There’s always debate about fats and carbs, but everyone knows that protein is essential to life. What do the healthiest proteins come from? Plants! Does that surprise you? Learn how to eat more plant-based proteins for a better, healthier you!
Protein powers our body, giving us strength and energy—and reducing our appetite. Thousands of specific protein molecules our bodies make do most of the work of “structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.”
When we talk about proteins, we’re really talking about amino acids. Our bodies can make 11 of the 20 amino acids, but we’ve lost the ability to make nine of them! The nine we can’t make are called “essential amino acids” (EAAs) and we must get them from food.
Fortunately, all plants and meats contain protein. Yes, plants. Unlike animals, plants manufacture all 20 amino acids (across all plants, not each plant).
Eating healthy protein comes down to a few principles:
1. Eat More Plant-Based Proteins
The first priority is to try to get your protein from plants whenever possible. Why? Eating healthy protein sources like beans, nuts, fish, or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat lowers the risk of several diseases and premature death. Examples of plant protein categories are:
- Legumes (lentils, beans, peas, edamame, tofu, peanuts)
- Nuts and Seeds
- Whole Grains (quinoa, rice, oats, buckwheat)
- High-protein Veggies: Corn, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, artichokes.
Photo: French Kidney Beans. Credit: Zdenek Sasek Getty Images
2. Eat Less Meat, Swap Red Meat for Healthier Meats
Eating even small amounts of red meat on a regular basis is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Eating fish or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
Further, new research shows that eating a high-protein diet in middle age increases your risk of diabetes and cancer. This risk was only seen in those who got their protein from animal sources such as meat, eggs, and cheese; the link disappeared if the protein came from plants, such as nuts, seeds, and beans.
How can you reduce your consumption of red meat? Some ideas:
- Make sure you eat one less red meat meal per week or more.
- Swap out red meat for a healthier meat such as fish or poultry. Eggs are a good choice, too.
- Have a meatless night and devote the plate to plant-based proteins.
- Eat less meat on the plate. Consider vegetables the main course and meat as the side dish.
- Avoid processed meats, such as hot dogs, some sausages, and deli-sliced chicken and ham.
3. Don’t Overdo the Protein
Despite the hype, you may not need as much protein as you think. The average person only needs about 7 grams of protein every day for every 20 pounds of body weight. Many people consume too much protein (largely, red meat) and also the least healthy proteins. Here’s a protein calculator to try out.
- For a 140-pound person, that means about 50 grams of protein each day.
- For a 200-pound person, that means about 70 grams of protein each day.
If it helps: Think of protein as anywhere from 10% to 35% of your total calories each day!
4. Variety is the Spice of Life
In general, animal foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish are complete protein sources. Legumes (peas, beans) with nut or seeds also make up a complete protein.
Though plants manufacture all 20 amino acids, not every plant has every amino acid, so it’s important to enjoy plant-based protein from a wide variety of vegetables to supply all the essential amino acids required for a healthy body. The insufficient EAAs in one can be made up by the greater supply in another.
Pick from the range of vegetables, fruits, seeds, whole grains, and nuts for an abundance of minerals, vitamins, and the thousands of phytochemicals plants manufacture to protect and maintain their own health.
Ideas for Eating Healthier
How can you add more plant-based protein to your diet? By simply eating more plants.
Which plants are best? Beans (27% protein), lentils (36%), chickpeas (33%), peas (30%), and kale (22%) provide the greatest opportunity to acquire micronutrients packaged with protein.
1. Add seeds to your grocery list.
The most protein dense plant foods are seeds: Dry beans/lentils/peas, shell beans, soybeans (tofu, edamame), fresh peas, buckwheat, quinoa, sunflower seeds, flax, chia, pumpkin seeds, and the true grains: oats, millet, wheat, sorghum, corn, or rye.
“Seeds are rich in proteins, as well as carbohydrates and fats,” says Eve Emshwiller, an associate professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin. “The parent plant provisions its embryo with everything it needs until it can send up a shoot and begin making its own food through photosynthesis. Legumes such as dried peas and beans contain more protein than other seed crops because specialized bacteria in their root nodules ‘fix’ nitrogen [the raw material for manufacturing amino acids],” she says.
- Dry legumes—beans, lentils, chickpeas, soup peas—match animal foods for protein density per cooked serving (15 to 20 grams [g]). They’re also high in fiber, some B vitamins, and many minerals. Practical solutions to add more of these include adding beans/legumes to salads, stews, and soups.
- A cup of firm tofu, prepared however you like it, offers more than 20 g of protein (and meets half your daily need for calcium).
- Corn on the cob? An average cob offers 4.5 g of protein.
- An ounce of shelled and roasted pumpkin seeds eaten as a snack or sprinkled over a salad or main dish adds about 6 g of protein to your daily intake.
- You can boost the protein value of breads, pancakes, and cookies by adding chickpea flour 6.6 g/oz, ground flax seeds 5.1 g/oz, or buckwheat flour 3.5 g/oz.
By the way, soybeans (tofu, edamame), buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and chia are among the plant foods that contain all the EAAs.
2. Go for some greenery
51% of the calories from spinach are protein—which is about equal to chicken and fish. Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak!
Per “serving,” cooked leafy greens contain more protein than raw greens, because cooking reduces their water content.
- Spinach stars as the most protein-rich leafy vegetable; a cup of cooked spinach contains more than 5 grams of complete protein.
- Other cooked greens, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and broccolini contain 3 g to 4 g of protein per cup.
As a next step, add higher-protein vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli, broccolini, and Brussels sprouts, on your grocery list for each lunch and dinner.
For a nutrient-rich breakfast, consider starting your day with a smoothie made with bananas, kale, spinach, blueberries, and fresh almond milk.
3. Dig underground
- A large potato (plain, with skin) delivers more protein—7.5 g—than a whole egg.
- A cup of plain baked sweet potato contains around 4 g of protein. Who can stop at a single cup?
- A cup of cooked beets contains nearly 3 g of protein.
4. Combine protein foods.
Below are some meal items that naturally complement each others’ proteins to help cover all the essential amino acids.
- Beans and rice
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Macaroni and cheese
- Hummus with pita bread
- Grilled cheese sandwich
- Yogurt with nuts
- Noodle stir-fry with peanut or sesame seed sauce
- Lentil soup with bread
- Whole grain cereal with milk
- Tacos or tortillas filled with beans
- Quinoa salad with black beans and feta
A Word on Vegetarianism
If you are vegetarian or just curious about it, you may wonder if you can get all your protein from plants. The answer is yes, as long as you eat a variety of plant-based proteins. It’s not complicated: At least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein. If you consume 2000 calories per day from plant sources, the total number of calories from protein equals 280. Divide 280 calories by 4 ( there are 4 calories per gram of protein) to find that this diet would supply 70 grams of protein—more than enough for the average man or woman.
Here’s a fun fact. As you may be aware, there are currently five food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins, dairy). But beans and peas (dry legumes) straddle two food groups! Though they usually count as vegetables, they may also qualify as proteins.
Generally, individuals who regularly eat meat, poultry, and fish would count beans and peas in the Vegetable Group. Vegetarians, vegans, and individuals who seldom eat meat, poultry, or fish would count some of the beans and peas they eat in the Protein Foods Group.
You can learn the protein (or any nutrient) content of any food by visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Composition Database. Most food-composition references you find in articles online or in print publications come from this massive resource. If you find one that seems out of line, check it against the USDA data.
Don’t fall for the marketing ploys of the companies who sell those highly manufactured products aimed at replicating the shapes and flavors of your favorite animal foods: faux cheeses, burgers, sausages. Head first for the plain, inexpensive, unprocessed whole plant foods, find some recipes online or elsewhere. Then work some kitchen magic with the tools you have and the seasonings you love to make them taste great.