TARA MARDIGAN, MS, MPH, RD
Protein. We need it. It’s builds cells and helps repair muscle tissue. Our bones, blood, organs, muscles and skin all need protein to function properly. It’s the building block of neurotransmitters, the messaging cells in our bodies that allow all of our systems to communicate with each other. It’s pretty important stuff.
A google-image search of ‘protein’ brings up glossy images of steak, seafood, eggs and designer whey protein powders. Only a few images include beans and nuts. It’s pretty clear. In the world of protein, many people think of animal sources or supplements.
I recommend plant-based protein sources to both herbivores and omnivores alike. No matter how you classify yourself on the eating spectrum, it’s becoming clear that eating more plant-based foods is a good idea for all of us. From hardcore vegan to hardcore meat lover, plant-based proteins can be beneficial to include daily as they are naturally cholesterol-free, low in saturated fats and also contain healthful antioxidants and fiber.
How much protein do really you need in a day? It depends on how active you are. Protein needs also vary for some specific medical issues so a registered dietitian may help you individualize your needs more specifically.
Basic protein needs: .36 grams per pound of body weight or ideal body weight. For example, 150 pound person would require 54 grams of protein per day.
Athletic protein needs: about .5-.6 grams per pound of body weight or ideal body weight (some extreme athletes may require more). For example, the 150 pound athlete would require 75-90 grams of protein per day.
Carnivore friends: Can you get in half of your protein from plant-based sources in a day? Maybe you’ll start by having a meatless meal, once a week. Perhaps a Meatless Monday lunch or dinner. If you eat snacks, go with nuts, nut butters or seeds with some fruit.
Herbivore friends: Can you meet your protein needs from a wider variety of plant-based sources? Can you try something new? Can you limit highly processed forms of protein powders and veggie burgers?
Here are a few of my favorite plant-based proteins. Give them a try!
Beans and Legumes: A 1-cup portion of most cooked beans and lentils offers about 15 grams of protein. Available both dried and canned, beans are a quick addition for soups, salads, sides and sandwiches. If using canned beans, rinse the beans under water to remove excess sodium. If using dried beans, you will need to rinse and soak the beans in cold water (1:3 ratio of beans to water) for 6 hours or longer before cooking. Dry beans will yield about three times their amount once cooked so they very economical if you set aside the time. If using lentils, no need to soak. Just rinse, add to boiling water and cook for 25-45 minutes, (refer to directions on the package). Red and yellow lentils cook quicker and may be ready in 10-15 minutes. Flavor beans and legumes once the cooking is done; salting the water or adding acidic ingredients before or during may affect the cooking process and texture.
Grains: A 3.5-ounce portion of cooked whole grains has anywhere between 3-13 grams of protein. Cook up a generous serving of your favorite grain. When stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, cooked grains can last at least a week and make for quick meals when paired with spices, vegetables and beans or lentils. Often cooked like a grain (although it’s really a seed), quinoa contains 4 grams of protein for a 3.5-ounce serving. Maybe you’ll even consider trying amaranth, farro and freekeh; a few lesser known grains. A 3.5-ounce serving of freekeh has 13 grams of protein and about 15 grams of fiber! It’s worth an experiment.
Nuts and Seeds: An ounce serving of nuts has between 3-9 grams of protein for the perfect portable snack. Roasted pumpkin seeds have nearly 10 grams for the same serving size. Chia and hemp seeds are a bit more expensive but are worthwhile additions to salads, sides, smoothies and desserts.
Vegan milks: Of all dairy-free milks, unsweetened soy milk is richest in protein. An 8-ounce cup has about 7 grams. Unsweetened almond, coconut and hemp milks are great too but have less protein per serving so you’ll want to rely on protein from other sources.
Seitan: Raw seitan, often made from vital wheat gluten, is an efficient protein source: one 3.5-ounce serving contains about 16 ounces of protein. Seitan can be steamed, simmered on the stove top or in a slow cooker, baked in the oven; different methods result in different textures. Prepared seitan is usually available in the refrigerated section of natural food stores but making it homemade is easy (and much tastier).
Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame: Tofu, tempeh and edamame are all whole food forms of soy. Tofu is made from coagulated soymilk and is easy to find in most grocery stores. Just a half cup serving has 10 grams of protein. Extra-firm tofu will not need to be pressed before using, just quickly drained of any excess fluid. Tofu makes a great addition to stir-fries, soups or salads and will take on the flavor profile you choose. Tempeh is a fermented form of cracked, partially-cooked soybeans that are formed into solidified cakes. Just a 4-ounce serving of tempeh provides 21 grams of protein and like tofu, it will take on whatever flavor you give it. Try it covered with BBQ sauce and baked for 20 minutes paired with your favorite summer vegetables.
Nutritional Yeast: Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast so it won’t cause your foods to rise. It is packed with protein and B-vitamins; just 2 tablespoons has 8 grams of protein. The flavor is savory and slightly cheesy and it a great topping for vegetables, grains and popcorn. The flavor is strong so try a small amount at first.
Chlorella: Chlorella is a green algae that is very nutrient-dense and often used in powdered form as an addition to smoothies and juices. Look for brands that have cracked the outer cell wall for easier digestibility. Just one tablespoon of high quality chlorella powder contains 5 grams of protein along with Vitamin A, Iron, B Vitamins, Iron, Magnesium and Zinc. Green is good!