Plant-Based High Protein FoodsJessica Malone
Plant-Based High Protein Foods
It’s a popular belief that plant-based foods cannot also be high protein foods, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Traditional food marketing and the animal agriculture industry would like us all to believe that we cannot consume enough protein via plant-based foods alone. However, the truth is that we can!
Even substituting just a few meals of animal protein for plant-based sources will provide you with numerous health benefits.
The Importance of Protein
Before we dive into highlighting the different plant-based, high protein foods, it’s important to understand what a protein is. A protein itself is composed of a unique strand of amino acid molecules that allow it to perform specific roles within the body.
We hear most often that proteins are the building blocks for muscle tissue. This is true, but proteins are also the constituents of all types of body tissue. In fact, protein falls second only to water in the total composition of the human body, and apart from tissue structure, proteins are also vital because they serve as the “work horse” for all physiologic processes in the body. Proteins make up enzymes, antibodies, and even hormones, so all of the chemical reactions necessary for sustaining life could not happen without protein.
This means that we need to consume adequate protein every day to keep up with the base requirement of protein utilized throughout the body. Because everyone’s protein requirements are unique to their age, sex, height, activity level, and even health status, protein recommendations can be somewhat confusing to follow.
For the average adult, it is widely recognized as sufficient to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.1 Which means that a 62 kilogram person should aim to consume around 50 grams of protein per day to meet their protein needs. This amount of protein is best divided throughout the meals consumed in the day, and should change in accordance to age, activity level, and health status. The goal is to maintain a positive protein balance, or ratio of consumed protein versus utilized protein, within the body.
It’s true that proteins are also synthesized in the body using available amino acid molecules. There are eleven amino acids that can be synthesized readily in the body, but another nine amino acids cannot. These nine are referred to as essential amino acids and they must be obtained through the different proteins found in food.
All food types will contain a unique combination of the twenty amino acids. Animal based proteins, as well as soy, quinoa, and some seeds contain a full complement of the essential amino acids. These are referred to as complete proteins.
It’s important to note that just because a protein source doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids, this does not make it an inferior protein. Moreover, consuming a wide variety of protein sources will ensure that you obtain all the amino acids your body requires for protein synthesis. In fact, it has been well studied that combining different types of plant-based, high protein foods will amount to adequate consumption of all essential amino acids.
For example, most grains are low in the amino acid lysine, but high in methionine. Most legumes tend to be the opposite of this amino acid profile, and thus, the combination of grains and legumes will provide sufficient amounts of these essential amino acids.
What Plant-based Foods are High Protein Foods?
Plants are composed of their own protein for many of the same reasons we are. You might be surprised to know that you are consuming protein from the various fruits, vegetables, and even leafy greens in your diet. However, some categories of plants are known to contain higher amounts of protein per serving. In order to consume adequate amounts of protein from plants alone, it will be key to focus on the following categories.
Whole grains include oats, brown rice, teff, kamut, bulgar, farro, etc., and pseudo-grains include quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth. For reference, 1 cup of cooked kamut has approximately 9.8 grams of protein, while cooked quinoa has about 8.1 grams.
Legumes include beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts. For reference, 1 cup of cooked lentils has about 17.9 grams of protein, while chickpeas contain about 14.5 grams of protein per cup.
Soybeans are technically a legume, but contain the highest amount of protein per serving of whole plant-based proteins. The whole, unrefined soy product would constitute soybeans (or edamame), but other soy products include tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. For reference, 1 cup of boiled soybeans contains around 29 grams of protein, while a ½ block of firm tofu contains around 15 grams of protein.
4.Nuts and Seeds
Nuts include almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia, etc., while seeds include sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, hemp, and chia. For reference, 100 grams of almonds contains about 21.2 grams of protein, and 30 grams of hemp seeds contains approximately 10 grams of protein.
Alternative or imitation meats serve to replace just about any kind of animal meat you can think of. They are largely made out of wheat, soy, pea, other isolates, or a combination of these plant-based proteins. These products are generally well-liked for their convenience and high protein content; however, they are highly processed products and should therefore be consumed in moderation. Protein ranges vary by individual product.
The Benefits of Eating Plant-based
Well-balanced plant-based diets have demonstrated great benefit to overall health and longevity. There is good evidence that plant-based diets are beneficial for and preventative to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers.3 However, it isn’t necessary to adopt an exclusively plant-based diet to receive benefit. Substituting a few animal-based proteins for plant-based high protein foods throughout your week will provide you with more fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and unsaturated fats.
These nutrients are key in helping to reduce body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1c, and other comorbidities, and they help in cutting back on the excess saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal-based protein.
How to Make Plant-based Switches in your Diet
With plentiful evidence in favor of consuming less animal-based protein and more plant-based high protein foods, it isn’t ignorance that stops most people from doing so. The greatest barrier to making the switch is knowing what to prepare.
Most of us develop taste preferences and eating habits throughout our lifetime, which can make it difficult to want to try new foods, cuisines, or flavors, but the good news is that making plant-based meal swaps doesn’t have to be daunting at all! Many of your favorite dishes can still be enjoyed with the substitution of the above mentioned high protein, plant-based options. Beans, grains, soy, or even imitation meats may be used in replacement of the meat in the original dish.
Or, you may choose to start building entirely new plant-based meals all on your own. A great way to start is by cooking legumes along with other vegetables and serving them alongside a whole grain. A great example would be boiled chickpeas in curry sauce with rice, served with veggies.
There are so many delicious ways to make plant-based protein additions or substitutions to your meals. The only wrong way would be to avoid doing so at all!
By: Jessica Malone, MS, CN
* All nutritional reference ranges come from FoodData Central, the United States Department of Agriculture’s national food reference tool.
- Nancy R Rodriguez, Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 101, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 1317S–1319S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.083980
- Gorissen, S.H.M., Crombag, J.J.R., Senden, J.M.G. et al. Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino Acids 50, 1685–1695 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-018-2640-5
- Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61-66. doi:10.7812/TPP/12-085