Plant Proteins and potential health problems
With all those scandals about factory-farmed meat and all this talk about how unsustainable and unhealthy it is to eat (too much) meat, many people are reducing the amount of animal foods they consume and are looking for plant-based alternatives to cover their bodies’ need for proteins.
In this article I don’t want to discuss whether or not reducing animal proteins is the “right” decision to take (I do this in my 3 part article "Why I no longer support veganism"). Rather, I want to make you aware of the potential health problems if you consume a lot of plant proteins, such as legumes (esp. soy), grains, nuts & seeds and give you tips how you can minimize them, so that you don't end up harming yourself in the process of reducing harm to animals and planet.
1. Protein Quality
Protein is absolutely essential for life. Amino-acids are the building blocks of all our body tissues, muscles, hormones, anti-bodies, enzymes… We CAN indeed derive protein from plant or animal foods, however, plant foods do not contain COMPLETE protein, which is why you have to wisely combine grains or nuts/seeds with legumes, since their amino acid profiles complement each other.
But even though you might be able to cover all essential amino acids, they still need to be present in the right amounts and ratios – like a puzzle, where you need x parts of piece 1 and y parts of piece 2 and so on. If only one piece is missing, you can’t do the puzzle. Plant proteins tend to be low in “puzzle pieces” tryptophan, cystine & threonine.
In addition to that, there are many co-factors in food that determine whether a food is indeed a good source of protein for YOU or not. For example, animal proteins have a stronger effect on the sympathetic nervous system than plant proteins. Animal proteins also tend to slow down the oxidation rate of the oxidative system more than plant proteins (partially because of their fat content). Certain types of meat or fish or legumes are richer in purines that others. Also the thermic and/or energetic effect of a steak or a bowl of beans is very different. All that can be good or bad depending on your individual Metabolic Type. For example, Protein Metabolic Types need the stronger, purine-rich foods to achieve metabolic balance, while Carbohydrate Metabolic Type can manage with the "lighter" meats or non-flesh proteins that would leave a Protein Type hungry or craving sweets.
Another aspect is the assimilation in the body. In order to well assimilate proteins, you need certain “activator” vitamins, especially vitamin A, D and K2, which are ONLY found in saturated animal fats in their original form (read more here). This is why in nature proteins usually come with their fat (e.g. whole milk, eggs, meat, fish, chicken). Protein without saturated fat is not well assimilated (the reason why studies show that low fat- high protein diets are heavy on the kidneys).
In order to get the most of your hummus, beans, oats, quinoa or cashews just add some raw butter or cream to improve absorption. Cooking them in home-made bone broth and adding some lacto-fermented vegetables will also facilitate digestion and absorption.
Yet another aspect to consider are the rather unhealthy “by-products” of plant proteins: anti-nutrients and enzyme inhibitors in legumes (esp. soy), unfermented whole grains, nuts and seeds, gluten in seitan…
Whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds naturally contain anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors or gluten can disturb the absorption of vitamins and minerals and the proper digestion of food. Soy, in particular unfermented soy, is especially rich in anti-nutrients (more reasons on why to beware of soy below).
The well-meant advice to eat lots of those plant-based foods can thus lead to insufficient nutrient absorption and in general puts a lot of strain on the digestive system, causing damage to it in the long run. Traditional preparation methods, such as soaking, fermenting and/or sprouting, can (partially) neutralize those anti-nutrients, making the grains/legumes/nuts/seeds easier to digest and vitamins/minerals more available for absorption.
Click here to learn how to decrease the anti-nutrient content in grains, legumes, nuts & seeds through soaking/fermentation.
Nowadays traditional food making processes (e.g. slow sourdough fermentation for bread) have been substituted by industrial techniques that are faster (e.g. quick-rise, yeast-based whole grain breads) and have allowed the invention of completely new food categories, such as breakfast cereals, crackers, rice waffles... However, the high heat and high pressure applied during these processes (e.g. the "extrusion" process to make those shaped breakfast cereals) denature the proteins, oxidize the sensitive fatty acids and create a bunch of toxic by-products.
By choosing your grains, legumes and nuts/seeds in their unprocessed form and preparing them according to the guidelines provided above (soaking/fermenting/sprouting) you can largely avoid the risks industrially processing poses to your health.
A remark on soy
By choosing soy, many consumers think they are doing something good for their health and help to minimize the high ecological food print associated with (factory-) meat production. Unfortunately soy is NOT a health food, but highly hazardous if consumed too often or in too big quantities.
Consumption of unfermented soy foods (basically everything except for tempeh, miso, natto and some soy sauces) has been linked to a number of health problems, such as reduced mineral absorption (due to high contents in phytic acid and enzyme/protein blockers), increased need for certain nutrients, interference / disruption of the endocrine, hormone and thyroid function and the creation of toxic elements during processing.
In animal farming soy is used to fatten the animals (whereas they lose weight on coconuts...), whereas in humans it is often recommended as part of a healthy way to LOSE fat...
In addition to that, soy is a highly subsidized product which is produced, processed and sold by big industries. Marketing it as a "health food" has created an adequate demand for the enormous quantities produced. Most soy is consumed in the form of soy milk, soy yogurt, soy protein powders, tofu or meat substitutes. Buying those processed "health" foods doesn't support small, organic, local farms, producing "REAL food", but the very industry responsible for mass-meat or mass-dairy production (e.g. Alpro Soy is owned by Dean Foods, a large factory-dairy producer).
For more information click here and/or read the book "The Whole Soy Story".