If you’re making healthy changes to your diet by eating less meat and more plants, you may be wondering if you’re getting enough protein. Or maybe you’re worried that plant protein is inferior to that found in animal foods.
Depending on what foods you replace with animal foods, you may not meet your daily protein quota.
The good news: there are plenty of plant foods — beyond the obvious tofu and lentils — that can boost your daily protein intake. The protein content of some might surprise you.
How much protein?
Dietary protein provides amino acids, building blocks of muscle, bone, skin, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, enzymes and thousands of other body compounds.
As such, a diet with enough protein supports immune function, muscle building and repair, bone and joint health, digestion and wound healing, and many other processes.
How do you maintain – and gain – muscle while losing weight? Eat more protein and add resistance exercises
Sedentary people need 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. A 75 kg (165 lb) inactive person, for example, needs 60 g of protein per day.
Adults aged 65 and over are advised to consume more protein each day – at least 1.0 to 1.2 g per kilogram of body weight – to preserve muscle mass and muscle function
Regardless of age, regular exercise increases daily protein requirements by 1.2 to 2 g per kilogram of body weight, depending on the type of exercise.
Animal vs Vegetable Protein
Plant proteins are absorbed less efficiently than animal proteins, in part because of the indigestible fiber in plant foods. But the difference is thought to be insignificant since the North American diet generally contains more protein than necessary.
Animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which the body cannot manufacture on its own. Vegetable proteins lack one or more essential amino acids. Exceptions are whole soy foods (eg, soy, edamame, tofu, tempeh) and pea protein; these protein-rich plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids.
Even if you follow an entirely plant-based diet, you can get all the essential amino acids your body needs by eating a variety of plant-based protein foods each day.
Get more protein from plants
Diversify your protein intake with the following plant foods; they are also exceptional sources of other nutrients.
Beans and lentils are nutrient-dense (and inexpensive) protein substitutes for animal protein. A cup of black beans and pinto beans, for example, each provide 15g of protein, along with 15g of fiber and plenty of folate, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Pasta made with black beans, lentils, chickpeas and edamame are other ways to add filling plant-based protein to your diet. Explore Cuisine Black Bean Spaghetti serves, per 85g dry (about 1.5 cups cooked), 39g of protein; the same amount of Organic Chickpea Penne (made with chickpeas and lentils) provides 20g of protein.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts are an easy way to add protein to meals and snacks. A quarter cup of almonds contains 7.5 g of protein; an equivalent portion of pistachios provides 6 g.
The seeds also provide a good dose of protein. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds packs 10g of protein, not to mention a good amount of magnesium (191mg); women need 310-320 mg of magnesium per day, men 400-420 mg.
Two tablespoons of hemp and chia seeds each provide 6 g of protein as well as calcium (chia seeds contain 132 mg per two tablespoons), magnesium, iron and zinc. Toss hemp or chia seeds into salads, sprinkle them on avocado toast, stir them into yogurt, add them to oatmeal, or stir them into smoothies.
Although not generally considered “plant protein foods”, some whole grains add a surprising amount of protein to meals. A cup of cooked freekeh provides 12g of protein, while a cup of cooked quinoa and farro each provide 8g.
Teff, a gluten-free whole grain, provides 10g of protein per cooked cup; it is also a good source of fibre, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. Add it to stews and pilafs, toss cooked teff into salads, or serve it as porridge.
Don’t overlook vegetables when it comes to protein. Most provide 3-4g of protein per cup. Green peas, however, provide 8g of protein per cup. A cup of cooked spinach contains 5.5 g.
Soy milk and pea milk have the protein equivalent of cow’s milk (8g per cup). Non-dairy yogurts and cheeses are generally low in protein.
Leslie Beck, a dietitian in private practice in Toronto, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD
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