How to Get More Plant-based Protein

Everyone needs a certain amount of protein in their diet. For many people, that means eating meat, poultry, or fish.

But you may choose to eat less meat (or no meat at all) for health, environmental, or moral reasons. The good news is that you can get plenty of protein from a plant-based diet. Choosing the right plant-based foods can help ensure that you get the correct amount of nutrients, including protein.

Here’s what you need to know about protein for vegetarians and vegans, along with tips for increasing plant-based protein in your diet.

Why Is Protein Important?

The human body needs protein to function. Protein consists of amino acids, which your body uses to build and repair muscles and bones. Amino acids also make essential hormones and enzymes in the body.

How much protein do you need?

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is equal to about 45-70 grams of protein per day for most people. Your protein needs can vary depending on your age, body weight, and level of fitness. (For instance, you may need more protein if you’re undergoing cancer treatment, are elderly, or are an athlete.)

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about high-protein diets. High-protein diets may be trendy, but they won’t benefit most people. Your body will treat extra protein as excess calories, possibly leading to weight gain.

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Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

All protein sources are not created equal. Getting all your protein from meat and dairy products (especially red meat) increases the amount of saturated fat you ingest. Too much saturated fat raises your risk of heart disease.

Eating processed meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs can increase your risk of certain cancers, including colon cancer.

Going vegetarian or vegan, or even cutting back on meat and dairy products, can have many health benefits. Eating a plant-based diet can reduce your risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Certain types of cancer.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Obesity.
  • Type 2 diabetes.

Sources of Plant Based Protein

You’re ready to cut out meat — but you may wonder how to get more plant-based protein into your diet. The good news is that it isn’t that difficult. (Bonus: Eating less meat is also good for your budget, as vegetarian meals are cheaper to make.)

Some years ago, experts advised combining specific foods (like grains and beans) within each meal. The thinking was that the different amino acids in each would “balance” your protein. That theory has since lost favor with nutritionists, who are now more concerned with overall daily intake of protein.

High-protein plant-based foods include whole grains, beans, chickpeas, soy foods, nuts, and seeds. Here is a breakdown of the protein in typical plant-based foods.

  • Beans (black, kidney, or pinto) — 14-16 grams of protein per cup.
  • Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) — 14-16 grams of protein per cup.
  • Cooked whole grains (barley, bulgur, brown rice) — 5-8 grams of protein per cup.
  • Cooked whole grains (quinoa, millet, amaranth) — 8-12 grams of protein per cup.
  • Edamame — 23 grams of protein per cup.
  • Flaxseeds — 5 grams of protein per three tablespoons.
  • Hummus — 7 grams of protein per one-third cup.
  • Lentils — 18 grams of protein per cup.
  • Nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts) — 6-9 grams of protein per quarter cup.
  • Peanut butter — 8 grams of protein per two tablespoons.
  • Peanuts — 10 grams of protein per quarter cup.
  • Potato, baked — 3 grams of protein.
  • Seeds (pumpkin, hemp) — 7-12 grams of protein per quarter cup.
  • Soy nuts — 16 grams per quarter cup.
  • Tofu — 22 grams of protein per cup.
  • Whole grain bread — 5-8 grams of protein for two slices.

Tips for Increasing Plant-Based Protein in Your Diet

If you’re switching to a plant-based diet and have concerns about getting enough protein, try these strategies:

  • Add nuts to salads, oatmeal, or main dishes to boost protein. Unsalted nuts are also a nutritious high-protein snack.
  • Keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with options. Always have nuts, beans, fresh veggies, and whole grains on hand. You’ll be more likely to grab them for a quick meal or snack when you’re in a hurry.
  • Load up on beans. They are filling, and full of fiber and protein. Use them as a base for chili, salads, casseroles, or soup, or black bean burgers.
  • Make easy substitutions. Experiment with tofu, which can stand in for meat in a variety of recipes. Swap beans for meat in your burrito, and opt for hummus instead of ranch for a savory dip.
  • Pack your lunch. You’ll be less likely to succumb to fast food or other unhealthy options if you plan ahead. Bean, quinoa, or chickpea salads, unsalted nuts, and hummus are lunch options packed with protein.
  • Start small. You don’t have to go cold turkey on meat and dairy. Think about adding a “meatless Monday” into your meal rotation, and build from there.
  • Work meal prep into your weekend routine. You’re more likely to put together easy plant-based meals during the workweek if you prepare the basics ahead of time. Chop veggies, cook large portions of rice and quinoa, and rely on bowls and wraps for easy dinners.

Should I Supplement With Protein Powders?

There are many protein supplements on the market. They may seem like a good way to boost protein intake and feel healthier. However, it pays to be cautious when adding protein powder to smoothies and other drinks.

Protein powders come from plants such as soybeans, peas, and potatoes. But many protein powders also contain added sugar, artificial flavorings, and thickeners. They can be a source of unwanted calories and sugar, leading to weight gain and potential health problems like diabetes.

Another issue: The FDA doesn’t evaluate the labeling of protein powders. You’re relying on the manufacturer to correctly state what the ingredients are.

It’s always a good idea to check with a registered dietician before starting any new eating plan. Unless they recommend supplements for a specific reason (like training for a marathon) it’s better to get protein from natural plant sources.

American Institute for Cancer Research, How to Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet, Link

National Library of Medicine, Vegetarian Diet, Link 

Penn State Extension, Plant-Based Diet, Link 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Enjoy Vegetarian Meals, Link

American Heart Association, Vegetarian, Vegan, and Meatless Meals, Link 

Harvard Health, The hidden dangers of protein powders, Link

National Library of Medicine, Efficacy and safety assessment of protein supplement - micronutrient fortification in promoting health and wellbeing in healthy adults - a randomized placebo-controlled trial, Link

Colorado State University Extension, Vegetarian Diets, Link

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