Power to the Plants!

By Jaimee Hughes, Accredited Practising Dietitian

‘Plant protein’ and ‘plant-based’ are two of the biggest buzzwords in food and nutrition circles and for good reason! With Australia’s meat consumption almost three times the global average(1), obtaining a greater proportion of our protein from plant sources  like whole grains and beans, peas and lentils, is one of the possible solutions to address current health and environmental challenges.

In this Hot Topic, we’ll guide you through the latest evidence underpinning the plant protein trend and show you how you can incorporate more plant proteins into your diet!

Firstly, what is plant protein?

Plant protein is a term used to describe protein sources predominately from plants. Sources of plant protein include whole grains like oats and whole grain wheat, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, baked beans and lupins, nuts, seeds and soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh.

Figure 1: Average Protein Content of Plant Based Foods per 100g

Data sourced from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2019). Australian Food Composition Database – Release 1. Canberra: FSANZ. Available here.

How much should we be eating?

GLNC recommends Australians enjoy:

  • 3 serves of whole grain foods daily (48g)
  • ½ cup (or 100g) of beans, peas or lentils , 2-3 times per week

‘Plant-based’ doesn’t mean a ‘plant only’ diet

Plant-based eating is often perceived as being a vegan dietary pattern(2), but contrary to popular belief, a ‘plant-based’ or ‘flexitarian’ diet doesn’t necessarily mean a “plant only” diet.

As the name suggests, a plant-based diet is based predominantly on plant foods such as whole grains, beans, peas and lentils, colourful fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, with smaller amounts of meat, eggs, fish, poultry and dairy foods.

What does the evidence say?

Following a ‘flexitarian’ diet – rich in whole grains and legumes, is associated both with a reduction in the risk of disease (3,4) and has a lower impact on the planet (5-7).

In fact, obtaining more than 50% of total protein intake from plant sources is protective against a range of cardiovascular disease risk factors(8-10).What’s more, substituting red meat with legumes and whole grains is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease(11).

According to two recent studies, just a 3% change in total energy from animal protein (meat, poultry, fish or dairy products) to plant proteins (like whole grains, beans, peas and lentils and nuts) has been identified in reducing risk of premature death, by between 5% and 10%(4,12).

Next gen plant protein

Plant-based meat alternatives are booming on supermarket shelves1, but while they can be a delicious way to eat more vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas and lentils , there are a few issues in this category regarding nutrition that we need to be mindful of.

For many of these products,  the salt content tends to be fairly high and many products also fall short with respect to micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12 (13). In addition, many don’t commonly  include whole, familiar ingredients like beans, lentils and whole grains, despite the evidence suggesting this is what consumers value(2).

Plant-based meats can certainly add variety to the diet, but it’s best to be mindful of the nutrient content and ingredients, particularly if you’re replacing all animal proteins with plant-based alternatives.

Are there any nutritional concerns with following a plant-based diet?

As plant-based diets become more popular, a greater proportion of the population may be at risk of nutrient deficiencies(14,15) – particularly iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Younger women are at an even greater risk of nutrient deficiencies, as they’re more likely to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet and have increased nutrient requirements.

This highlights the importance of still including small amounts of animal protein on the plate to meet nutrient requirements. For personalised nutrition advice, we recommend seeking support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).

GLNC does not seek to displace meat, as the current recommendation for red meat is an important source of essential nutrients in the Australian diet.

So how do I eat more plant-based?

Enjoying whole grains and legumes is certainly not about a whole new way of cooking and it doesn’t mean having to find a whole range of new recipes. They can easily be incorporated into your everyday diet by adapting traditional family recipes!

Legumes, or beans, peas and lentils are a truly versatile food and can be incorporated into both savoury and sweet recipes. Many people are most familiar with legumes in the form of the much-loved baked bean, but there are hundreds of varieties of legume out there.

  • You can start off easy by adding a can of rinsed legumes to your favourite soups, casseroles, salads, curries and pasta dishes.
  • Drain and rinse chickpeas to make hummus or add directly to a big bowl of salad veg.
  • Red lentils go well in a roasted pumpkin or sweet potato soup.
  • Smash those chickpeas and use them to top your toast or in a sandwich or wrap.
  • Try adding cooked lentils into your favourite burger patty or meatball mix.
  • Blend butter beans into falafels or even use them to in your favourite guacamole recipe.

For whole grains, it’s all about the SWAP

  • At breakfast try a bowl of whole grain, high-fibre cereal or oats.
  • For lunch, swap to wholemeal or whole grain bread.
  • At dinner, opt for brown rice, wholemeal pasta, or other grains such as buckwheat, quinoa or freekeh.
  • For snacks, choose plain popcorn, muesli bars or whole grain crackers with hummus.

The bottom line

Plant-based diets are on trend and growing in popularity and plant proteins such as whole grains, beans, peas and lentils offer a host of health benefits when consumed as part of a well-balanced diet.

If you’re looking for delicious recipes, GLNC is your go-to for inspiration on cooking with whole grains, beans, peas and lentils. Follow us on social for more handy tips and tasty recipes.


  1. Malek, L.; Umberger, W.J. Distinguishing meat reducers from unrestricted omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: A comprehensive comparison of Australian consumers. Food Quality and Preference 2021, 88, 104081, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2020.104081.
  2. Estell, M.; Hughes, J.; Grafenauer, S. Plant Protein and Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Consumer and Nutrition Professional Attitudes and Perceptions. Sustainability 2021, 13, 1478.
  3. Qian, F.; Liu, G.; Hu, F.B.; Bhupathiraju, S.N.; Sun, Q. Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine 2019, 179, 1335-1344, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2195.
  4. Naghshi, S.; Sadeghi, O.; Willett, W.C.; Esmaillzadeh, A. Dietary intake of total, animal, and plant proteins and risk of all cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ 2020, 370, m2412, doi:10.1136/bmj.m2412.
  5. Willett, W.; Rockstrom, J.; Loken, B.; Springmann, M.; Lang, T.; al., e. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet 2019, 6736, 31788-31784, doi: DOI 10.1016/S0140.
  6. Derbyshire, E.J. Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers in Nutrition 2017, 3, doi:10.3389/fnut.2016.00055.
  7. Godfray, H.C.J.; Aveyard, P.; Garnett, T.; Hall, J.W.; Key, T.J.; Lorimer, J.; Pierrehumbert, R.T.; Scarborough, P.; Springmann, M.; Jebb, S.A. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science 2018, 361, eaam5324, doi:10.1126/science.aam5324.
  8. Li, S.S.; Blanco Mejia, S.; Lytvyn, L.; Stewart, S.E.; Viguiliouk, E.; Ha, V.; de Souza, R.J.; Leiter, L.A.; Kendall, C.W.C.; Jenkins, D.J.A., et al. Effect of Plant Protein on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Am Heart Assoc 2017, 6, doi:10.1161/jaha.117.006659.
  9. Viguiliouk, E.; Stewart, S.; Jayalath, V.; Ng, A.; Mirrahimi, A.; de Souza, R.; Hanley, A.; Bazinet, R.; Blanco Mejia, S.; Leiter, L., et al. Effect of Replacing Animal Protein with Plant Protein on Glycemic Control in Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients 2015, 7, 9804-9824, doi:10.3390/nu7125509.
  10. Anderson, J.W.; Major, A.W. Pulses and lipaemia, short- and long-term effect: potential in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Br J Nutr 2002, 88 Suppl 3, S263-271, doi:10.1079/bjn2002716.
  11. Al-Shaar, L.; Satija, A.; Wang, D.D.; Rimm, E.B.; Smith-Warner, S.A.; Stampfer, M.J.; Hu, F.B.; Willett, W.C. Red meat intake and risk of coronary heart disease among US men: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2020, 371, m4141, doi:10.1136/bmj.m4141.
  12. Huang, J.; Liao, L.M.; Weinstein, S.J.; Sinha, R.; Graubard, B.I.; Albanes, D. Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med 2020, 180, 1173-1184, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2790.
  13. Curtain, F.; Grafenauer, S. Plant-Based Meat Substitutes in the Flexitarian Age: An Audit of Products on Supermarket Shelves. Nutrients 2019, 11, doi:10.3390/nu11112603.
  14. Payne, C.L.R.; Scarborough, P.; Cobiac, L. Do low-carbon-emission diets lead to higher nutritional quality and positive health outcomes? A systematic review of the literature. Public Health Nutrition 2016, 19, 2654-2661, doi:10.1017/S1368980016000495.
  15. Vatanparast, H.; Islam, N.; Shafiee, M.; Ramdath, D.D. Increasing Plant-Based Meat Alternatives and Decreasing Red and Processed Meat in the Diet Differentially Affect the Diet Quality and Nutrient Intakes of Canadians. Nutrients 2020, 12, doi:10.3390/nu12072034.

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