Getting the Right Amount of Plant-Based Protein

August 11, 2019

"By eating complementary proteins, you’re ensuring your body is getting all the essential amino acids it needs to help keep it functioning properly."

Eating a more plant-based diet is one of the best things we can do for our health, but getting enough protein from plant sources only can be an issue. In today’s Part 2 of her series on protein, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, ranks the best non-animal protein sources and in order of which provides the biggest nutritional bang for your buck. She also shows us how to combine proteins to ensure we get all the amino acids we need, provides some great recipes and much more. 

In Part 1, we discussed why protein is important — which we will recap a bit today. We also ranked animal proteins from the best to the worst in terms of how healthy each one is for you. Today, we’re going to cover the best non-animal protein sources.

Video Highlights

  • 03:13: Recap of Part 1
  • 07:36: Vegetarian Diets
  • 10:34: Complete, Incomplete, and Complementary Protein
  • 16:00: Protein and Digestion
  • 17:00: Best Non-Animal Protein Sources
  • 17:22: Lentils
  • 20:49: Beans
  • 30:35: Rice
  • 33:13: Peanuts
  • 35:21: Almonds
  • 37:16: Quinoa
  • 38:45: Chia Seeds
  • 40:43: Sunflower Seeds
  • 42:07: Spirulina
  • 43:30: Vegetables with the Highest Amount of Protein
  • 46:00 Wrap-Up

Let’s start with a quick recap of things we discussed in Episode 1.

We talked about the fact that protein is a macronutrient, meaning, along with the other two macronutrients; carbs and fat. Eating large enough quantities of each of these, in balance, is important every day. The reason for this is that the body does not have anywhere to store extra protein. Therefore, the body needs a consistent supply of it to draw from. 

Protein is loaded with amino acids, which are vital to muscle strengthening, growth, and repair, tissue repair, immune function, and the body’s ability to burn fat. Eating lots of protein can also cut down on snack attacks and helps you feel fuller, longer. It does this in a number of ways in the body, including through the amino acid, tyrosine, which is essential in the production of dopamine, the hormone responsible for addiction and cravings

And since eating more protein can cut down on cravings and extra snacking, it can also be a very effective tool to help regulate weight. Another contributing factor is that proteins can make you feel fuller without consuming a large amount, or without consuming excessive amounts of fat and calories. 

The best animal sources of proteins to eat include egg whites, turkey, chicken, and sustainable sources of fish. Some runners up include lean, grass-fed organic sources of red meat, like bison. The key here is lean cuts of organic, grass-fed meats, which are lower in saturated fat and high in zinc, iron, B vitamins, beta-carotene, and niacin. These all work to encourage good cholesterol and healthy skin, as well as promote heart, lung, and eye health.

Vegetarian Diets

Only about 3% of the population, or about 7.5 million Americans are vegetarians. However, a huge number of people are turning to adding more non-animal sources of protein to their diets. They just aren’t eating exclusively non-animal proteins. The challenge is that most people just don’t know how to get enough non-animal proteins, which is too bad, because they are so good for you.  

So we are going to focus exclusively on the best non-animal sources of protein today!

As we’ve discussed before, you need about 30 grams of protein with every meal! If you’re someone who thinks that eating that much protein at every meal seems like a daunting task, never fear — we’re here to help. 

Complete, Incomplete, and Complementary Protein 

Did you know that there are 22 amino acids, and a complete protein has all of them? Foods that fall into this category include:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Meat
  • Poultry

But what’s more important to know is that the body cannot produce nine of these acids, called essential amino acids. We must get them from food each day. A complete protein source refers to a type of food that contains all nine. Foods that do not have all amino acids are called incomplete proteins. 

Having the right balance of amino acids is essential for  building muscles and helping the body to recover from exercise quickly. 

But you may have noticed, that in the list above, there are no vegetarian options. Foods like nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are incomplete proteins and need to be paired with other foods to turn them into complete proteins. That because they are either missing or don’t have enough of all nine essential acids.  

For example, beans and rice, both incomplete proteins on their own, make a complete protein together. Another great example is hummus. With its combination of chickpeas and tahini, which is made from sunflower seed paste, it’s complete. Also, almost any stew that combines both legumes like lentils, peas, or kidney beans with whole grains like brown rice, amaranth, or quinoa, can make up a complete protein combined. 

This knowledge surrounding complete and incomplete proteins is critical if you’re trying to avoid animal protein, or if you are a vegan or vegetarian. Since complete proteins come primarily in the form of animal-derived foods, meat eaters don’t have to worry about it. But if you want to be a vegetarian then it’s really important to have knowledge and understanding about complementary proteins

If you take just one thing from today’s discussion, it’s that by eating complementary proteins, you’re ensuring your body is getting all the essential amino acids it needs to help keep it functioning properly. 

Protein and Digestion

Did you know that protein plays a major role in digestion? 

We didn’t really touch on this in part 1, but it’s true — protein produces enzymes in the body that play a pivotal role in maintaining proper digestion in the body. That’s just one more reason why you need to make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet, and for vegans and vegetarians, that involves eating the right complementary proteins. That way, you’re upping your chances of getting all the essential amino acids in one shot. 

Best Non-Animal Protein Sources

So let’s now look at the individual non-animal proteins and rank them from best to next best, to good, to just okay.

Lentils 

Lentils, are small, lens-shaped legumes, that range from yellow and red to green, brown, and even black. They are inexpensive, highly nutritious and are a great source of protein, that can even be stored for a long time without refrigeration. These are just a few reasons why lentils are a staple food in many cultures across the globe.

Lentils are delicious added to soup, or you can add pre-cooked lentils to salads, Buddha bowls, or just eat as a side dish — they really are delicious!

The taste of lentils depends on the color, although almost all varieties can be described as slightly earthy. Red lentils have a sweeter note while green or black lentils have a bit of a peppery flavor. Regardless, they are all pretty mild, which leaves plenty of room for you to season and flavor them as you like!

One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein! That’s pretty good. Additionally, lentils contain 37% of your daily-recommended intake of iron. Plus, they’re loaded with fiber – 16 grams in just that 1 cup. That’s an amazingly high amount! Not only that, but that amazingly high amount will also help cut down on those mid-afternoon cravings. Lentils are, without a doubt, the best non-animal protein you could eat. They taste really great in salads and soups, and they make an excellent base for vegan veggie burgers. 

Beans

Chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans rank highest in the bean category, which takes second place, overall, as the best source of non-animal protein. Chickpeas have 14 grams of protein in every cup. There are 15 grams in every cup of black beans, and 16 grams in every cup of kidney beans. Chickpeas, like so many of the things on this list, are incredibly versatile — you can add them to salads, roast them, and eat them as a snack, or make your own hummus. 

Cajun-style Red Beans and Rice recipe

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 16 ounces canned organic kidney beans, rinsed
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 tbsp fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ½ cups brown rice

To make this delicious dish, drain and rinse the kidney beans and set aside. 

In a large pot set over medium heat, add the olive oil, onion, and celery. Cook until tender and browning only slightly. This should take about 10 minutes. 

Next, add your diced vegetables and stir to coat the onions and celery. Give that about another minute before you add the kidney beans. 

Cook the rice according to the directions on the package. When rice is ready, mix all into the beans. When the beans and rice are done, add them to a bowl, top with fresh parsley, and enjoy!

Rice 

When possible, opt for organic wild rice. This contains approximately 1.5 times as much protein as other long-grain rice varieties, including brown rice and basmati.

One cooked cup (240 ml) provides 7 grams of protein, in addition to a good amount of fiber, manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and B vitamins 

What’s great about wild rice is that unlike white rice, wild rice is not stripped of its bran. This is great from a nutritional perspective, as bran contains fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals 

How to make Roasted Chickpeas 

This is a delicious vegan snack. Here’s all you need to do:

Toss chickpeas in olive oil and any  seasonings you choose — for example, you could use garlic powder or chili powder, or sea salt and black pepper — spread the chickpeas on a baking sheet and bake them at 450°F for 40 minutes or until they are crunchy. These also keep well, if there are any left  — they are so good, they won’t last very long!

Peanuts

Peanuts have almost 21 grams of protein in every ½ cup. Peanut butter contains 8 grams of protein in every serving size, which generally hovers around 2 tablespoons. If you’re going to eat peanut butter, make sure it’s organic or all-natural and doesn’t contain any inflammation-inducing additives like sugar or hydrogenated oils. 

Almonds

In every cup of almonds, there are more than 20 grams of protein. What keeps these out of the top spot is their fat content. But don’t let that scare you away — almonds are loaded with healthy fats. They make up for that in their high protein value, as well as their high amounts of fiber and vitamin E, which helps promote skin, hair, and nail health by protecting against cell damage. Almonds are incredibly versatile — almond flour can be used in baking and almond milk is a wonderful non-dairy milk alternative. They’re also a great snack to dish on in between meals, plus they’re convenient. You can stow a bag almost anywhere — in your purse, your desk drawer, or your car.  

Quinoa

Quinoa is known as a “super grain” (though it’s actually a seed not a grain) because 1 cup provides 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and your daily dose of magnesium. It’s also loaded with iron and vitamin B. Quinoa is typically enjoyed during lunch or dinner, but it can 100% be served during breakfast, too. Instead of cooking the quinoa in water, opt for a non-dairy milk like almond or coconut, and throw in some spices like cinnamon, ginger, or cloves. Cook according to the directions on the package, and once done, the sky’s the limit. Top with almonds, walnuts, unsweetened coconut flakes, maple syrup, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, or some fresh strawberries. 

Chia Seeds

Did you know that chia seeds are a complete protein? That’s right! They are one of the few non-animal complete proteins out there. They are wonderful to put in smoothies or you can make a delicious chia pudding and pair it with some fresh fruit. One cup of chia seeds contains almost 4 ½ grams of protein. They’re loaded with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which for meat eaters and pescatarians, are primarily found in fish and red meat like bison. Omega-3 fatty acids have a laundry list of health benefits:

  • Promote heart health
  • Reduces the risk of anxiety and depression 
  • Encourages eye health 
  • Improves cognitive function

Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds pack somewhere around 6 grams of protein in every ¼ cup. They’re high in fat but it’s the good kind — mono- and polyunsaturated fats that help reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as reduce inflammation. They also contain many of the other important vitamins and minerals already mentioned on this list — things like vitamin B6 and zinc, as well as a few others that haven’t been mentioned, like phosphorous for bone health, copper for immunity, and the antioxidant selenium which protects against cell damage. 

Spirulina

Spirulina is an algae high in health benefits and good stuff like iron, manganese, and all the B vitamins except vitamin B12. With 8 grams of protein in every 2 tablespoons, spirulina is also more than worthy of a spot on this list. It typically comes in a vibrant blue or green color and can be added to smoothies, bowls, rice dishes, and salad dressings. You can even just just stir a tablespoon or two in to a big glass of water and drink it down — an all-natural non-animal source protein drink! 

Vegetables with the Highest Amount of Protein

  • Watercress
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Chinese Cabbage (bok choi)
  • Avocados
  • Asparagus
  • Mustard Greens
  • Broccoli
  • Collard Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Green peas
  • Hubbard Squash
  • Non-GMO Edamame

Wrap-Up

Today concluded our 2-part series on animal and non-animal sources of protein. In Episode 1, we ranked the best animal proteins, and today, we ranked the best non-animal proteins with lentils, beans, and almonds rounding the top spots. 

We also reminded you to consume 30 grams of quality protein at every meal!! Some simple ways to add extra protein to your meals include:

  • Add quinoa, chickpeas, chopped almonds, or chia seeds to any salad.
  • Combine 2 tablespoons chia seeds with 2 cups of non-dairy almond milk to make chia pudding.
  • Add all-natural peanut butter, almond butter, or chia seeds to your morning smoothie. 

Feel free to comment with your favorite ways to add non-animal protein to every meal! Remember, we need protein even more as we age.

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