Sources Of Protein: Everything You Need To Know About Plant Based Protein (Part 3 of 3)

Spinach Salad with RaspberriesWritten By Becki Andrus

One of the most common questions that people ask me is “If you don’t eat meat every day, how are you getting enough protein?” This is the third part in a series of blog posts to help you to understand the truth about protein. If you haven’t already, please read part 1 & part 2 of this series.

Now, without further ado… here is part 3 of our series:


Great Sources of Plant Protein

Many people are surprised to learn how much protein can be found in many plant foods, the truth is that there is actually protein in most types of plant food. Some of the best whole foods sources of protein include beans, legumes, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds. Many whole grains also offer protein in their nutrition.

Large organizations such as the American Cancer Society, American Dietetic Association, and the American Heart Association are supportive of low animal-protein based diets. Last year, the American Dietetic Association released a detailed report that suggested that vegetarian diets are sufficient for nutritional requirements. They said:

“Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. 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.”

You can read the entire report here.  To access the full report, you will need to click on the “PDF Version” link below the article.

On that note, I would like to take a closer look at the amount of protein that is contained in specific plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

According to the Nutritive Value of American Foods in Common Units, USDA Handbook No. 456, here are some statistics for the protein amounts that are in various vegetables:

  • Spinach – 49% protein
  • Broccoli – 45% protein
  • Kale – 45% protein
  • Mung bean sprouts – 43% protein
  • Cauliflower – 40% protein
  • Mushrooms – 38% protein
  • Zucchini – 28% protein
  • Cabbage – 22% protein
  • Strawberries – 8% protein
  • Oranges – 8% protein
  • Watermelon – 8% protein
  • Grapes – 8% protein

To take things 1 step further and see the differences between animal protein with plant protein, I looked up the protein amount in sirloin and broccoli to compare the amount of protein contained in 100 calories each of those items, here’s what I found:

  • Sirloin – 7.23 g protein in 100 calories
  • Broccoli – 8.33 g protein in 100 calories

So, 100 calories of broccoli is actually more protein dense than the sirloin! Now, keep in mind that we are comparing the servings based on calorie count in order to get the most accurate comparison (I did the math according to the nutritional value for each item).

You can eat quite a bit of broccoli for 100 calories, but only a few bites of sirloin for 100 calories. I would rather have a big serving of a healthy food instead of a small serving of a less-healthy food!

It is also important to remember that because plant foods are “incomplete proteins” it is essential that you eat a variety of plant foods in order to get all of the essential amino acids. It is not healthy to only eat broccoli all day long! 😉

Different plant foods contain different amino acids, so eat a variety in order to get all of the amino acids that you need. Try to focus on eating a large amount of green vegetables, fruit, beans and legumes, and then supplement that with nuts and seeds, whole grains and healthy fats.

Protein Charts

I like to compare food choices side-by-side, so I searched the internet to find the most detailed vegetarian protein chart around. Here’s what I found:

This chart lists different types of vegetables, beans and grains and the protein that is contained in each item.
Vegetarian Foods High in Protein

Here is the best chart I can find that lists the nutritional value of nuts and seeds:
Nut and Seed Nutrition Chart

And finally, a chart that lists the nutritional value for fruit:
Fruit Nutrition Chart

As you can see from the charts listed above, there are lots of great options for plant based protein. Focus on filling yourself with leafy green vegetables, fruit, and beans, and supplement that with whole grains and nuts/seeds and you will have a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein.

Do You Need To Worry About Food Combinations to Get a Complete Protein?

Frances Moore Lappe was the first person to suggest that vegetarians needed to pay attention to food combinations in order to get the protein that they need, in the early 1970’s she published a book called Diet For A Small Planet. In this book, she talks about her theory called “complimenting protein” which basically suggested that vegetarians needed to eat specific plant foods during the same meal in order to get all of the essential amino acids at the same time.

This protein combining theory has actually been scientifically debunked, and 10 years later she came out with an updated version of Diet For A Small Planet. In the newer version of the book, she made a statement that recanted her original theory. She said:

“In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.

“With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

So, it is unnecessary to focus on food combinations within a given meal, as long as you are eating a variety of whole foods throughout the day. As long as you are eating a sufficient (and varied) amount of the essential amino acids, the human body is able to link those amino acids together to form the necessary protein. In fact, some amino acids can actually be stored for several days until they are needed to form a complete protein.

The Mistake That Most Vegetarians Make

The most common mistake that vegetarians make with their meal planning is that they take out the meat, but replace it with highly processed foods and junk food. Even though they think that they are doing a good thing by decreasing their meat consumption, often their “substitute foods” can harm the body just as much.

Cutting out meat, and replacing it with products that are made of refined white flours, refined sugars, and processed corn is NOT a healthy choice to make! Even though grains naturally have protein, when they are refined down the processing usually removes the nutritional value that can be found in the grain… leaving you with a nutritionless (and protein lacking) finished product. Sure, it may taste good, but it is a terrible substitute!

Here is an example: I looked up the nutritional information for whole wheat flour and compared it to white flour. According to caloriecount.about.com, 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour contains 5 grams of protein, but 1/2 cup of white flour contains 0 grams of protein!

Now, keep in mind that some brands of white flour are “enriched” which means that since the natural nutrients have been removed, they add back in some nutrients. These enriched nutrients are not nearly as good as the real thing! It is much better to simply stay with the natural, whole form of the ingredient instead of removing the nutrition to add back in a little bit of nutrition.

If you decide to transition to a vegetarian diet, don’t focus on simply cutting out the meat. Instead, it is essential that you change your thinking to focus on eating lots of healthy foods as substitutes for the meats. And really, this advice applies for all people (vegetarian or not), because many people fill their stomach with processed foods instead of focusing their food intake on healthier, whole foods.

And The Moral Of The Story Is…

I realize that this series of blog posts has been stuffed full of TONS of information. I tried to be concise and detailed at the same time (which is a tricky thing to do, LOL!)– providing enough information to help you be knowledgeable about the topic of protein, without droning on about unnecessary information.

As you can see, there is great evidence suggesting that eating a whole foods diet and focusing on plant-based protein is the best way to improve health and avoid disease. According to the reading that I have done, small amounts of animal protein is fine, as long as it is consumed in small portions and infrequently.

I hope that you have gained value from this information, my goal is to help people learn more about nutrition so that they can make good food choices every day. Remember that eating healthy is a lifestyle change, it’s not a fad diet or a temporary solution to lose a little bit of weight. As you make the transition to healthier eating, commit to create habits in your everyday life that can be sustained throughout your life.

Stay tuned for future blog posts, I will be talking about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains,and healthy fats. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my RSS feed so that you receive new information when it is available.

Also, I spent quite a bit of time compiling this information, and I hope to share it with as many people as possible. If you enjoyed reading this blog series about protein, please take a moment to share it by using the social media buttons below.

THANK YOU so much, I really appreciate your support! 🙂

Photo credit: digiyesica

spinach–49% protein
broccoli–45% protein
lettuce–34% protein
cauliflower–40% protein
kale–45% protein
zucchini–28% protein
cabbage–22% protein
Chinese cabbage–34% protein
Mung beansprouts–43% protein
mushrooms–38% protein
lemons–16% protein
honeydew melon–10%
strawberries, oranges, cherries, apricots, watermelon, and grapes–8% protein

Source: Nutritive Value of American Foods in Common
Units, USDA Handbook No. 456

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Related posts:

  1. Sources Of Protein: Everything You Need To Know About Plant Based Protein (Part 1 of 3)
  2. Sources Of Protein: Everything You Need To Know About Plant Based Protein (Part 2 of 3)
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