Updated: Jul 13
The best sources of plant-based protein are also economical
If you’re making room for more plants on your plate, you may have wondered about the best sources of plant-based protein. And if you haven’t, just tell someone you’re thinking about a plant-based (or vegan) diet and the first thing they’ll ask is, "But where will you get your protein?"!
Since the topic is one that people ponder so often, I thought it would be helpful to share a little bit about what protein actually is and then provide information on some of the best sources of plant-based protein.
What is Protein?
Protein is a group of molecules that do all kinds of necessary jobs in your body. They make up your hair, nails, bones, and muscles. Protein is required for your organs to work properly. Because proteins are constantly being broken down and replaced, our bodies need to build proteins all the time. Amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins. In total, there are 20 different amino acids your body uses to make up different proteins. Our body makes 11 of them. The other 9 which are not produced by our bodies are called “essential” amino acids, as in, it’s essential that we get these from outside sources–namely, the food we eat.
Complete or Incomplete Protein – What Exactly Does It Mean?
A complete protein food source is one that provides all of the nine essential amino acids that your body can’t produce on its own. Animal-based foods, for example, meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese are considered complete protein sources because they have all 9 amino acids which is why many people believe you need them to meet your protein requirements. But plants have protein, too! Many plant-based foods also contain all 9 essential amino acids and other plant-based foods contain some of these amino acids in varying amounts. Your body is smart! It stores the amino acids it consumes until it has the right ones in the right amounts to create the various proteins it needs. So it’s not necessary to consume meat or animal products to meet your protein needs.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
We have become a nation obsessed with protein. Even as more and more people are turning to plant-based and vegan diets, protein deficiency is almost unheard of in the U.S., according to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. In fact, our protein needs are far less than many people believe. And too much protein can be dangerous. According to the National Institutes of Health, extra protein is not used efficiently by the body and may impose a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. The source of protein is important, too. A study by the University of Eastern Finland as reported in Healthline says that high-protein diets that rely on animal sources, like meat and dairy, may also be associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease and cancer as compared to diets that use plant-based sources.
In general, it’s recommended that 10–35% of your daily calories come from protein. The average person can multiply body weight in pounds by 0.36 to determine the number of grams per day to meet the recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein. For a 50-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds woman and who is sedentary (doesn't exercise), that translates into 53 grams of protein a day.
When thinking about protein, the question we want to ask ourselves in terms of how we might want to consider research and recommendations on the choices we make is, "If protein is necessary to live, which sources lower the risk of premature death?" In the case for modernizing the definition of protein quality, Dr. Michael Greger, founder of NutritionFacts.org and author of the best-selling book "How Not to Die" says:
"And in 2016, a landmark study was published out of Harvard, involving more than 100,000 men and women, that found that replacing animal protein with plant protein was associated with a lower risk of dying prematurely. The worst seemed to be processed meat like bacon, as well as egg protein (the egg whites), but swapping in even just 3 percent plant protein for any of the animal proteins: processed meat, unprocessed meat, chicken, fish, eggs, or dairy was associated with a significantly lower risk of arguably the most important endpoint of all, death."
So What Are the Some of the Best Sources of Plant-Based Protein?
Legumes, Beans, & Pulses
This versatile and economical food group contains a more complete set of amino acids than other plant-based foods. Legumes are the umbrella under which we find beans, peas, and pulses. Soybeans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, and beans are all part of the legume family. This family of foods in general, is high in iron, B vitamins, and fiber. Lentils are among the legumes with the highest protein content, with 18 grams in one cup. On average, most beans contain about 9-15 grams per cup.
While soybeans are in the legume family, they’re worth mentioning separately because they contain all 9 essential amino acids. One serving has roughly 20 grams of protein. Baby soybeans, known as edamame, can be purchased frozen and can be added to dishes like soups, stir-fries, and noodles. Tempeh and tofu are made from soybeans and are incredibly versatile. Consider both of these foods as blank slates ready to pick up whatever flavors you choose. Soy is often misunderstood and as a result, it’s a much-debated topic today but there is plenty of scientific evidence to support the fact that soy offers a wide array of health benefits.
From Harvard School of Public Health: “Soy is a unique food that is widely studied for its estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects on the body. Studies may seem to present conflicting conclusions about soy, but this is largely due to the wide variation in how soy is studied. Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and probably more often, and is likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Grains, especially whole grains, are an excellent source of nutrition, as they contain essential enzymes, iron, dietary fiber, vitamin E, and B-complex vitamins. Because the body absorbs whole grains slowly, they can provide sustained and high-quality energy. Quinoa (which is technically a seed but is prepared like a grain), a complete protein source with all 9 amino acids, is versatile and super easy to make. It contains about 9 grams of protein per half-cup serving. Other popular whole grains are oats, barley, brown rice, millet, farro, wheat, spelt, and rye.
Greens are one of the most important categories of food you can eat! While they are not generally considered a high-protein food, they do contain varying amounts, and nutritionally, greens are good sources of calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. They’ve got fiber, folic acid, chlorophyll and many other micro-nutrients and phytochemicals (healthy plant chemicals). Greens like collards, bok choy, arugula, kale, and spinach are great greens to explore. Eat them stir-fried, steamed, sautéed, or raw.
As this planet’s singularly most nutritious food, sea vegetables contain protein and all of the minerals needed for health. With 10 to 20 times the minerals of land plants, plus the added punch of a range of vitamins, the addition of sea vegetables to your diet will help meet your nutritional needs. Spirulina, for example, contains 8 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons: Add it to your morning smoothie for an extra boost.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are also a great source of protein. A ¼-cup serving of almonds provides 8 grams of protein, ¼ cup of cashews provides 5 grams of protein, and ¼ cup of sunflower seeds provides 6 grams of protein. Tender little hemp seeds, which contain all essential amino acids, can be sprinkled on salads or in smoothies for a boost of protein–they contain 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons. In addition to being a source of plant protein, regular consumption of nuts also helps to lower blood cholesterol.
While the foods above provide important and healthy sources of protein, realize also, that most fruits and vegetables also contain protein in varying amounts. Peas, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, Brussels sprouts, and mushrooms are all good sources to include in your diet. Protein powders and drinks, protein bars, and other highly processed foods are less preferable than whole-food protein sources. A whole food approach to eating means that food is consumed as close as possible to how it's found in nature. Processed sources of protein strip away the other beneficial nutrients and often add chemicals, preservatives, and sugars.
Feel confident that a well-balanced diet made up of plant-based whole foods will not only provide all the protein you need but will support your overall health and wellness in amazing ways. And let's not forget that the best sources of plant-based protein are kinder to animals and the planet!