Vegans and vegetarians rely on good sources of plant based protein to meet their dietary needs, and more people are looking to consume plant based proteins. Some see a health advantage, some prefer eating closer to the earth, and others are trying to eat lower on the food chain.
Beans and legumes top the list of plant proteins, yielding 14-15 grams of protein per cup when cooked–about 20-25% of total calories. Nuts and seeds offer a modest source of protein. Peanuts are one of the best sources with 3-4 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Nuts are a rich source of calories, so they yield only 3-4% of their calories from protein. But they come in a great package with low glycemic carbohydrate coupled with healthy fats. Nuts and seeds work great.
Grain products typically yield 2 grams of protein per serving (ie’ one ounce of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked grain), yielding about 10% of calories from protein. Unfortunately the increasing amount of protein of wheat is basically an increased amount of gluten as well. This doesn’t bode well for the escalating number of people suffering with greater gluten intolerance or diagnosable Celiac disease.
The good news is that a number of vegetables offer a surprising 30-40% of their calories from protein. A quick survey of the Pennington and Church Food Composition Tables, shows the following vegetables may be a significant source of protein in your diet–but only if you eat enough of them.
The challenge with most of these vegetables is that the protein is packaged in a significant amount of water, fiber and volume. With the exception of peas (which actually offer a bit below 30% protein), these vegetables are so low in calories that Weight Watchers considers them “free” foods. Most of them offer less than 25 calories per 1/2 cup cooked serving. Lettuces notoriously only contribute 7-10 calories per cup.
WHAT IS A FRUIT? WHAT IS A VEGETABLE?
Interestingly, many vegetables that yield little protein also tend to be sweeter; They are actually considered fruits by botanists. Good examples include cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash, pea pods and corn. It’s no surprise that their nutritional profile looks much like other fruits: mostly carbohydrate, great fiber and other nutrients, but very little protein.
Adding to the confusion, other vegetables are really sweet. Think beets, carrots, young broccoli and cauliflower. (Especially when they are not overcooked!) And some fruits are mostly fat: avocados, olives, nuts and sunflower seeds.
IS PLANT PROTEIN ADEQUATE?
It is not difficult to consume enough grams of protein with a vegetarian, even a vegan diet. The challenge is eating enough vegetable to feel satisfied. Many vegetarian clients state they feel more satisfied when they eat a mix of protein sources. Say, beans and rice along with fruit and yogurt. Vegans add nuts and seeds to grain products, like granola and muesli. Some may serve a rich vegetable stew over rice or other grain. Those who know tell me when they mix 2-3 vegetarian sources of protein in the same meal, they feel more satisfied.
I concur. A peanut butter sandwich or a cup of Siggi’s yogurt chased with a tablespoon of peanut butter fuels me for hours–better than just one item. A hearty ratatouille with a chunk of cheese and a edge of hearty bread can be amazingly satisfying. In the summer I love sitting down to a fresh green salad with feta and sunflower seeds.
I doubt I will voluntarily give up my omnivorous ways, but vegetables are a delicious way to enjoy adequate protein while stepping lighter on the planet. What is your favorite way to include vegetable protein during the day?