Protein in Plant Based Diets – Part II

More and more people are becoming interested in following vegetarian or vegan diets, or reducing their consumption of animals and their products. I addressed the reasons for the shift as well as some of the many benefits of becoming more plant-based in  previous newsletter/blog.  You can see it right here.

While moving away from animal products may sound like a good idea, the practicalities of doing so sometimes seem problematic, when they need not. Protein, though it occurs plentifully in animal products, is also highly accessible in plants of literally all kinds. All plants contain protein. By eating a wide variety of them, there is very little possibility of not getting enough protein. More than a few experts in the field of nutrition have noted that there is virtually no protein shortage in this country, even without consuming meat, eggs, and dairy.

Even in their dietary guidelines, the U.S Department of Agriculture and the U.S Department affirm that all the body’s nutritional needs, including protein, can be met through a plant-based diet, from infancy through adulthood, including the years of childbearing and nursing.

There is debate about whether the concern is not that we are not getting enough protein, but that we might, in fact, be consuming too much protein, to the exclusion of many other nutrients and phytonutrients that occur abundantly in plants.

Plant-based foods can be excellent sources of protein and other nutrient, usually with fewer calories that animal products.

Some plant products, such as soy beans and quinoa, are complete proteins, which means that they contain all nine essential amino acids that humans need (and from which the proteins are actually formed.) Others are missing some of these building blocks of protein, which makes it important to eat a wide variety of plants. (This is a good practice for several other reasons as well – a subject for another day.)

Here, then, is a sampling of plant sources that are particularly rich in protein.

Soy Beans and their products – 8.5-15 grams/1/2 cup.

Edamame, tofu, and tempeh are among the richest sources of plant-based protein and contain between 8.5 and 15 grams of protein per ½ cup. Tempeh is made from fermented whole soybeans and provides iron, calcium, and B vitamins. Because it’s fermented the nutrients are better absorbed from tempeh than they are from tofu. It also contains prebiotic fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our gut, which improves gut health and reduces inflammation in the body.

Lentils – 16 grams/1/2 cup.

Both red or green varieties, also contain iron and potassium. They can be added to stews, curries, salad, and soups to boost the protein content of the dish. The soluble fiber they contain facilitate a healthy gut and my lower total and total cholesterol. They are also iron-rich.

Beans – 12-15 grams/cup

There are many beans to enjoy, and all with different nutrient profiles Among them are black beans, mung beans, pinto beans, and garbanzo beans (chick peas). They are also fiber-dense, and are good sources of B vitamins (including folic acid – especially crucial in pregnancy. They also contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants associated with protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases.

Seeds – Chia, Flax, Hemp, Chia – 2-5 grams/ Tablespoon

These three seeds are close in their nutrient profiles. They all contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants to combat free radical damage that can lead to disease.

Flax seeds have the highest level of omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) of all plant foods. They help balance estrogen levels, alleviate menopausal symptoms and appear to offer prostate-cancer protection.  Additionally, in patients with coronary artery disease, they have been found to improve triglyceride levels and blood pressure. All of these seeds can be added liberally to any dish. I regularly put one of them in green smoothies, rotating them during the week to reap all the benefits available of each.

Pumpkin Seeds – 10 grams per ¼ cup

These tasty seeds contain health-promoting omega-e fatty acids associated with maintaining a healthy heart. They also deliver a healthy dose of fiber, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, and other nutrients, and have been shown in studies to boost testosterone levels in men. They are a nice component of homemade trail mix, and a great addition to salads. (Sunflower seeds are also a good source of protein, as well as other valuable minerals and fiber.)

Nuts: Walnuts, almonds, peanuts (technically a legume), and others – 4-10 grams per ½ cup

Like seeds, nuts are protein and healthy-fat- dense. Walnuts contain a significant amount of ALA (see flax seeds above), which benefits the heart and brain. They boast more antioxidant power than other nuts, helping to protect the body from free radical function. Walnuts have even been shown to improve cognitive function. Almonds are rich sources of minerals (calcium, magnesium, selenium, and potassium,  as well as folic acid and Vitamin E.

Nutritional Yeast – 5 grams per Tablespoon

This vegan stand-in for cheese is a member of the fungi family that’s rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B12, which is important to note, as this vitamin is rare among vegetables. The cows who turn into meat, wherein vitamin B12 is plentiful, get their portion of it from the soil from the grass they eat. (Some authors who write about food and nutrition observe that we wouldn’t fret so much about vitamin B12 if we just ate a little more dirt and leave the cows alone.)

Spirulina – 4 grams per Tablespoon

Beyond its generous protein content, spirulina (aka blue-green algae) is rich in iron and other minerals as vitamins, antioxidants, and gamma-linoleic acid, (another beneficial fatty acid. It is a wonderful source of vitamin B12, which is particularly important for vegans and vegetarians.

Eating a variety of fresh, whole, preferably raw foods is almost a complete assurance of meeting all your protein needs.

Broccoli is 20% protein, peas are 23%, asparagus is 27%, and spinach is 30%, just to name a few of them. The protein found in a plant-based diet is beyond almost everyone’s daily needs and is of the highest quality. Enjoy

For more about protein in plant-based eating, click here    

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