When we think of eating plant foods in our diet usually we envision a side of vegetables on a plate like peas, corn or broccoli. And most of us know about the many vitamins, minerals and fiber in fruits and veggies. But did you also know many plants contain healthy proteins too? Research shows that substituting your meals with a plant based protein can be beneficial for people of all ages!
Protein can be found in many non-animal sources. But what is protein and why is it important? The term protein comes from the Greek word protos, which means “to come first.” Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Aside from water, proteins form the major part of lean body tissue, totaling about 17% of body weight. Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Our bodies need protein from the foods we eat to build and maintain bones, muscles and skin. We get proteins in our diet from meat, dairy products, nuts and certain grains and beans. Proteins from meat and other animal products are considered complete proteins. This means they supply all of the amino acids the body can’t make on its own. Most plant proteins are incomplete, with the exception of quinoa, chia seeds, hemp seeds and a handful of others. Incomplete proteins must combine to get all of the amino acids your body needs.
So whats the the differences between meat protein and vegetable protein?
Animal proteins consist of meat, eggs, and dairy products. These proteins provide B vitamins and easily absorbable minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. Plant proteins include grains, nuts, legumes and green leafy vegetables. Plant proteins are a nutritious alternative to animal proteins. They are inexpensive, versatile, tasty, plus add color to your plate. They are high in fiber and phytochemicals. Legumes are starchy plant seeds producing bean pods, which include peas, peanuts, beans, soybeans, and lentils. Beans and peas are the mature forms of legumes. They include kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lima beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, and lentils. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 states beans and peas are excellent sources of protein. They also provide other nutrients, such as iron and zinc, similar to seafood, meat, and poultry. They are excellent sources of dietary fiber and nutrients such as potassium and folate, which also are found in other vegetables.
As a guide to assist you in including plant proteins in your diet, here are some examples with their protein content listed:
- (cooked) • 1 cup soybeans – 28 grams (1 cup tempeh – 30 grams) • 1 cup lentils – 18 grams • 1 cup cannellini beans – 17 grams • 1 cup garbanzo beans (and hummus) – 14.5 grams • 1 cup pinto, kidney, black beans – 13-15 grams
- 1 cup broccoli – 4 grams • 1 cup spinach – 5 grams • 2 cups cooked kale – 5 grams • 1 cup boiled peas – 9 grams • 1 cup cooked sweet potato – 5 grams
Nuts and seeds
- ¼ cup Chia seeds – 12 grams, ¼ cup Flaxseed – 8 grams • 1/4 cup (2 oz.) walnuts – 5 grams • 1 oz. pistachios – 5.8 grams • 2 tbsp almonds – 4 grams • Nut butters – peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter – 2 tablespoons has about 8 grams of protein
- Soy, almond milk- 1 cup = 7-9 grams of protein.
- Quinoa 1 cup – 9 grams. • Amaranth, bulgur, wild rice, oat bran – 7 grams • Oatmeal – 1 cup = 6 grams • Sprouted grain bread products – buns, tortillas, bread -7-10 grams
Remember you do not have to become a vegetarian to enjoy plant based proteins. Anyone can eat them! Ideas include sprinkling sunflower seeds, chia seeds or chopped almonds on top of your salad to add taste and texture. Spread some natural almond butter on your whole wheat bagel. Or mix chopped walnuts into the batter of your homemade banana bread to boost your intake of monounsaturated fats. Overall, with any meal plan the key is to consume a variety of foods and the right proportions.
About the Author:
Halle Elbling, MS, RD, CDE
Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator
Halle Elbling is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She currently works as a nutrition instructor at Palomar College and also runs her own consulting company. She earned a Master of Science degree in Nutritional Science from San Jose State University and a Nutritional Science Undergraduate degree from Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. She also holds a certificate in adult weight management.
She has been working in the field of nutrition for more than 17 years and is an active member of the American Association of Diabetes Educators and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She possesses a vast amount of knowledge in nutrition, wellness and diabetes education, for children and adults. Halle is committed in improving the health of others by providing comprehensive nutrition, health, and diabetes education through seminars, healthy cooking classes, community-based education programs and individual counseling. She also is an internet blogger on nutrition and diabetes topics and has been the author of a bi-weekly nutrition advice column for the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper.