tofu and brown rice are perfectly complementary, with each supplying one or more amino acids the other lacks. Beans are an excellent source of protein and other needed nutrients, like fibre and many minerals.

A few country to country comparisons of protein intake and disease show more heart disease in countries with more animal protein in the diet, and less heart disease in countries with more vegetable protein. That’s interesting, but it isn’t proof that animal protein is bad for the heart. Exercise, smoking, and the amount of saturated fat in the diet, to name just a few other factors, also affect heart disease, making the country comparisons only a starting point for more research, nothing more. Other research supports the notion that animal and vegetable protein somehow affect health in different ways.

Ultimately, you need protein every day. Animal or vegetable? It’s your choice. Possible health differences between the two in no way mean you are putting your health on the line by eating meat. But adopting a “flexitarian” approach to protein has long-term payoffs. Flexitarians focus on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts but won’t say no to poultry, seafood or steak. The authors of the Nurses Study recommend getting your daily protein from as many different sources as you can. Aim for at least half of your protein intake from plants – beans, nuts, peanut butter, whole grains and seeds. Choose fish, eggs, and poultry for most of the rest, with less red meat and dairy products making up the rest.

A note on soy – Over the past few years soy products have flooded the market. Headlines tell us that eating soy based foods lowers cholesterol, reduces hot flushes, aid weight loss and more. Yet the claims for soy exceed the evidence, and some studies warn that too much soy may increase the risk of breast cancer or promote memory loss. This doesn’t mean your shouldn’t eat soy – it is an excellent source of protein, calcium and healthful nutrients. But it’s best to eat in moderation – no more than 2 to 3 servings per week. One reason for moderation is the estrogens that soybeans, and soy foods contain. We don’t yet know, for example, whether they suppress or promote breast or prostate cancer, help or hinder memory. This uncertainty is the main reason for moderation.

Your change for the week

Add more plant based protein.

  • Top salads with pine nuts, pecans, walnuts or another nut.
  • Add nuts to your porridge or cereal
  • Swap your meat based dinner, for one with beans instead
  • Eat fish rich in omega 3 (eg. salmon, sardines, mackerel)


Warming lentil soup

  • 1 onion
  • Red chilli (deseeded if you don’t like it too spicy)
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • Pinch of chilli flakes
  • 600g of carrots, washed and chopped
  • 140g split red lentils
  • 1l hot vegetable stock
  • 125ml milk

Fry the onion and red chilli in the olive oil in the pan until it softens. Add the carrots, 140g split red lentils, 1l hot vegetable stock, 125ml milk and a pinch of chilli flakes to the pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 mins until the lentils have swollen and softened.Whizz the soup with a blender until smooth. Season to taste with salt pepper and chilli.

Seeded Porridge

  • 40g Jumbo rolled oats
  • Made up with ½ water ½ semi-skimmed milk or 3 tbsp of natural plain yoghurt
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • A handful of blueberries and chopped almonds

Avocado and walnut salad

  • Combine 3 tbsps of olive oil, 2 tbsps of lemon juice and salt and pepper
  • Chop spinach, avocado, tomatoes and red onion
  • Mix together
  • Add chopped walnuts on top