Plant-based diets are growing in popularity. But with their widespread appeal, there’s been a growing focus on how to get enough protein while eating plant-based foods. While it’s true that plants do contain protein, it’s not always a one-to-one comparison with animal foods. That is, it is possible to eat a balanced diet with sufficient protein and amino acids without relying on animal foods. If you’re plant-based and focused on protein, here are six things to consider.
Protein needs vary by body weight and frequency of exercise. The minimum daily protein requirement for a 150-pound healthy adult is 55 grams. Growing children, active adults, seniors and athletes may need more. Read labels and pay attention to the protein content of foods you eat regularly. Tracking this information is a useful way to assess protein intake.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein that the body uses to build muscle, support immunity, and regulate metabolism. A group of nine amino acids is only found in protein-rich foods, and getting enough of these essential amino acids (EAAs) is essential for a plant-based diet. Most animal-based foods contain all EAAs, but not most plant-based foods (even those with lots of protein). A bias toward a variety of plant-based foods is key to making sure you’re getting enough EAAs.
Nuts and seeds are often overlooked plant proteins. Pistachios are the highest protein nuts, and seeds like chia seeds and hemp can significantly boost protein needs when eaten regularly as part of a balanced diet.
Avoid eating just one meal (most people eat protein at dinner) and omit protein-rich foods for the rest of the day. Since amino acids are not stored in the body for later use, it is ideal to eat protein with every meal if possible so that your body can benefit from amino acid intake throughout the day.
Soy has a bad reputation, but it’s one of the best plant-based protein sources. It contains all nine EAAs, and the extra tofu provides about 4 grams of protein per ounce (an ounce of chicken breast contains about 7 grams). It’s also versatile, affordable, and easy to find. Whether you choose a soy product like tofu, edamame, or a vegan meat substitute, soy is a winner in the protein space.
Beans, lentils, peas and peanuts are healthy legumes rich in plant protein. Eating a diet rich in grains and legumes can help ensure you get enough EAAs.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Athletic Trainer and has Dana White Nutrition, specializing in culinary and sports nutrition.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian.