The continuing debate over how much protein the average person needs has done little to change our hunger for it. And who can blame us? Protein is one of the basic building blocks of life.
When most people think of protein though, images of cheese, eggs and a leg of lamb pop into their head. Did you know though that every—yes, every—whole food contains protein. From your morning banana to your evening salad, you’re getting protein. Finding plants packed with protein is easy to do and not only is it easy to do, it is easy for your body to use.
Plant-based foods are free from cholesterol, tend to be high in fiber and are often alkalizing to the body. All animal products, on the other hand, are devoid of fiber and are acidifying to the body, which causes calcium to be leached from your bones, as well as decreasing oxygen levels in the blood and negatively impacting the digestive/lymphatic system.
You may have heard the ongoing debate about “complete” or “incomplete” protein and “food combining,” but be wary; these topics are steeped in misinformation and myth. Here’s what I’ve discovered thus far:
The term “complete protein” refers to foods that have all nine essential amino acids present in the correct proportion for our bodies to build protein with. The term “incomplete protein” refers to foods that have all the essential amino acids, but are simply low in one or more of them. This is called the “limiting amino acid.” While it’s true that most whole plant foods have one or more limiting amino acids and are thus “incomplete,” this shouldn’t send you running for a steak.
Our bodies are brilliant and every food that goes into your system must be broken apart and its nutrients absorbed. During the digestion process, amino acid chains from all sources are broken down and made ready for our bodies to use. If you’re eating a good mix of fruits, veggies, grains and legumes, then your body simply collects what it needs from the “amino soup” that your digestion system has absorbed. There are a growing number of vegan bodybuilders, ultra marathon runners and award-winning athletes out there to prove that meeting your protein needs on a plant-based diet is simple and successful.
Since every whole food has protein in it, you have literally millions of great options to choose from when it comes to creating a balanced diet with the right percentage of protein for your body.* I’ve selected ten nutritious plants to get you started, for both their protein content and other health benefits. You may be surprised at some of the veggies, nuts and grains that made it onto my list.
*More is not necessarily better when it comes to protein. Many healthcare professionals are now arguing that recommended daily allowance for protein is too high. No matter whose recommendation you choose to follow, the fact is that each person’s protein needs are different, but all can be met with a plant-based diet.
1. Pumpkin Seeds
9 grams of protein in one ounce
If you’re like me, pumpkin is one of your favorite fall foods. The last time you steamed up some squash or pumpkin, did you have the seeds though? One ounce of pumpkin seeds contains 9.35 grams* of protein. That’s more than two grams more protein then the same quantity of ground beef. Their high protein content and level of nutrients makes them a wonderful addition to any salad or snack.
Pumpkin Seed Nutrients and What They Do:
Tryptophan: Helps fight depression (converted into serotonin and niacin).
Glutamate (needed to create GABA): Anti-stress neorochemical, helps relieve anxiety and other related conditions.
Zinc: Boosts immune function and fights osteoporosis.
Phytosterols: Reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and up HDL (the good kind); may also be effective in the prevention of cancer.
Pumpkin seeds are also full of manganese, phosphorous, copper, vitamin K, vitamin E, B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), folates, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and selenium and more.
If pumpkin seeds aren’t your thing, don’t worry—there are plenty of seed-based protein powerhouses out there.
*All protein content by gram is pulled from USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 18, unless otherwise noted.