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Plant-Based Protein Sources

By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

Did you know there are many great sources of protein that come from plants? It is true that meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy foods (milk, yogurt and cheese) generally have the highest sources of protein per serving. However, with a little planning, you can get plenty of protein from plant foods. Plant-based proteins are also very budget friendly. Meat (and animal products) usually make up the largest part of the weekly food budget – so as we are all looking for ways to save money, try more plant-based meals.

How much protein do I need?

Protein needs are based on your weight. To get an idea of how much you need, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, if you weigh 140 lbs (x .36 = 50.4) you need about 50 grams of protein a day.  For someone weighing 200 pounds (x .36 = 72) your protein needs are higher – about 72 grams a day.

Soy Products

Soy is an excellent source of protein and can be easily incorporated into many meals. Edamame (immature soybeans) are delicious as a snack or incorporated into a stir-fry, soups, or grain bowls. Tempeh and tofu each take on flavors of what they are cooked with. Try putting tofu or tempeh slices in an air fryer for a nice crispy finish.

– Tempeh: 15 grams protein (per 1/2 cup)

– Tofu: 10 g

– Edamame: 8.5 g

Legumes: Beans/Peas /Lentils

There are so many kinds of legumes – this is just a sampling! While buying dried legumes is the least expensive option, the canned varieties are still low in cost and just as nutritious (rinse the canned varieties to reduce the salt). Toss into salads, mix with grains (for a tasty grain bowl) or add to a stir-fry, soups or stews. While pureed garbanzo beans (chickpeas) are used for hummus, you can experiment with different beans for other tasty spreads.

– Red/green lentils: 8.8 g protein (per 1/2 cup)

– Cranberry beans: 8.3 g

– Split peas: 8.1 g

– Pinto beans: 7.7 g

– Black beans: 7.6 g

– Kidney beans: 7.6 g

– Garbanzo beans: 7 g

Nuts/Seeds

Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein and are low in carbohydrate. They are a convenient snack food (no refrigeration needed). Be aware that a one ounce serving can be between 160-200 calories.

– Hemp seeds: 9 g (per 3 tablespoons)

– Pumpkin seeds: 8.5 g

– Peanuts: 7 g

– Almonds: 6 g

– Pistachios: 6 g

– Walnuts: 4.3 g

– Peanut butter: 8 g (2 Tbsp)

– Almond butter: 5 g (2 Tbsp)

Whole Grains

As a rule, whole grains have more protein than refined white grains. Mix grains with legumes and veggies and drizzle with a tahini (sesame seed) dressing for an added protein boost.

– Kamut: 5 g protein (per 1-2 cup cooked)

– Teff: 5 g

– Quinoa: 4 g

– Whole wheat pasta: 3.5 g

– Oatmeal: 3 g

Non-Dairy Milks

Unless you choose soy or pea milk, most nut milks (like almond, cashew, coconut) aren’t the best sources of protein. However, they are very low in carbohydrate. Check the labels!

– Soy milk: 8 g protein (per 1 cup)

– Pea milk: 8 g

– Almond milk: 1 g

Other

– Seitan: 22 g protein (3 oz)

  • This meat substitute is made from vital wheat gluten flour, water, and seasonings. It has a dense, chewy texture. It is found near tofu in the grocery store and comes in a variety of forms and flavors, or you can make it at home.

– Protein powder: 15 g (1 scoop)

  • Boost your daily protein intake by adding a scoop to a smoothie. Choose one with a short list of ingredients. The protein source can be plant (such as pea, rice, or hemp) or animal (such as whey, casein, or egg).

– Ezekial Bread (sprouted bread): 5 g (1 slice)

  • Most whole grain breads have between 2-3 grams of protein per slice, but sprouted grain breads (such as Ezekiel Food for Life® bread) boasts 5 grams per serving.

How does plant-based protein compare to animal protein?

As a general guide, 1 ounce of meat, poultry and fish contain about 7 grams protein. A typical serving is 3-4 ounces – so that would contribute between 21-28 grams of protein per serving. One cup of cow’s milk or yogurt is also about 7 grams of protein, as is one ounce of cheese or one egg.

Recipes:

Bean and Corn Quinoa

Quinoa is a fast-cooking grain high in protein. Add some red pepper flakes or salsa if you want a bit more of a kick. Top with chopped avocado or grated cheddar cheese if desired.

Serves: 2, Serving Size: 1.25 cup, Calories: 375, Carbs: 60g, Protein: 15g, Fat: 10g

Ingredients:

– 2 Tbsp olive oil

– 1 medium white onion, chopped

– 1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped

– 1 celery rib, chopped

– 2 tsp chili powder

– 1/4 tsp salt

– 1/4 tsp pepper

– 2 cups vegetable stock

– 1 cup frozen corn

– 1 cup quinoa, rinsed

– 1 15oz can black beans, rinsed and drained

– 1/3 cup, plus 2 Tbsp, minced fresh cilantro, divided

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, red pepper, celery, and seasonings; cook and stir 5-7 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Stir in stock and corn; bring to a boil. Stir in quinoa. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 12-15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.

Add beans and 1/3 cup cilantro; heat through, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro.

Air-Fried Tofu

Tofu can take on so many different flavors. Using an air fryer makes cooking very quick and gives a nice crispy texture. Try different seasonings (BBQ, Cajun, Italian) for a different taste.

Serves: 4, Serving Size: 1/4 recipe, Calories: 110, Carbs: 5g, Protein: 11g, Fat: 6g

Ingredients:

– 1 lb block of extra firm tofu, pressed for 30 minutes then cut into 1” cubes, (16 oz.)

– 1 teaspoon garlic powder

– ½ teaspoon onion powder

– 1 teaspoon paprika

– ½ teaspoon sea salt

– 2 teaspoons cornstarch

– ½ tablespoon lower sodium soy sauce

– ½ teaspoon sesame oil (or olive oil)

– ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Begin  by pressing the liquid out of the tofu. Wrap the tofu in a kitchen towel and place a heavy pot on top of it. Press for at least 30 minutes. Cut tofu into one-inch cubes.

Place tofu in a medium sized bowl. Add soy sauce and toss to coat. Add in all of the other seasoning ingredients and toss to thoroughly combine.

Place in the air fryer in a single row, so that all the tofu has a little bit of space around each piece. Set your air fryer to 400°F. Cook for 10 minutes, shaking the basket after 5 minutes, then continuing to cook.

Remove after tofu is cooked. Allow to cool for a few minutes then serve.

White Bean Hummus

This can be used as a sandwich spread or as a dip for veggies or crackers.

Serves: 6, Serving size: 1/4 cup, Calories: 152, Carbs: 16g, Protein: 6g, Fat: 8g

Ingredients:

– 1 can cannellini beans (15 oz), drained and rinsed

– 2 heaping Tbsp tahini (ground sesame seeds)

– 2 Tbsp olive oil

– 1-2 lemons juiced (and zested if you like extra lemon flavor)

– 1 clove garlic minced or ½ tsp garlic powder

– ½ tsp onion powder

– Dash or two of sea salt

– Optional flavorings to add: ½ tsp onion powder, ½ tsp cumin, ½ tsp Dijon mustard, herbs like chives or basil

Place all ingredients in a food processor, except water, and blend. Taste for flavor and add anything more to your liking. Blend again.

Add water (1 Tbsp at a time) if a thinner consistency is desired. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Store in an airtight container. Makes about 1 ½ cups. 

[Note: If you don’t have tahini, you can skip it and add 1-2 extra Tbsp of olive oil.]

Lemony Tahini Sauce (Dressing)

This creamy sauce featuring protein-rich sesame seeds can be used in so many ways – as a topping for a grain bowl, air fried tempeh or tofu, steamed veggies or as a salad dressing.

Serves: 4, Serving size: 2 Tbsp, Calories: 123, Carbs: 3g, Protein: 2g, Fat: 12g

Ingredients:

– ¼ cup tahini

– 4 Tbsp lemon juice

– 3 Tbsp olive oil

– 3 Tbsp water

– 2 cloves garlic, minced

– ¼ tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

While this article provides guidance about healthy eating, it’s important to stress that for many people, diet and exercise alone aren’t enough to reach a healthier weight. The good news is that there are safe and effective medical treatments available that can address the biological issues that make sustained weight loss difficult. To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.

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