You are here:

Getting your protein from plants

Photos: Thinkstock

Hummus, also known as pureed chick peas, is rich in protein and make a delicious dip. It’s also great as a spread on sandwiches.

It’s an easy way to increase your fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

When it comes to getting protein in your diet, meat isn’t the only option. Mounting evidence shows that reducing meat and increasing plant-based proteins is a healthier way to go. “A diet with any type of meat raises the risk of heart disease and cancer, when compared with a vegetarian diet,” says cardiologist Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a Harvard Medical School professor and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.

Simple sources

There are plenty of ways to get protein from plants. Whole grains are a good source, and they’re complex carbohydrates as well. Try quinoa, barley, bulgur wheat, amaranth, millet, and brown and wild rice. Nuts, nut butters, and seeds are another source of protein, and they are rich in healthy unsaturated fat. There are many to choose from: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts; almond butter and cashew butter; and pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. The richest source of plant-based protein is the legume family: lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas, and beans—black, kidney, garbanzo, lima, navy, pinto, white, and kidney. The soybean, another legume, is the source of tofu and tempeh, which are rich in protein. However, we can’t be sure how much dietary soy is safe, so stick to two to four servings per week.

Where to start

You don’t have to replace all of the meat in your diet with plant-based protein; switching out even one serving of red meat per day can make a big difference. “You can reduce your risk of heart attack significantly by substituting half a cup of beans or an ounce of nuts for one serving of red meat per day,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. McManus recommends a gradual shift toward more plant-based protein over a six-month period. Stop making meat the “star” of the plate and instead enjoy the combinations of a variety of plant-based proteins.

Have fun creating

Get creative when adding plant-based protein to your menu. “An easy way is soup,” says McManus. “Use beans and whole grains in broth.” She recommends beans and nuts in stir-fries, salads, pasta dishes, and sauces. Add cooked whole grains to a leafy salad. If dairy is allowed in your diet, mix low-fat plain Greek yogurt with cooked quinoa and fruit for a breakfast parfait. Pop tofu chunks into salads and pastas, or have a tofu burger. Snack on whole-grain crackers with bean salsa or hummus. The point is to enjoy your meal and get the protein you need while cutting down on the saturated fat and cholesterol found in meat. The results will be healthy and delicious.

The power of protein

Three Bean Soup

We need protein (made of amino acids) to build strong muscles, bones, and skin. But not all proteins you eat are created equal.

Complete proteins provide the essential amino acids that our bodies need to build new proteins. They’re found in most animal-based proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese.

Incomplete proteins, such as vegetables, grains, and nuts, are lower in essential amino acids. But you can combine them to create complementary proteins that do provide enough essential amino acids.

It’s not necessary to eat these incomplete proteins at the same time, just within the same day. “Just eat a variety. You don’t have to worry about mixing proteins unless all animal products are off the menu,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. How much protein you need each day depends on your age, gender, and level of physical activity. The average person needs 50 to 65 grams of protein per day. If that sounds complicated, McManus reminds us healthy diet recommendations include a wide range of protein—anywhere from 10% to 30% of your daily diet.

Posted by: Dr.Health

Back to Top