There are several reasons to consider a dietary regime that is high in plant-based foods. The quest for better health is often high on the list of driving factors for those who consume a plant-based diet. Environmental and animal welfare concerns are also common catalysts for change.
A plant-based diet does not have to be exclusively vegetarian or vegan and there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to selecting plant-based protein sources. Whether you’re consuming a vegan diet or a diet that includes animal products, it’s important to ensure you’re covering your nutritional bases, protein being one of them.
Protein is an important macronutrient that is often over-consumed
Protein is a macronutrient that is found in many foods, both plant and animal-based. It is important for several aspects of physical health including muscle mass, strength, and bone density. Along with micronutrients such as iron and vitamin B12, protein often comes up as a concern for people who are considering a primarily plant-based diet. [Find out more about iron and B12 in “7 common signs and symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency” and “10 signs and symptoms of iron deficiency”].
The average global protein consumption per person is more than a third higher than the average daily requirement for adults. Even in regions of the world where plant-based protein sources are primarily consumed, average protein requirements are generally being met. Over-consumption of protein has also been associated with the potential for an increased risk of disease.
Do vegetarians and vegans need to be concerned about protein deficiency?
Done well, there shouldn’t be any cause for concern about protein deficiency in a vegetarian or vegan diet. A review and meta-analysis of studies showed that an emphasis on plant-based sources of protein may even have a positive association with longevity. The concern around protein levels in plant-based foods stems from the type of protein present in these foods.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 9 essential amino acids that must be obtained from dietary sources because they cannot be made in the body. Animal foods are generally considered as “complete” sources of protein because they usually contain all the amino acids. The majority of plant-based protein sources are “incomplete” because they do not contain the full range of amino acids.
However, it’s important to realize that you can easily cover your amino acid needs by consuming a wide variety of plant-based protein sources. It is not necessary to obtain all amino acids from one food source, and some plant proteins contain higher levels of certain amino acids than meat sources.
Plant-based foods with incomplete amino acid profiles can be combined with other plant-based protein foods to create a complete amino acid profile. For example, whole grain bread combined with nut butter, or rice combined with legumes, creates a complete amino acid profile. Complementary protein sources do not necessarily need to be obtained from the same meal if the gap between meals or snacks is relatively short (around 3 hours).
The best plant-based protein sources
The USDA protein content list illustrates the protein levels in various foods, by weight. The list of top plant-based protein sources below considers overall protein content and amino acid profile.
1. Natural soy-based foods
The main soy-based foods are soybeans, tofu, tempeh, and edamame beans. All of them contain good levels of protein (usually somewhere between 8 and 15 grams of protein per half-cup serving).
Soy is considered a complete source of plant-based protein, and there are several ways to consume it. Tofu is made from soybeans and tempeh is the fermented version. These ingredients can provide a fantastic base for just about any plant-based meal. Edamame is the green, immature version of soybeans. They are usually steamed or boiled and added to dishes, or eaten as a snack. Soy milk is another option. Check the label and opt for an unsweetened variety that is as natural as possible, to avoid added sugars and other unnecessary additions.
2. Nuts and seeds
Raw or roasted nuts and seeds are excellent sources of plant-based protein. Many nuts and seeds contain around 10-15 grams of protein per half-cup. Examples include almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts (technically a legume), sunflower seeds, and hazelnuts.
Nuts and seeds can be eaten as a protein-rich snack or added to dishes. Nut butter is also a great option. Again, select varieties without added sugar whenever possible. Many commercial peanut butters, for example, contain added sugar.
Beans are a good source of plant-based protein, especially when they are combined with other protein sources such as whole grains. Beans can contain up to 20 grams of protein per half-cup serving. Examples include adzuki beans, black beans, kidney beans, and lima beans. Beans should be soaked and then cooked properly, or canned varieties can be drained, rinsed, and added to dishes.
Although it’s technically a seed, quinoa is prepared and used as a grain and is therefore often labeled as such. Quinoa is a good source of plant-based protein with around 8 grams of protein per cup. The main reason that it’s such a great protein source is that it is considered to be a complete protein, with all 9 essential amino acids.
Although their overall protein content is a little lower than quinoa, other pseudo-grains with good amino acid profiles content include amaranth and buckwheat.
At around 28% protein, lentils are another high-protein plant-based food to consider. High in fiber and a good source of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, lentils can be a welcome addition to a plant-based diet.
When you consume a wide variety of plant-based foods you will easily be able to cover your body’s protein requirements. Many plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, but meals and snacks can combine different protein sources to create a complete amino acid profile.
Classic examples include the combination of whole grains such as rice, with legumes such as beans. There are many additional benefits of consuming plant-based foods with a good level of protein and overall amino acid profile. Many of these foods are also high in fiber and prebiotics, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.[Find out more about nutrition and healthy eating in “The 3 best types of food for gut health”].