Over the past couple of years, more people have become interested in adopting a plant-based diet – for either health, animal welfare or personal reasons. A plant-based diet does not necessarily exclude all animal products – it simply makes plant-based foods (such as vegetables, grains, legumes and fruit) the foundation.
Many individuals however decide to adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Vegan diets exclude all animal products, including dairy, eggs and even honey (as it is made by bees). Vegetarian diets may still include dairy and/or eggs.
A vegetarian diet can meet the nutritional requirements of most individuals, including pregnant and breast-feeding women. Vegan diets can also provide adequate nutrition, provided they are well-planned and include a variety of sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, particularly Vitamin B12, iron and calcium.
Most foods, except fruit and oil, contain some amount of protein – although some foods are certainly better sources of protein than others. In an omnivorous diet (one that includes animal and plant foods), animal foods such as eggs, dairy, poultry, seafood, and meat tend to provide high-quality, complete sources of protein. In nutrition terms, a high-quality and/or complete protein means that it provides all nine essential amino acids, and is easily digested and assimilated into body proteins. (Essential amino acids must be obtained through the diet, as the body cannot manufacture them)
Plant foods, such as legumes, grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds also contain varying amounts of protein. However, most, with the exception of soy, are incomplete proteins, in that they lack one or more essential amino acids. An individual who is vegetarian or vegan can still obtain all nine essential amino acids through their diet, by including a variety of plant foods, and consuming adequate grains and legumes (which provide complementary amino acids – i.e. grains contain the essential amino acids that are missing in legumes and vice versa).
Soy is the exception, in that is considered a complete protein (it provides all nine essential amino acids) – however, it is not as easily digested and assimilated into body proteins when compared to animal proteins.
With that being said, several plant-based foods are good sources of protein for individuals who are vegan or vegetarian. Aside from plant-based protein powders, the following 10 vegetarian foods are good sources of protein.
Soy (Edamame, Tofu or Tempeh)
Soybeans as noted above, are a complete protein and provide all nine essential amino acids. Soy products include:
• Soy milk
• Tofu and tempeh can be substituted for meat in many dishes as they take on the flavor of any seasonings, sauces and marinades that are used.
Lentils are part of the legume family, which also includes peanuts and beans. Lentils are a staple part of many traditional and ethnic cuisines and are also a great source of iron, B vitamins and fiber. Animal protein, in comparison, do not contain any fiber.
There are many varieties of lentils – red, green, black, yellow, and all have a relatively similar nutritional profile. A ¼ cup of dry lentils provides ~ 13g protein, and 7g of fiber. Lentils and beans may be soaked prior to cooking to remove phytates (which can bind to minerals like iron and calcium), and render them more easily digestible.
Beans and Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)
Beans and chickpeas, all part of the legume family, are also great sources of protein, iron, B vitamins and fiber. A ½ cup of cooked beans provides approximately 7 – 8g of protein, and 19g carbohydrate of which 6g is fiber. Like lentils, beans may be soaked prior to cooking to render them more digestible. If soaking and cooking dried beans seems like too much of a hassle, canned beans, that are already cooked can be a great option – just remember to rinse off any sodium.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews and pistachios, and seeds such as sunflower seeds all provide some protein –albeit it less than the caloric equivalent in animal foods. A ¼ cup of nuts and seeds provides ~ 6 – 8g protein for 160-200 calories and 14 – 17g fat.
Hemp Seeds and Chia Seeds
Both hemp and chia seeds have gained popularity over the last few years due to their incredible nutritional content. Two tablespoons of hemp seeds provide ~ 10g of protein for 120 calories. One tablespoon of chia seeds provides ~ 2g protein for 60 calories. Both are also great sources of fiber and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
Nutritional yeast is a popular vegan cheese substitute which also boasts 5g of protein per tablespoon, for 35 calories. That same amount also provides 470% of the daily requirement for Vitamin B12!
High Protein Grains: Quinoa
Several pseudo-grains such as quinoa and teff provide more protein than their more common counterparts rice and corn. A cup of cooked quinoa (which is actually a seed versus a grain) provides 8 grams of protein. A cup of cooked teff provides just over 8g protein. Both are also a good source of fiber.
Potatoes have always been considered to be a high carbohydrate food. True – they are a good source of carbohydrates, but they also provide several grams of protein! A large baked potato provides 8 grams of protein. To make it a complete protein source, add some beans and grains, or top it with some Greek yogurt (which is an animal protein and therefore a complete source of protein in itself!)
Seitan is made of wheat gluten and is often used as a meat substitute in many stir-fry dishes and/or deli meat substitutes. It is a dense source of protein – with 1/3 cup providing 21g. However, since it is made of wheat gluten, it should be avoided by individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
All vegetables have some amount of protein, though the amounts are small compared to many animal foods, and not as easily assimilated into body proteins. Nevertheless, they do contribute to the total pool of proteins obtained through our diet! For reference, a cup of kale provides ~ 2g protein. 5 – 6 mushrooms provide 3g. Note that these are incomplete proteins, and would have to be combined with legumes and grains, or animal foods, to obtain the complete spectrum of essential amino acids needed from our diet.
Tip of the Day:
If you find yourself consuming the same foods and sources of protein in your diet, try a new option each week over the next month or two! You may find new foods and protein sources that you enjoy, and these can add another dimension of flavors and nutrients to your diet!