If you make healthy changes to your eating pattern by eating less meat and more plant-based, you may wonder whether you are getting enough protein. Or maybe you worry that the protein in plants is inferior to that in animal foods.
Depending on what foods you trade in for animal foods, you may not meet your daily protein quota.
The good news: There are plenty of plant-based foods — besides the obvious tofu and lentils — that can support your daily protein intake. The protein content of some may surprise you.
How much protein?
Dietary proteins provide amino acids, building blocks for muscles, bones, skin, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, enzymes and thousands of other body components.
As such, a diet with adequate protein supports immune function, muscle building and repair, bone and joint health, digestion and wound healing, along with many other processes.
Sedentary people need 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For example, an inactive 75 kg person needs 60 g of protein daily.
Adults aged 65 and over are advised to consume more protein every day – at least 1.0 to 1.2 g per kilogram of body weight – to maintain muscle mass and function
Regular exercise, regardless of age, increases the daily protein requirement to 1.2 to 2 g per kilogram of body weight, depending on the type of exercise.
Animal vs vegetable protein
Plant protein is absorbed less efficiently than animal protein, in part due to the indigestible fiber in plant foods. But the difference is considered insignificant, as the North American diet typically contains more protein than necessary.
Animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids, which the body cannot produce itself. Vegetable proteins lack one or more essential amino acids. Whole soy products (e.g. soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh) and pea protein are exceptions; these protein-rich plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids.
Even if you eat an entirely plant-based diet, you can get all the essential amino acids your body needs by consuming a variety of plant-based protein foods every day.
Get more protein from plants
Diversify your protein intake with the following plant-based foods; they are also exceptional sources of other nutrients.
Beans and lentils are nutritious (and cheap) protein substitutes for animal proteins. For example, a cup of black beans and pinto beans each provides 15 g of protein, along with 15 g of fiber and plenty of folate, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Pastas made from black beans, lentils, chickpeas and edamame are other ways to add satiating plant protein to your diet. Explore Cuisine’s Black Bean Spaghetti serves, per 85 g dry (about 1.5 cups cooked), 39 g protein; the same amount of Chickapea Organic Penne (made from chickpeas and lentils) provides 20g of protein.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts are an easy way to add protein to meals and snacks. A quarter cup of almonds contains 7.5 g of protein; an equivalent serving of pistachios provides 6 g.
Seeds, also offer a decent protein hit. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contains 10 g of protein, not to mention a hefty amount of magnesium (191 mg); women need 310-320 mg of magnesium daily, men 400-420 mg.
Two tablespoons of hemp and chia seeds each provide 6 g of protein along with calcium (chia seeds have 132 mg per two tablespoons), magnesium, iron and zinc. Toss hemp or chia seeds into salads, sprinkle on avocado toast, stir into yogurt, add to oatmeal or blend into smoothies.
While it’s not typically considered a “plant-based protein food,” it certainly is whole grain add a surprising amount of protein to meals. A cup of cooked freekeh provides 12 g of protein, while a cup of cooked quinoa and farro provide 8 g each.
Teff, a gluten-free whole grain, provides 10 g of protein per cooked cup; it is also a good source of fiber, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. Add it to casseroles and pilafs, toss cooked teff into salads, or serve it as porridge.
Don’t discount veggies when it comes to protein. Most contain 3 to 4 g of protein per cup. However, green peas provide 8 g of protein per cup. A cup of cooked spinach has 5.5 g.
Soy milk and pea milk have the protein equivalent of cow’s milk (8 g per cup). Non-dairy yogurt and cheese are usually low in protein.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian, is director of nutrition and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD