Here is part 2 of A Guide to Plant-Based Protein. If you missed part one, you can read it here. In part 1, the plant-based proteins listed were mostly incomplete proteins. In part 2, I’ll cover grains, seeds, soy and super-green algae. More of these sources are considered complete proteins, as they contain all “essential” amino acids.
Protein – Complete or Incomplete?
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Think of them like the legos of life. There are 20 amino acids that we need in our diet. Our bodies use these amino acids to create thousands of proteins that we need to function. If a food has all of the amino acids, it’s a complete protein. If it does not, it’s an incomplete protein.
Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are termed “essential”. Think of them as essential to get through our diet as our bodies cannot create them. The other 11 amino acids can be created or synthesized by our bodies.
While all animal proteins are complete, many plant-based proteins are not. But when combined with other foods they become complete. You don’t have to worry about eating “complimentary” proteins at the same meal. As long as you get them in the same day, you’ll be fine. Your body will do the combining.
Sources of Plant-Based Protein
Grains can add a significant amount of protein to our diet. Just 1/4 cup (44 grams) of steel cut oats has 7 grams of protein. If you eat wheat, whole wheat pasta has from 4-7 grams of protein per 2 ounce (56 gram) serving. Read labels as you grocery shop to understand protein levels. For help determining quantities for cooking, a digital kitchen scale is a smart and inexpensive investment to weigh portions. One note, grains like wheat, barley and rye contain gluten, so some grains may not be a good choice for people who need or choose to follow a gluten-free diet.
Try this recipe for easy steel cut oats and add hemp seeds for more protein.
While we may think of these as grains, they are really seeds that provide quality plant-based protein. Once cooked, these “grains” will keep the better part of a week refrigerated. Make extra that you can use in a variety of dishes. That helps to reduce your time in the kitchen. Another note, many of these “grains” also come ground as gluten-free flours.
- Quinoa- Native to South American as the ancient “mother grain” of the Inca Indians, quinoa provides from 6-8 grams of protein in a dry 1/4 cup (44 grams). It’s also a great source of iron, fiber, and magnesium. Quinoa is also a complete protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. One of my favorite ingredients, quinoa has a delightful, nutty flavor and is gluten-free. Think of quinoa as you would rice. For more information, read my post on How to Cook Quinoa, then try quinoa tabouleh salad, quinoa stuffed peppers, or green quinoa salad with spinach dressing
- Amaranth – Called the super grain of the Aztecs, tiny amaranth is a gluten-free complete protein and good source of key minerals. It has an earthy, nutty flavor that works as a side dish for dinner and even for breakfast as a cooked cereal. Think of it as you would rice.
- Millet – A tiny seed that hails from ancient Asia, millet has a mildly sweet and nutty flavor. As the other seeds we’ve mentioned, it is gluten-free, a complete protein source, and very healthy. Millet looks like birdseed.
- Buckwheat – With a misleading name, buckwheat is not wheat at all, but a seed from the fruit family. Buckwheat comes toasted, called kasha, and untoasted, known as kernels or groats. A 1/4 cup of dry buckwheat groats provide 6 grams of protein. Toasted buckwheat has a strong, nutty flavor. The plain version has a milder flavor. Buckwheat can be cooked like rice for salads, side dishes and as a breakfast cereal. It also comes in flour form and makes great pancakes and baked goods.
- Hemp – Hemp is an excellent source of plant-based protein with a nice nutty flavor. Hemp seeds contain all of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Hemp also provides important minerals, fiber, and is high in omega fatty acids. Hemp provides approximately 5-8 grams of protein in just 2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 28 grams). Hemp seeds can be added to smoothies or salads, and is terrific added to oatmeal, buckwheat or granola for breakfast. Hemp also comes in powder form, which can be added to smoothies and shakes as a protein powder.
- Chia –While not as high in protein when compared to other plant-based sources, chia seeds do offer a big nutritional boost plus lots of fiber and calcium. Plus, they are a complete protein. Chia seeds have no flavor, so they can be added to many dishes without changing the taste, and their nutrition is readily absorbed by our bodies. Chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein per 1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 28 grams). Add chia seeds to oatmeal or smoothies. And because they absorb liquid (thicken), they can be used to make treats like pudding. Chia comes in whole, tiny seeds and powdered form.
While soy is a complete protein, like many foods in the science of nutrition, it is a controversial ingredient. Advice varies on how much is healthy to consume, if at all. Many people are allergic to soy or avoid it for other health reasons. An additional note, soy is one of the top GMO (genetically modified) crops in the US. Whenever you purchase soy, be sure it is organic.
- Edamame (soybeans) – Most of us are familiar with the delicious little green pods served warm as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants. Edmame are good added to soups, salads, or enjoyed as a snack. A half cup of shelled edamame provides 13 grams of protein. They are available fresh and frozen, which make them easy to keep on hand.
- Tofu – Made from soybeans, tofu is good source of complete plant-based protein. A 3-ounce (85 gram) serving of tofu will provide approximately 9 grams of protein. Think of tofu like vegetarian chicken. It can be marinated, sautéed, grilled, scrambled, cooked with vegetables or stir-fried. At the store you will find different levels of firmness from silken tofu to extra firm. Silken forms can be pureed into a smooth, sauce-like consistency. Firm versions can be used more like chicken. Tofu has a fairly neutral flavor, so it will pick up any flavor that you add to it.
- Tempeh -The fermented cousin of tofu, tempeh provides 18-24 grams of protein in a 4-ounce serving. Tempeh can be served as a veggie burger, as meatballs in pasta, or with brown rice and vegetables. Find it in the market refrigerated section alongside tofu.
While it might not sound too appetizing, nutritional yeast has a pleasant, cheesy, savory, nutty kind of taste. Popular in the vegan community for its nutritional properties, nutritional yeast is sometimes referred to as “nooch”, savory yeast flakes in Australia, Brufax in New Zealand and by other global names. It’s not only dairy-free, but gluten-free, and a terrific add to everyones diet. Just two tablespoons has between6-8 grams of complete protein. For more information, read the post I wrote all about nutritional yeast. What to do with it?
- Toss it with warm popcorn
- Sprinkle over salads
- Stir into warm grains like quinoa or brown rice
- Sprinkle it over steamed, roasted or grilled vegetables instead of Parmesan
- Use it in pestos and sauces
- Stir it into warm polenta for cheesy polenta or grits
- Add it to dips
- Sprinkle on soups for garnish
Super-Green Powders (Algae)
Lastly, I wanted to mention super-green powders. These powdered forms of algae are really more of a supplement than a food, but I wanted to share this so you can explore on your own. I was surprised to see that 1 tablespoon of the chlorella I use has 6 grams of protein, and spirulina has 4 grams per tablespoon. If you are adding these to a smoothie, you are getting additional plant-based protein. Food for thought!
Before you make any changes to your diet, do some research on your own and talk to a doctor that understands nutrition if you have questions or concerns.