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Is Soy the Most Elite Source of Plant-Based Protein?

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Protein is the building block for our muscles, organs, tissues, enzymes, and all kinds of functions in our body depend on protein, or specifically, amino acids that come from protein. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly. And even though all 20 of these are important for your health, only nine of them are considered essential because we can’t make them like other amino acids in the body. We must eat them.

Some argue that there are only eight essential amino acids, excluding histidine because it is only necessary to support growth in infants, but according to the World Health Organization histidine does count as an essential amino acid. So, in fact, we have nine essential amino acids that we need to get into our daily diet for optimal performance.

In general, if you eat animal products, you’ll get enough essential amino acids. There should be no risk of deficiency. Even if you are primarily plant-based, as long as you combine a variety of plants that have different essential amino acid profiles, you’ll be covered. But so many of you know that fighting diseases like cancer on several levels depends on getting more plants into your body and making sure you have enough protein to rebuild healthy cells.

Considering the published, recommended dietary allowance for protein, it is important to understand that the requirement is set at the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick. If you aren’t a couch potato, you most likely need more than that minimal amount. Certainly, if you participate in endurance sports, weightlifting, or even moderate physical activity, you are going to need more protein than what is recommended. Teen athletes, pregnant or lactating women, those going through cancer treatment or recovering from surgery have increased protein needs. Postmenopausal women and older adults, in general, are at risk for age-related muscle wasting. These groups are notorious for not eating enough protein. Adding more plant protein is a healthy way to get more of what you need.

When it comes to soy replacing animal protein, is it the only plant that can do the job?

There are only a handful of plants that provide all nine essential amino acids (called complete proteins) and those are buckwheat, quinoa, and soy.  An investigation into the true value of these complete vegan protein sources was published in the Journal of Plant Foods for Human Nutrition in Mar 2018. Researchers analyzed the nutritional value of buckwheat and quinoa and while they did contain all nine EAAs, most of those were located in the hull, or outer later – and we tend to eat the grain within…so definitely these plants offer a complete protein source, but there’s just not that efficient. Another study published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society analyzed the amino acid profile of 44 different soybean lines and confirmed, all nine essential amino acids are available in soybeans. Studies have analyzed the amount of leucine, one of the essential amino acids necessary for building muscle, in soy and animal foods.  Whey from animals is a great source of leucine and is often used in protein smoothies as meal replacements or as a post-exercise recovery drink. Soy contained almost as much leucine as cheese!

So, there you go! Yes, soy is a high-quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids, is easily digested and utilized by the body, and offers an efficient way to build muscles.

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If you have more questions about soy, you might enjoy my video on the safety of soy found on my YouTube Channel DrKim Cancer Nutrition IQ. Our dietitians at recommend two very clean and powerful soy-based shakes, so be sure to check out our Shop Recommended Products page!

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