Eating a plant-based diet can have significant benefits to your health; higher amounts of potassium can help lower blood pressure, more fiber can help regulate blood sugar, and help keep you feeling fuller longer. New research even suggests that a vegan diet is the best for weight loss. Still, pne question constantly arises about the safety of a plant-based diet: can you get enough protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
The Importance of Protein
Proteins are needed for the growth and maintenance of every cell in our body. Without proteins, we couldn’t heal wounds, replenish lost blood, grow hair or nails, or form the enzymes and hormones needed for a healthy metabolism.
When we talk about “protein” in our diets, what we’re actually talking about are amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for protein, and our bodies use 20 different amino acids to produce proteins. There are nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce, and therefore need to be obtained from dietary sources; these are valine, threonine, leucine, lysine, isoleucine, methionine, phenyalanine, and tryptophan.
Today, many of us eating the “standard American diet” actually consume way more protein than the body needs to function. That means you can ditch the meat and still get enough protein from vegetarian sources. Warning: eating a plant-based diet may lead to better health, a smaller waistline, better looking skin and hair, and improved all-around health!
What a “Complete Vegetarian Protein” Is?
A food that contains all amino acids in the recommended amounts is called a “complete protein.” While most plant based foods contain all of the essential amino acids (EAAs), some foods may be lower in certain EAAs. For many years, vegetarians and vegans were told that
combining certain plant food with others was the best way to be ensure they were getting enough complete vegetarian sources of protein.
For example, beans and rice is a very common food combination for vegans and vegetarians. Beans are high in lysine but low in methionine, and rice is low in lysine and higher methionine. Combine them together and you get enough of all amino acids to call this a “complete” protein. Recommended combinations include legumes and grains, like a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread, or nuts and seeds with legumes, like hummus made from chickpeas and tahini. But, it seems, making those recommended combinations may not be necessary.
The Combining Protein Myth
Modern researchers tell us that any single whole plant food, even eaten as the sole source of calories for an entire day, would provide all of the EAAs, at far more than the recommended requirements. That doesn’t mean that eating 8 potatoes or 15 cups of brown rice in one day will provide all of the nutrients needed to keep you healthy, but it would give you all of the EAAs that your body needs to function.
The combining protein myth can be traced back to Diet for a Small Planet, in which author Frances Moore Lappe recommended pairing foods to complement amino acid levels in an effort to be sure vegetarians were getting enough protein. She has since apologized for her statements and updated her book, but the complementary (or combining) protein myth continues, even 40 years after she first wrote it.
Now scientists know that our livers can store amino acids for later use, and it’s not necessary to look at every meal as your only opportunity to get the recommended amounts of EAAs. The American Dietetic Association says "Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal."
If you are looking for plant-based foods that provide a large amount of protein to your diet, there are certainly sources that can offer plenty. 8 out of 10 of the foods listed below provide more protein, gram for gram, than an egg (6 grams).
Healthy Vegetarian Protein Sources
- Seitan (4 ounces): 24.0 g
- Tofu, firm (1/2 cup): 19.9 g
- Lentils, boiled (1 cup):17.9 g
- Tempeh (1/2 cup): 15.7 g
- Black beans, boiled (1 cup): 15.2 g
- Chickpeas, boiled (1 cup): 14.5 g
- Quinoa, cooked (1 cup): 11.0 g
- Peanut butter (2 tablespoons): 8.0 g
- Bulgur, cooked (1 cup): 5.6 g
- Spinach, boiled (1 cup): 5.4 g
The best way to ensure you’re getting all of the amino acids (a.k.a. protein) that you need for optimum health – not to mention vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – is to eat a variety of plant based foods every day. This means leafy greens, whole grains like quinoa and oats, fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow, crunchy nuts and seeds, and fiber-rich beans and lentils that will leave you feeling full and satisfied. By eating a plant-based diet, you can experience amazing health benefits, and still get enough protein to conquer your day.