When many people think about protein, images of animal products tend to pop into one’s head. Did you know though that every – yes, every – whole food contains protein? From your morning banana to your evening salad, finding plants packed with protein is easy to do. And not only is it easy to do, it’s easy for your body to use.
Plant-based foods are practically 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.
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 which 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*. We’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 the list.
*More is not necessarily better when it comes to protein. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for the average, sedentary adult is only 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Some healthcare professionals argue that this level 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.
Health Benefits of High-Protein Plant Foods
The last time you steamed up some squash or pumpkin, did you save the seeds? One ounce of pumpkin seeds contains 9.35 grams of protein! That’s over two grams more than the same quantity of ground beef. Their high protein content and level of other nutrients makes them a wonderful addition to any salad or snack.
Health Benefits of Pumpkin Seeds
- 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.
Grilled asparagus with a balsamic vinegar drizzle is enough to make my mouth water. Eight spears of this delectable veggie has 3.08 grams of protein, which is pretty potent for such a slender fellow.
Health Benefits of Asparagus
- Vitamin K: Asparagus is the number one plant-based source for Vitamin K, which is indicated in preventing osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
- Vitamin A and Folate: Anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, heart healthy, and indicated in the prevention of birth defects.
- Diuretic: Reduce water retention.
- Aphrodisiac: Oh là là!
Asparagus is also a good source of potassium, glutathione, vitamin C, antioxidants (glumatic acid, glycine and cysteine) and more.
Once we started learning about the health benefits of cauliflower and all its cruciferous plant family members, we started to give this veggie its due respect. One cup cooked = 2.28 grams of protein and a truckload of nutrients to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer!
Health Benefits of Cauliflower
- Carotenoids (beta-carotene and Phytonutrients): Including kaempferol, ferulic acid, cinnamic acid and caffeic acid. These nutrients help protect your body against free radical damage.
- Sulforaphane: Strong indications as a cancer fighting agent.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Reduce inflammation.
Cauliflower is also a good source of vitamin C, manganese, glucosinolates (glucoraphin), vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine) and B9 (folic acid), phosphorus and potassium, indole-3-carbinol (strong cancer fighting indications) and more.
If you grew up in America you’ve probably had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or two, but do you know how healthy this popular snack really is? One ounce (approximately 28 peanuts dry roasted without salt) contains 6.71 grams of protein.
Health Benefits of Peanuts
- Co-Enzyme Q10: Protects the heart during times of low oxygen.
- Resveratrol: Bioflavonoid believed to improve blood flow in the brain and lower your LDL cholesterol.
- Niacin: Assists in recovery of cell damage, and protects against Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive problems.
Peanuts are also a good source of calcium, iron, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, folates, copper, manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, vitamin E, antioxidants (polyphenols p-coumaric acid) and more.
Oats have gotten a bad rap over the years as a breakfast moosh fit for little orphan Oliver or old school prison inmates, but truly they are a food fit for kings. One cooked cup has a whopping 6.08 grams of protein along with being a great source of fiber. It’s also helpful for stabilizing your blood sugar levels.
Health Benefits of Oatmeal
- Selenium (antioxidant combined with vitamin E): Boosts immunity and mood, as well as having indications as a cancer-fighting agent.
- Weight loss: Keeps blood sugar levels even. The high level of fiber keeps you full longer.
- Magnesium: Helps with energy production, maintaining strong bones and possible relief of PMS.
- Phosphorus: Assists with bone health, boosts energy and is important for healthy digestion.
Oatmeal is also a good source of tryptophan, Iron, calcium, B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin; vitamin E, zinc, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and more.
You may have seen this little bean hiding in your stir-fry (sprouted) or perhaps in a fresh wrap, but it hasn’t gotten much cred over the years. Most beans are a great source of protein and water soluble fiber, and while mung beans aren’t at the top of the bean protein list they make a good showing. With one cup containing 3.16 grams, it is low in calories, but high in content.
Health Benefits of Mung Bean Sprouts
- Lecithin: Lowers blood cholesterol levels, reduces liver fat.
- Zinc: Along with the protein and other vitamins in mung beans, Zinc can help strengthen your nails.
- Phytoestrogens: Contain many anti-aging components for the skin. These phytoestrogens act on estrogen-receptors found in the skin, stimulating the synthesis of hyaluronic acid, collagen and elastin, which are all essential components of the skin’s structure.
Mung bean sprouts are also a good source of vitamin A, many B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, folic acid, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc and more!
This is a wonderful snack to have around at all times, both for its protein content and nutrient density. Almonds are at the top of the nut chain when it comes to nutrient density, which means they will keep you full longer. With one ounce (approximately 24 nuts) containing 6.03 grams of protein they are a wonderful addition to any snack or meal.
Health Benefits of Almonds
- Phenylalanine: Aids in the development of cognitive function.
- Nutrient Rich: Keeps you full longer which can aid in weight loss.
- Vitamin E/Magnesium: Important for heart and muscle health.
Almonds are also a good source of calcium, phosphorous, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, niacin, managese, riboflavin, folic acid and more.
We all know spinach is a special green. From Popeye to the posh salads you’ll find in fine dining restaurants, spinach has gotten some good press and with due reason. One cup cooked = 5.35 grams of protein. It is also filled with flavonoids (a phytonutrient with anti-cancer properties). Spinach is good for your skin, your eyes, your brain and your bones!
Health Benefits of Spinach
Neoxanthin and violaxanthin: Anti-inflammatory epoxyxanthophylls.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin: Protect the eyes against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
- Vitamin K: Ensures a healthy nervous system and brain function, healthy bones (1000% of the RDA of vitamin K in each full cup of spinach!)
- Vitamin A: Strengthens immunity and promotes healthy skin.
Spinach is also a good source of vitamin C and other antioxidants, flavonoids, beta-carotene, manganese, zinc and selenium and more.
Broccoli has many of the same amazing compounds as cauliflower, which is logical due to the fact that they are both in the cruciferous plant family. As a child, some of us remember enjoying broccoli simply for the fact that the pieces looked like tiny trees. Now, as an adult, we can enjoy their impressive nutritional profile AND the fact that they look like tiny trees. One cup of chopped broccoli = 5.7 grams of protein and a heap of child-like enjoyment.
Health Benefits of Broccoli
- Glucoraphanin (which the body processes into sulforaphane): Helps the skin to detoxify and repair itself, along with ridding the body of H. pylori which increases the risk of gastric cancer.
- Beta-carotene, zinc and selenium: All work to strengthen the immune system.
- Indole-3-carbinol: A powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogen, which may hinder the growth of breast, cervical and prostate cancer along with boosting liver function.
Broccoli is also a good source of folic acid, vitamin C, calcium (more calcium in fact then most dairy products), lutein and zeaxanthin, B6, folates and more.
All the plants that have preceded this one on our list fall short in comparison to quinoa.* On its own it is a perfect protein and the king of all grains. It has the highest percentage of protein content at 16 percent per volume! This means that a measly ¼ cup (dry) quinoa has 6 grams** of protein. If you paired this grain with a couple of spears of asparagus and a beautiful cauliflower, broccoli and sprouted mung bean stir–fry, you would have an easy meal with 30 grams of protein or more!
* For those who are understandably concerned about the politics of Bolivian grown quinoa, rest-assured that there is such a thing as American-grown quinoa.
**This protein content information was obtained from a quinoa distribution company.
Health Benefits of Quinoa
- Magnesium: Relaxes muscles and blood vessels, which can help regulate blood pressure.
- Manganese and copper: Both work as antioxidants to protect the body from free radicals.
- Lignans: A phytonutrient found to reduce the risk of heart disease as well as certain types of cancer.
Quinoa is also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, vitamin E, selenium, manganese, tryptophan copper, phosphorus and more.