If you're a vegetarian, or if you eat only small amounts of animal protein, you may not be getting enough protein. A recent study has found that most plant-based proteins are not high-quality proteins and may not meet your body's needs. But it did find one that is.
The researchers in this new study wanted to find out if any plant proteins have comparable quality to animal-based proteins. To define and determine quality, they looked at three different factors. The first two are the essential amino acid content and how easily you can digest the protein. The third factor takes both of the first two and then applies them to children. Children have higher protein needs than adults because their bones, muscles, and brains, which need sufficient protein, are growing and developing.
This testing confirmed that most plant proteins are a much lower quality than animal-based proteins. However, the one that graded out as comparable to eggs, dairy, and meat is soy, a protein that some people are reluctant to eat.
The researchers found that soy protein has a PDCAAS of 1.00. That means it is a high-quality protein and will meet the dietary needs of both children and adults. Animal proteins also have a PDCAAS score of 1.0.
Soy is the only widely available plant-based protein that scored this high.
Researcher Connie Diekman, RD, LD, FADA, said, "It's important for people to understand that a plant-based diet is healthy, but that not all proteins are created equal. If you are planning a vegetarian diet or want to incorporate plant-based proteins in your diet, understanding protein quality using the PDCAAS scale can allow you to select proteins that score higher, such as soy, to ensure that you are getting the essential amino acids you need."
Unfortunately, many women have stopped eating soy products because of a perceived connection to breast cancer, especially among those who have had breast cancer. Actually, studies show that the plant-based estrogens in soy foods are protective against breast cancer.
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It's true that soy has estrogen-like qualities. However, soy isoflavones have both antiestrogenic and anticancer properties. And phytoestrogens – the estrogens found in plants – are actually protective against cancer because they get into estrogen receptors and block the absorption of dangerous estrogens.
One study looked at soy's impact on breast cancer recurrence. They followed 9,514 breast cancer survivors in the U.S. and China. The researchers found that soy consumption was inversely associated with recurrence among both U.S. and Chinese women. In fact, they found that soy reduced their risk of breast cancer-specific mortality and a statistically significant reduced risk of recurrence.
So don't avoid soy, even if you've had breast cancer. It's the highest quality protein in the plant world, and it can help you avoid breast cancer.
If you're celebrating Christmas today, I hope you have a very joyful day with family and friends.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 May 30. [Epub ahead of print].