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Plant-based Protein: Beyond the Vegetables

Plant-based Protein Plant-based Protein
DaVinci Laboratories

Right now, the nutrition industry is seeing a shift in trends, with more and more products on the market and in the pipeline that are touting the benefits of plant-based protein. This boom in product development and marketing is due, in part, to the significant amount of research that has come out in recent years suggesting that a plant-based diet can have a positive impact on health. Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the incidence of type-2 diabetes,1 and studies also suggest that they can reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.2

But what does eating a plant-based diet actually mean? There are various degrees of following a plant-based lifestyle. On one extreme there is veganism, a diet that does not allow any animal products (including dairy or eggs). However, adopting a plant-based approach does not have to be all-or-nothing. You can still see health benefits from plants by eating more of the right kinds of plant-based foods, while still eating meat. Part of the confusion for consumers is that many foods that are plant-based aren’t necessarily healthy. In fact, researchers have helped to clarify which foods are best to eat when following a plant-based diet by developing a plant-based diet index (PDI) and a healthful plant-based diet index (hPDI), where healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils, tea/coffee) are given points, and less-healthy plant foods (juices/sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes/fries, sweets) and animal foods received reverse scores.2 The bottom line is that it isn’t just about eating more plants and less meat; research has shown that reducing animal foods doesn’t necessarily lead to greater health benefits if the resulting diet is based on less healthy plant foods.

Benefits of Algae Protein

When people typically think about a plant-based diet, they think about eating mostly vegetables. Indeed, plant sources of protein include lentils, soy, almonds, avocado and green peas, just to name a few. However, there are some other lesser-thought-of plant-based protein sources that can help to fill in nutritional gaps when following a plant-based diet.

What is algae and why may it be beneficial to human health? Algae are organisms that live in water and make energy from sunlight (in other words, they are photosynthesizers). Land plants, like trees and vegetables, can also make energy from sunlight, but algae have unique features that make them different (for example, not having leaves or roots), so they are viewed as a different class of organisms.

Algae are one of the most abundant organisms around, and there are many different varieties of it, ranging from simple one-celled algae to multi-celled seaweeds. The health benefits of algae are argued to come from phytochemicals, omega-3 fatty acids, and marine minerals that the algae produce and absorb. The chlorophyll and other plant pigments produced by algae are claimed to have an effect on reducing cravings and improving wound healing. In addition, the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are often noted as being the beneficial components of fish oil, yet they actually originate in algae (mainly DHA). Lastly, consuming iodine from sources like seaweed is important for maintaining good health, particularly for thyroid health. Algae can absorb and contain marine minerals such as iodine, magnesium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. In fact, many of the benefits of eating fish actually can be attributed back to algae. Algae are the base of the food chain for fish. Fish consume algae and then concentrate high amounts of EPA and DHA in their tissues.

Two of the more popular types of algae that are available as supplements are spirulina and chlorella. While they are often discussed together in terms of their effects, they are very different structurally and in the ways that they work in our bodies. Spirulina has no cell wall, making it very easy to digest. On the other hand, chlorella has a very strong cell wall and takes more time to digest. The rate of digestion is important to the delivery of the nutrients within the algae.

What Does the Research Say About the Possible Health Benefits of Algae?

Algae (particularly blue-green algae) are used as a source of dietary protein, B-vitamins and iron, and more and more people supplementing their diet by using products that contain them. Spirulina, a well-known type of blue-green algae, is rich in some nutrients that aren’t found in the typical daily multivitamin. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), spirulina contains significant amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and iron. It also has essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. In fact, protein makes up about 60 to 70 percent of spirulina’s dry weight.

Algae supplements have been used for many conditions, including weight loss, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hayfever, diabetes, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), as well as other women’s health issues. Many people also use algae supplements to ward off conditions or improve their overall well-being. Some claim it boosts their immune system, improves memory, increases energy and metabolism, and improves digestion and bowel health.

The research supports many of these claims. A recent meta-analysis found that across 12 clinical studies, spirulina supplementation reduced cholesterol, lipids, triglycerides, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose.3 Another recent study suggested that spirulina can have significant benefits as an antioxidant, immunomodulator and anti-inflammatory agent.4 Spirulina was found to activate cellular antioxidant enzymes, inhibit lipid peroxidation and DNA damage, scavenge free radicals and increase the activity of superoxide dismutase and catalase. Further, clinical trials show that spirulina prevents skeletal muscle damage under conditions of exercise-induced oxidative stress and can stimulate the production of antibodies and up- or downregulate the expression of cytokine-encoding genes to induce immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory responses.

In terms of performance, studies have also supported claims regarding muscle recovery. A study found that spirulina supplementation reduced muscle fatigue and delayed muscle exhaustion.5 It was also shown, in a laboratory animal study, that memory improves when mice are given a spirulina supplement in their diet.6

“We live in nutritionally challenging times. Our environment is toxic, our oceans are polluted, our soil is lifeless, and our food supply is full of processed sugar and carbs,” said Catharine Arnston, founder, CEO and chief scientific officer at ENERGYbits, a Massachusets-based company that makes both spirulina and chlorella. “No wonder our children are nutrient deprived and the rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes keep skyrocketing. If we’re going to survive, we need something different. Nutrient-dense algae could be the solution.

“The field of epigenetics has proven that our health and DNA are directly impacted by what we eat. Our food literally speaks to our cells but over the last 50 years our food has been stripped of its nutrients, leaving us with ‘no conversations.’ We are at a crossroads. If our bodies don’t start getting the nutrients they need to reverse or prevent further damage, our health crisis will only escalate. Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. It’s called algae and it may well be the last shot at regaining our health naturally from a plant-based whole food.”


We all know that diet trends come and go, but this one is here to stay. The health benefits of eating plants, and the effect that they can have to reduce the impact of not only cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but also obesity, make them a wise choice for nutrition and health-minded individuals who are looking to optimize their wellness. If you are thinking about trying out a plant-based diet in the New Year, know that there are lots of options beyond your typical vegetables to get enough protein in your diet.


1 Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Borgi L, Willett WC, Manson JE, Sun Q, Hu FB. Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of Type 2 diabetes in US men and women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016 Jun 14;13(6):e1002039.

2 Satija A, Hu FB. Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health.Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2018 Oct;28(7):437-441.

3 Huang H, Liao D, Pu R, Cui Y. Quantifying the effects of spirulina supplementation on plasma lipid and glucose concentrations, body weight, and blood pressure. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2018 Nov 14;11:729-742.

4 Wu Q, Liu L, Miron A, Klímová B, Wan D, Kuča K. The antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory activities of Spirulina: an overview. Arch Toxicol. 2016 Aug;90(8):1817-40.

5 Lu HK, Hsieh CC, Hsu JJ, Yang YK, Chou HN. Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Sep;98(2):220-6. Epub 2006 Aug 30.

6 Hwang JH, Lee IT, Jeng KC, Wang MF, Hou RC, Wu SM, Chan YC. Spirulina prevents memory dysfunction, reduces oxidative stress damage and augments antioxidant activity in senescence-accelerated mice. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2011;57(2):186-91.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.