10 Plant-Based Protein Sources
More and more, I’m finding my clients are looking to include more than plant-based foods in their diet. This is amazing, and ensuring that we are eating more foods made from a plant, and not foods made in a plant, is a great way to improve your health.
Eating a well balanced diet can be achieved by a variety of different diet types, however one key factor remains – we must eat a balance of macronutrients. Whether you are vegetarian, paleo, flexitarian or simply looking to eat a little better, ensuring that you are eating a variety of carbohydrates, protein and fat remains a top priority. When people begin to include more plant-based foods into their diet (which I encourage) the most common mistake is forgetting to include protein sources. Although a big salad full of leafy greens and veggies is really healthy, it does not constitute a well- rounded and complete meal since it is lacking a major nutrient group – protein. Regardless of whether we are eating plant or animal product, protein makes up to 20% of or body weight, plays a crucial role in building and repairing muscles, is vital in strengthening the immune system, and is the most satiating of the nutrients – it helps keeps you full!
Unfortunately plant-based protein sources receive some criticism as they are not all considered complete sources of protein since they don’t contain all essential amino acids. The good news is that simply eating a wide variety of these vegetarian protein sources, or combining a few in your meals or throughout the day can help complete the amino acid profile. The other good news is that vegetarian protein sources are inexpensive, high in fibre, simple to find and even simpler to incorporate into your diet. Below are a list of the top plant-based protein sources, their health benefits and some simple ways to include them in your diet.
Spirulina tops the list of plant-based proteins. This blue-green algae, is a great source of protein containing all 21 amino acids and, ounce per ounce, contains more protein ounce per ounce than steak. Although you would require quite a bit of spirulina to match steak, even small amounts of spirulina can help boost protein intake and is a great source of vitamins and trace minerals. You can simply add the powder to water, juices or smoothies, however note that it has a very strong favour and smell, so a little goes a long way when you begin using it.
2. Hemp Seeds
Also known as hemp hearts, these little seeds are a protein powerhouse at 15 grams of protein per 1/4 cup. Similar to spirulina, hemp is also a complete source of protein, containing all amino acids, and also contains essential fatty acid GLA. The hemp plant is commonly grown in Western Canada, and at the top part of the hemp plant you will find the hard hemp seed which is harvested for food such as hemp hearts, hemp protein powder, and hemp oil. Mild in flavour, hemp hearts can easily be added to salads (like this one) and smoothies, or topped on soups and stews for a little protein boost.
3. Chia Seeds
The same little seeds that supplied your Chia Pet are now touted as a quality protein source. Despite their tiny size, a mere 2 tablespoons of chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein and 11 grams of fibre. Punching far above their weight in nutritional value, chia seeds are also the highest plant-source of omega-3 fatty acids. With their ability to absorb 4 times their weight in water, chia seeds are perfect for making healthy puddings, adding to smoothies or as an egg substitute in baking.
This gluten-free ancient grain tops the grain list in terms of protein content. Most grains are considered to be inadequate as total protein sources because they lack adequate amounts of the amino acids lysine and isoleucine. However, quinoa has significantly greater amounts of both lysine and isoleucine making it a complete protein. The versatility of this grain is what makes it so fun to cook with, and allows it to be included in breakfast, lunch and dinner. My Green Breakfast Bowl and Spiced Quinoa & Black Bean Salad are two staples in my house.
Contrary to its name, buckwheat is not a form of wheat at all. This gluten-free grain is actually part of the rhubard family, and diets containing buckwheat have been known to lower risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Harvested into groats, buckwheat is commonly ground into flours to make everything from bread to noodles to porridge. My Buckwheat & Berry Porridge makes a rich and filling breakfast, or Japanese style soba noodles are a great swap for any pasta dish to help boost the protein content.
In my opinion, tempeh is the more nutritious cousin of tofu. A traditional soy product, tempeh is made by the natural culturing and fermentation of soybeans into a dense cake or patty. Due to its natural fermentation, tempeh is more easily digested than tofu, and contains 19 grams of protein per 100 gram serving. With its dense texture, tempeh easily takes on the flavour of marinades and can easily be grilled, topped on salads or added to stir fries and curries. It is however important to note that most North American soy has been genetically modified, so it’s important to opt for organic versions when buying it.
Typically touted for being quality sources of healthy fats, nuts are also a great source of protein. Leading the pack in terms of protein content are almonds, followed by pistachios, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia and pecans. Although typically used in savoury dishes, nuts are also great additions to a sweet treat like my Vanilla Cashew Cream, and not to worry, nut butters contain just as much protein as the nuts themselves, so keep on spreading.
Often cast into the shadow of nuts, seeds are super sources of protein and overall nutrition. These staffs of life are not only high in protein but rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Pumpkin seeds are valued source of zinc, sesame seeds are rich in calcium and sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds make a simple snack or addition to any trail mix or salad, while sesame seed paste (also known as tahini) is ideal for creating dips or spreads, and salad dressings like my Broccoli Salad with Creamy Tahini Dressing. When in doubt, combine nuts and seeds for a total protein snack like my Trail Mix Bites.
They really are the magical fruit. Not only are beans rich in protein but rich in fibre which helps to support digestive health and balance blood sugar. From black beans to kidney beans to chickpeas, beans contain between 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving, and make a filling addition to any meal. It is important to ensure that you soak your beans before cooking with them as it helps to support digestion, and sprouting them can also increase the protein content. Stir into stews and soups, like my Kale & White Bean Minestrone, or blend into dips or mix into salads for a filling meal.
A member of the legume family, lentils are high in protein, rich in fibre and come in a variety of colours from brown to green to red. Culturally diverse, compared to beans lentils are rather quick and easy to prepare, and one cup of cooked lentils contains up to 18 grams or protein. Lentils also contain a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein making them an ideal post-workout meal. From brown to green to red, lentils are used in a variety of dishes such as Indian dahls, earthy soups like our family’s Spiced Red Lentil Soup, or more sophisticated side dishes and salads.