• Pairing Proteins and Plants

    Tia Rains

    Vegetarian, Mediterranean, and other plant-based diets have spiked in popularity, but nutrition experts encourage people to think more broadly about these types of dietary approaches. How can you maximize the benefit of plant-based meals? Tia Rains, PhD Senior Director of Nutrition Research and Communications for the Egg Nutrition Center, weighs in:

    We read a lot about the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. Are you on board with that?

    According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, following a plant-based diet can be good for you and the planet. For example, research suggests that people who consume greater levels of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have a lower risk for developing many chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. But a plant-based diet does not mean only plants. Protein still needs to be a component of the diet, and there are some unique benefits to high-quality protein. I recommend pairing plants with 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein at each meal.

    What’s a “high-quality protein”?

    Animal proteins are considered high-quality proteins because they have many of the essential amino acids that the body can’t make. There are several ways to measure protein quality, and by one of those measures, eggs are the gold standard. But most animal proteins and soy protein are also considered high quality.

    One large egg has 6 grams of protein, so I often suggest pairing them with low-fat cheese or lean meat—a vegetable-cheese frittata, for example, or a frittata with a side of cottage cheese.

    Many people fear that they may be hungry on a plant-based diet.

    Protein has been shown to promote satiety. In fact, there are several studies that have shown that eating eggs in particular, for breakfast increases feelings of fullness. In one weight-loss study, people who had eggs for breakfast lost more weight than people who had a carbohydrate-based breakfast. Studies in kids have also shown that eating eggs at breakfast increases fullness throughout the morning.

    What are the health risks of not having enough protein in a plant-based diet?

    Vegan and vegetarian diets can be healthy and provide adequate amounts of protein; it just requires a lot more thought. You need to consume plant-based proteins that complement each other—like rice and beans—so you get all the essential amino acids in the right proportions. Most nutrition experts also recommend including a basic vitamin and mineral supplement to provide those nutrients that are present in high amounts only in animal-based proteins (e.g., iron, B12).

    Do some people have higher protein needs than others?

    We really see a need for greater intakes of protein in older adults. Dietary protein, particularly in combination with some form of resistance exercise, promotes the preservation of muscle mass as we age. Studies suggest that older adults need at least 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal to maximize the benefits of protein on muscle strength and function, which is important for preventing falls and fractures. A lot of older adults don’t eat enough protein. Eggs can fit nicely into their daily diet because they’re easy to cook and consume, and they’re inexpensive.

    Do eggs have any advantages over other protein sources?

    Eggs are rich in choline, a nutrient that’s important for all stages of life. It reduces the risk of developing age-related dementia and related conditions, and it’s super important during pregnancy and lactation, to support normal infant brain development. Plus, eggs are also one of the only natural sources of vitamin D. It’s in the yolks, so don’t throw out the yolks! In fact, that’s where most of the nutrients reside. There are varying levels of14 essential nutrients in an egg, almost all of which are present in the yolk.

    Eggs are portion controlled, convenient, and versatile. You can boil some and always have them on hand. In the culinary world, “putting an egg on it” is a trend and a good one, particularly in combination with plant-based foods. Eggs have been shown to increase the absorption of antioxidants naturally present in fruits and vegetables. Eggs also contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to be important for eye health.

     Poached Eggs with Greens

    Featured recipe: Pairing plant foods with eggs isn’t just tasty; it’s a smart dietary strategy. For brunch, lunch or dinner, try Sautéed Green with a Poached Egg.