It’s almost impossible to escape the buzz about the benefits of moving towards a more plant-based diet. A former president adopted a plant-based diet, lost weight, reversed his heart disease and re-gained his health. Famed NY Times food writer, Mark Bittman, adopted a plant-based diet, dropped 36 pounds and avoided a health disaster. Moving towards a more plant-based diet can have huge health benefits for us all (and the planet). So how do we get enough protein from plant sources?
A Guide to Plant-Based Protein Part I
The first question usually is, can you really get enough protein from plants? The answer is yes, but it is easier when you include some animal protein. You can get high quality, healthy protein from beans, grains, seeds, legumes, nuts, nutritional yeast, and even a little from fruits and vegetables. The best part is, you don’t have to go totally vegan. You can remain an omnivore and still gain benefits.
Why Plant-Based Protein?
First, plant-based protein is healthy for everyone. Second, plant-based protein is budget friendly, costing less than poultry, meat, or seafood. It’s more planet friendly as well. Need another reason? It’s healthy to mix up our protein sources. We can get a good amount of protein from plants. In fact, you may already enjoy many of these foods, not even realizing that they are providing you with healthy plant-based protein.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
The bare minimum daily recommended intake is approximately 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. A more personal way to figure your need is by multiplying your weight in pounds by .36 (or .8 grams per kilo). This number will tell you approximately how many grams a day your body needs. This varies with age, exercise levels and special health concerns (like pregnancy), but it’s a good starting point.
More current studies recommend higher amounts than the minimum, based upon your personal needs and health goals. Another way to look at it, protein should be between 10% – 20% of your diet.
While protein intake is a critical part of being healthy, some people eat more protein than needed in this country. One culprits is over-sized portions. Do you realize that a serving of protein is considered just 3-4 ounces?
I’ll use chicken as the example, as most of us eat a lot of chicken. A 6-ounce chicken breast has 60 grams of protein, and a 6-ounce steak logs in around 42 grams. Adequate protein is essential, but too much protein can lead to weight gain and health problems. As well, protein is the hardest macronutrient for our bodies to digest. If you're an athlete, building muscle, work out hard, etc. your protein requirements are way above these levels and you need to adjust.
Where to Get Plant-Based Protein
Canned beans are an excellent source of protein, and cheap, nutritious and healthy. Beans provide approximately 12-14 grams of protein in a cooked cup (260 grams), as well as healthy fiber. A versatile ingredient, beans can be made into soups, stews, dips, tossed into salads and pastas. Beans can be the star of a dish or a supporting player
Having canned beans in the pantry insures you can always have something healthy to eat on short notice. For canned beans, choose no salt added brands and rinse beans before using. Look for brands like Eden Organic. They have “no salt added” beans and package in BPA-free cans. Some companies package their beans in BPA-free cans but do not label them. A call to any company will provide the answer.
Dried beans are particularly budget friendly and are available in interesting varieties often not found in cans. The extra time it takes to cook them will reward you with rich tasting beans. Start by soaking dried beans overnight in cold water. The next morning, drain and start the cooking process, most of which is hands-off simmering time.
Forget to soak your beans overnight? No problem. I often use the quick soak method to get beans started, or use a pressure cooker to speed the process. For more information, read Cooking Beans 101 from Whole Foods. You can find dry beans in bulk at many grocers. Another great option, check out my favorite supplier of heirloom beans, Rancho Gordo.
Lentils (also called pulses) are a nutritionally powerful member of the legume family, offering important vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. Just 1 cup of cooked lentils provides approximately 18 grams of protein, making it a very high-protein, plant-based source. Lentils come in many colors from black to brown and green, red (really orange) or even black (Beluga lentils). Lentils cook more quickly than dried beans and can be enjoyed on their own or added to soups, stews, and salads like beans. Here is a link to the US Dry Pea & Lentil Council for recipes and information.
Whether you sprinkle them on salads, onto oatmeal, mix them into granola, sprinkle them over cooked vegetables, or mix a bit into pasta for a nice crunch, nuts can add protein to your diet. I snack on raw almonds every day.
Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of almonds or pistachios provides 6 grams of protein. Cashews, 5 grams per ounce (28 grams). For walnuts and pine nuts, 4 grams per ounce. For pecans, 3 grams per ounce. Nuts are also high in fat. Yes, it’s a healthy fat, but you still may need to be careful and balance how much you consume in your overall diet.
Many of these nuts come as delicious nut butters, like almond butter. Almond butter makes for a good afternoon snack when paired with apples or vegetables. While 2 tablespoons of almond butter provides 7 grams of protein, it’s also high in fat, so watch how much you consume.
Fruits and Vegetables
Vegetables contain some protein, about 1-2 grams in each ½ cup serving. And they are packed with micronutrients and healthy fiber. For example, spinach, asparagus and broccoli have between 4-5 grams of protein per cup.
While we don’t usually think of fruit as having protein, some do have a small amount. An avocado provides 4 grams of protein plus all essential amino acids making it a complete protein. And avocados are also an excellent source of heart and brain-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. A cup of cherries has about 3 grams of protein. Some lists include dried fruit like apricots or plums. The issue with dried fruit is the high sugar content.
Finish reading Guide to Plant-Based Protein, Part 2. There I discuss grains, seeds, soy and super-green powders.
How Much Protein Do I Need, Harvard School of Public Health
How to get started with plant-based proteins, from MindBodyGreen