Where Do I Get My Plant-Based Protein?

This is a very popular question and an important one, as it reveals an underlying misconception about nutrition. But even if you aren’t following a plant-based diet, do you know how much protein you should be eating on a daily basis?

Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient that plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it. Protein is not a case in which more is better. With the popularity of high-protein diets, you may be tempted to believe that you simply can’t overeat protein. But the truth is that consuming excess protein can actually be quite detrimental to your health.

What is protein?

Proteins are large molecules made up of chains of smaller molecules, called amino acids, which can be found in the vegetable or animal protein worlds. There are twenty different amino acids that the body uses to make protein, eleven of which can be synthesized naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine, which we call essential amino acids, must be ingested from the foods we eat. So, technically, our bodies require certain amino acids, not protein per se. When you eat protein, your body breaks apart the aminos and sends them to whichever part of your body needs whichever type of amino acid.

Like those who have a higher health conscience, most vegans and vegetarians have stories about why they came to the decision to live their particular nutritional lifestyles. No matter the reasons, one of the challenges for non-meat eaters is making sure to consume enough protein every day. But it’s not as big of a deal as many think. Like most of the nutrients from quality food, a little goes a long way. Back in the hunter/gatherer days, primitive man ate a lot less meat—usually around 20% of his total diet—a far cry from how much the average American consumes on a daily basis in the 21st century.

More Protein Builds More Muscle

Protein promotes the muscle-building process, called protein synthesis, “but you don’t need exorbitant amounts to do this,” says John Ivy, Ph.D., coauthor of Nutrient Timing.

If you’re working out hard, consuming more than 0.9 to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight is a waste. Excess protein breaks down into amino acids and nitrogen, which are either excreted or converted into carbohydrates and stored.

How much, then, is just enough?  Well, in the United States, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. That number is about how many grams you need each day. Approximately 15-25% of your total calories should be from protein sources.

Plant-Based Protein Sources

In the early years, protein meant meat and meat meant protein. But the nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. Most people seem to think that plant-based protein sources don’t provide you with complete protein sources and that animal protein is needed for this, but there are several foods that include all nine essential amino acids, making them complete protein sources. These include quinoa, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and black beans. There are also lots of plant-based foods that contain a mixture of the essential amino acids, so by eating a variety of these delicious foods, you can consume all the essential amino acids and your body will have everything that it needs.

There are many nutrient-dense foods with high protein contents. Here are some of the top plant based proteins.

Vegetables – the proper foundation for all diets

1 avocado – 10 grams

1 cup broccoli – 5 grams

1 cup spinach – 5 grams

2 cups cooked kale – 5 grams

1 cup boiled peas – 9 grams

1 cup cooked sweet potato – 5 grams

Legumes, also vegetables, get their own mention. Specifically lentils and beans, the foundation of many diets for centuries

  • 1 cup soybeans – 28 grams
  • 1 cup tempeh – 30 grams
  • 1 cup lentils – 18 grams
  • 1 cup refried beans – 15.5 grams
  • 1 cup garbanzo beans (and hummus) – 14.5 grams
  • 1 cup pinto, kidney, black beans – 13 to 15 grams
  • 1 oz peanuts – 6.5 grams

Nuts and seeds – a staple in most vegetarian and vegan diets

  • 1 oz. cashews – 4.4 grams
  • 1 oz. sesame seeds – 6.5 grams
  • 3 tablespoons of tahini – 8 grams
  • 1/4 cup (2 oz.) walnuts – 5 grams
  • 1 oz. pistachios – 5.8 grams
  • 2 tbsp. almonds – 4 grams
  • 2 tbsp. nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew) – 8 grams

Non-dairy milk

  • 1 cup (soy, almond, ancient grain) – 7 to 9 grams

Grains – Ancient grains, sprouted grains, multi-grains Quinoa is versatile and delicious. 1 cup – 9 grams.

  • 1 cup quinoa – 9 grams.
  • 1 cup oatmeal – 6 grams
  • Sprouted grain bread products
  • Amaranth, bulgur, brown rice, wheat germ and oat bran are other grains with high protein contents.

Supplements

  • 30 grams of hemp powder – 11 grams

Spirulina and chlorella are used often by vegetarians and vegans for their rich nutrient and protein contents.