You know that protein is important for your health. But did you know that there are more ways than one to get it? Learn the facts about plant foods and the surprising amount of protein they offer.
Protein is known as the “building blocks of life,” and there is very good reason for this: protein makes up our hair, skin, and nails, and is also found in every cell in the body to help build and repair our muscles and tissues. But not all protein is the same. Proteins are actually made up of 20 different amino acids, and every protein source contains some or all of those amino acids in different proportions. Because of this, each protein is unique, and getting a whole variety of protein sources is best for a healthy body.
Which foods are high in protein?
Your body has the amazing ability to create many amino acids all on its own, but certain amino acids can only be gained by eating the protein found in food. Foods that are especially high in protein include animal sources like meat, poultry, dairy, and seafood, and plant foods like nuts, soy, beans, and lentils. Some foods, like animal foods, are considered “complete proteins'' because they are made of the amino acid that your body cannot make on its own. Getting protein is obviously important, but as with all things food-related, we need to stay smart with the food choices that we make.
How much protein do we need every day?
The amount of protein you need is unique to you and really depends on your age, gender, and how much you move. The more active you are, the more protein your body will need day to day to support itself. Adults who are not very active are recommended to get a minimum of 0.8g of protein for every kilogram of body weight, where 1 kg = 2.2 lbs. This roughly translates to 50g of protein a day for an average 140 lb person.
This may sound like a pretty hefty ask, but reaching your daily protein is probably much easier than you think. To get a good feel for how much protein is actually found in food, check out these common foods and their protein content below:
4 oz seafood, chicken, turkey, or red meat = 25-30g
1 large egg = 6.3g
1 oz nuts = 4.5g
1 oz cheese= 7 g
2 Tbsp peanut butter = 7g
1/2 cup cooked beans = 7g
How much is too much protein?
Getting enough protein is actually not a huge concern for most Americans, as they get almost double the amount they need on a daily basis. So is there an upper limit to how much we should be taking in? Research suggests that while most healthy adults can safely get more than they need, eating too much protein for too long can eventually damage the kidneys, intestine, and liver. Staying below 2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 126g of protein for an average 140 lb person, should keep you in the safe zone.
Is animal protein better than plant protein?
Since so many plant foods are not complete proteins, there has been a concern that people who eat mostly plants will lack some necessary amino acids. But this worry is largely unfounded. It is true that animal proteins are a major source of complete protein and do offer several nutrients that are often lacking in plant foods. But different plants have different types of amino acids, and plenty of nutrients are found in plants that are lacking in animal foods. Since amino acid profiles in plants are so varied, simply eating a combination of certain plant foods throughout the day ensures you will get some of each essential amino acid. Common complementary proteins include grains and legumes, like beans and rice or whole grain bread with peanut butter. Nuts, seeds, and legumes eaten together also make a complete protein, such as hummus, which usually includes chickpeas and sesame seed paste.
The best plant-based sources of protein
Animal foods are the go-to protein source for many Americans, but many plant foods also boast a good amount of protein in their own right. The best part? They are also very low in calories yet offer plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. So go ahead and eat these foods to your heart's content as a way of amping up your protein and other health-promoting nutrients without adding inches to your waistline.
Enjoy these plant foods that are high in protein for a delicious way to boost your health:
Firm tofu (1/3 cup): 9.1g
Red lentils (1/2 cup): 9g
Pinto beans (1/2 cup): 7.7g
Chickpeas (1/2 cup): 7.5g
Peanuts (1 oz): 6.7g
Almonds (1 oz): 6.2g
Spinach (1 cup raw): 5.3g
Potato (1 medium): 4.3g
Peas (1/2 cup): 4.3g
Quinoa (1/2 cup): 4.1g
Chia seeds (2 Tbsp): 4g
Broccoli (4 5” long spears): 3.5g
Sweet corn (1 ear): 3g
High-Protein Chickpea Lentil Curry
This hearty stew is full of flavor and wholesome ingredients. Providing 21.4g of protein in just one serving from lentils, chickpeas, and kale, this dish comes together quickly and pairs perfectly with rice or any other whole grain.
Makes 6 servings
¼ cup vegetable broth or water
1 yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1” fresh ginger, minced
1 inch knob fresh ginger, minced
1 – 2 tablespoons yellow curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
salt to taste
1 – 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, optional
1 cup fresh tomatoes, diced
2 cups dry red lentils, rinsed
1 can (15 oz) garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
6 cups water or vegetable broth
4 cups kale, sliced thinly
Juice of one lemon, optional
Cooked brown rice, or any other whole grain, for serving
1) In a large pot, heat the broth or water and saute the onion and garlic until the onion becomes transparent.
2) Add the spices, tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and 6 cups of liquids, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.
3) Add in the kale and optional lemon juice, continue to cook for 10 minutes or until kale softens and wilts.
4) Serve immediately with cooked rice or whole grain of choice.
Nutrition facts (1 serving): 355 calories, 5.2g total fat, 0.7g saturated fat, 300mg sodium, 60g carbs, 14g fiber, 4.7g sugar, 21.4g protein.