In the healthy food space, 2019 was dominated by all things plant-based. Alt-meat brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible spawned countless imitators from other companies as more and more people became interested in cutting back on their consumption of animal products for better health and the environment.
But there’s one surprising, occasional hazard when consuming plant-based protein options. “Unfortunately, when introducing more plant-based protein sources, our digestion can take a hit. That’s because animal proteins tend to be more easily digested by our bodies, and plant proteins can be harder to digest and are absorbed more slowly by our bodies,” says Gabrielle McGrath, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian for Baze.
Still you can ease discomfort, especially during the initial transition, by choosing the best plant-based protein sources, reading labels, and being patient with your body during the adjustment. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Why some plant-based protein sources can impact the gut
Certain ingredients common in plant-based protein sources—particularly the processed kind—can be trickier on the gut. “Soy—like tofu—can be hard to digest and cause gas, bloating, and discomfort for some people. Some people do better with fermented soy products, tempeh being one example,” McGrath says.
You’ll also find soy protein isolate (a processed derivative of soy) in fake meat products, as well as preservatives, additives, and emulsifiers. “Your body might not react well to each one of these and the more ingredients listed, the harder it can be to figure out what is the culprit,” McGrath says. “Some of these culprits could include xantham gum, inulin, guar gum, and carrageenan. This is not to say there’s anything wrong with these ingredients, some bodies are just less tolerant to them,” she says. You might have no problem at all—or it could wreak havoc on your digestive system.
Plus, processed imitation meat products can be high in sodium. There’s evidence showing that a high sodium diet can lead to bloating and digestive distress, so check the label.
Here are some other healthy vegetarian proteins that a registered dietitian loves:
As for the whole foods options, many plant-based proteins like legumes and whole grains are high in fiber. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but eating a lot of them at once can cause an upset stomach. “Americans tend to not consume enough fiber. When you increase your fiber intake, it can take some time for your body to get used to the change,” McGrath says.
This is an easy fix to all of the above, however. Start incorporating a few new items one at a time, see how you feel and give your body time to adjust before going too heavy on the plant-based protein load. To be extra safe, grab plant based protein options that McGrath says are gentler on the system.
A 2018 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a few great plant-based options, like spirulina, mung beans, and chickpeas, can be easier for the stomach to digest. “Spirulina is a blue-green algae and comes in a powder or supplement form,” says McGrath. “Just one tablespoon of the powder packs four grams of protein, is antioxidant-rich, and carries a good amount of your iron, copper, and vitamin B2 needs,” she says. Most people use the powder in their daily smoothies, but you can also sprinkle it onto soups and salads. It’s an easy way to get a punch without needing to do some heavy cooking or meal prep, since you can add it into about anything.
2. Mung beans
Mung beans are a part of the legume family, and legumes in general are a great source of plant-based protein. “They’re also packed with antioxidants and provide a good amount of potassium and magnesium,” McGrath says. Mung beans are a great addition to veggie burgers, stews, soups, and curries, so use them to make your own patties from scratch and to pair with spices like cumin and turmeric.
Chickpeas are another great plant-based protein source that can be easy on the digestive system (if you are mindful of the fiber content). A typical half-cup serving of cooked chickpeas provides seven grams of protein and five grams of fiber, McGrath says. They’re versatile and easy to add to stews, soups, or roast them and eat them as a snack. There’s a reason why we’re calling them the new cauliflower.
4. Nut butter
Feel free to spread some peanut or almond butter on a banana before a workout or a slice of whole grain bread for that afternoon pick-me-up. In just two tablespoons of nut butter, you’ll get around seven grams of protein. “If you’re having serious digestive issues, nut butters can be gentler on your stomach compared to full nuts,” she explains. “Look for nut butters where the only ingredient is the nut and perhaps a bit of salt.”
Tempeh is a fermented soy product, and it’s gentler on the stomach the soy is due to the fermentation process. (Plus, fermented foods in general are thought to be good for gut health.) “You can use tempeh as you would with tofu: in scrambles, stir-frys, sandwiches, and salads,” McGrath says. Just three ounces of tempeh contains a whopping 15 grams of protein and many essential nutrients like manganese, riboflavin, iron, and phosphorus.
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