by Dr. Will Cole
Everybody knows that vegetables are good for your health. Plants are nutrient-dense powerhouses that contain many different compounds (from antioxidants to zinc) that are essential for your body to function optimally. Plants can regulate digestion, boost immunity, increase detoxification, and even help lower cancer risk.
But if you eat a plant-based diet – especially a 100% plant-based diet – I bet I can guess the question you get more than any other: “Where do you get your protein?” This isn’t just idle curiosity – one of the biggest concerns I hear in my functional medicine practice is whether or not a person can get an adequate amount of protein if they eat mostly plant foods. But contrary to what society has said, the reality is that many plants have more protein than you might think, and we actually need less protein than we have been taught.
For decades, most people in our society have been led to believe that we need glucose for fuel and that fat was worse than sugar. This false belief has caused a meteoric rise in metabolic and other health problems and the ever-increasing addition of sugar into our food supply – even in foods that you’d least expect. Only recently has the news begun to spread that sugar is inflammatory and is not the most efficient source of energy. However, even when you starve your body of glucose (think “high protein/low carb diets”), if you are eating too much protein, your body will convert that to glucose as well. Protein is not the answer to managing blood sugar and metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity. In fact, it’s important to moderate your protein intake. Fat is the real hero and most efficient energy source, not protein. This is the whole idea behind the popular ketogenic diet, which focuses on a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb ratio of macronutrients.
But we all need some protein to help build and repair muscles and skin, and to help manufacture things like hormones and enzymes. So how much is enough? Typically, I recommend anywhere between 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight, or the amount of weight on your body that isn’t fat, each day. (Want to calculate yours? Here’s an easy online tool.) Every person’s ideal protein intake will vary based on age, weight, sex, and activity level, but this is a good rule of thumb to start with, especially if you are making sure to get enough satiating healthy fats into your diet as well.
If that number still seems a little high without the help of animal protein (which contains more protein per serving than most vegetables), don’t worry. You can get all the protein you need from plants alone. If you focus on clean plant protein, those grams of protein will add up very quickly!
There are plenty of clean, protein-rich plant foods to choose from, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or just looking to limit your meat intake. By focusing on a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and seeds, you will not only be getting adequate protein, but you’ll be ensuring you are getting a wide variety of essential nutrients as well – because plants are full of them!
Some of my favorite lesser-known plant-based sources of complete protein include these plant-based protein sources, that not only provide an excellent amount of protein per serving, but are also easy to incorporate into your everyday meals as an addition to smoothies, on top of salads or other dishes, or alone as a snack:
- Hempeh (tempeh made from hemp seeds): 22 grams protein per 4 ounces hempeh
- Natto (organic non-GMO): 31 grams protein per 1 cup natto
- Tempeh (organic non-GMO): 31 grams protein per 1 cup tempeh
- Hemp protein powder: 12 grams protein per 4 tablespoons powder
- Hemp hearts/seeds: 40 grams protein per 1 cup hemp
- Nutritional yeast: 5 grams protein per 1 tablespoon yeast
- Sacha inchi seed protein powder: 24 grams protein per 4 tablespoons powder
- Spirulina: 4 grams protein per 1 tablespoon spirulina
I especially love hemp protein, hemp hearts, sacha inchi powder, and spirulina in smoothies, and nutritional yeast gives dishes a great cheese-like flavor.
But there’s more to the protein/plant story. You may remember that old concept of “protein combining” or pairing to get a “complete protein,” which means you get all nine essential amino acids. Most of the foods that have all nine in one are meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood, so for plant-based diets, the idea was that each meal had to include all essential amino acids in some combination. Even though most plant foods don’t contain all nine essential amino acids, they are all represented in certain plant foods, But getting a complete protein at every meal meant complicated regimens combining certain foods with some of the right amino acids with others that filled out the picture. Now we know that this isn’t necessary.
We don’t need to get all our amino acids at the same time. We can get them throughout the day, at various meals. Stomachs don’t divide our meals into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We chew, swallow, and digest our meals, digesting and absorbing nutrients, all day long. What matters is the tally at the end of the day. Just be sure to eat a wide variety of veggies along with some of the above complete protein sources, and you’ll get there. As long as you get all the essential amino acids on a regular basis (not necessarily at every meal), your protein intake will be “complete.”
So what other foods have different combinations of amino acids? These are some of my favorite plant protein options. Focus on getting a variety of these to get complete protein every day:
- Almond butter: 6 grams protein per ¼ cup butter
- Almonds: 12 grams protein per ½ cup almonds
- Artichokes: 4 grams protein per ½ cup artichokes
- Asparagus: 2.9 grams protein per 1 cup asparagus
- Avocado: 2 grams protein per ½ avocado
- Brazil nuts: 4 grams protein per 6 nuts
- Broccoli: 2 grams protein per ½ cup cooked broccoli
- Brussels sprouts: 2 grams protein per ½ cup sprouts
- Chia seeds: 2 grams protein per 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- Flaxseed: 2 grams protein per 1 tablespoon flaxseeds
- Green peas: 9 grams protein per 1 cup cooked peas
- Maca powder: 3 grams protein per 1 tablespoon maca
- Spinach: 3 grams protein per ½ cup cooked spinach
- Walnuts: 10 grams protein per ½ cup walnuts
These are just a few examples from the plant kingdom, but most plants contain at least some protein, so go for variety, diversity, and be daring. Try new plant foods you’ve never tried before. There are so many ways to prepare plant foods and combine them with other plant foods in interesting ways that you’ll surely be getting all the macronutrients your body needs to thrive – carbohydrates, fat, and protein – all while enjoying delicious meals every day.
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