Plant Based Protein
Why Eat Plant Based Proteins?
When food is eaten, nutrients are broken down and used by the body to maintain normal body functions. One nutrient important for maintaining normal body functioning is protein. Protein is important for building and repairing cells, contracting muscles (eg. the heart), maintaining fluid balance among other important functions. The amount of protein someone should be consuming depends on several factors including age, sex, activity level, pregnancy/lactation among other factors. To learn more about protein needs, check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.¹
There are nutritional benefits of including plant based protein in your diet including lower levels of saturated fat intake, and higher levels of beneficial nutrients such as fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, carbohydrates among other nutrients.¹, ²
Adding plant based proteins to your diet doesn’t mean you're a vegetarian or vegan, it’s just a way of incorporating more plant foods into your diet. Several sources of plant based proteins are discussed below.
5 Plant Based Foods that are High in Protein
Lentils are part of the legume family, native to western Asia among other parts of the world. Several varieties of lentils exist including brown, red, orange, yellow, green and black lentils. The lens shaped edible seed of lentils contains the bulk of its nutrient composition.
One review paper discussed the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of lentils that promote health and protect against certain conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. A large part of these benefits is attributed to the high concentration of phenolic compounds, a type of phytochemical concentrated in plant foods and shown to have promising health promoting benefits. In fact, legumes have the highest phenolic acid concentration among legumes. ³
Valuable nutrients found in lentils include fiber, iron, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, B vitamins among other nutrients. Lentils are also a prebiotic. Prebiotics help feed the good bacteria in your gut and thereby promote a healthy gut. ³
Easy Lentil Soup Recipe:⁴ A satisfying and filling meal for the upcoming colder months.
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil or preferred oil of choice
2 chopped celery sticks
2 - 4 carrots, chopped
1 Onions chopped
2 cups of green or brown lentils
7 cups of vegetable broth or alternative broth of choice
3 cups of coarsely chopped baby spinach
3 cloves of minced garlic
1 and ¾ cup of crushed or diced tomatoes
Seasonings: Cumin (½ teaspoon), smoked paprika (1 teaspoon), salt and pepper to taste
Feel free to switch up the veggies based on what you have available.
Rinse lentils and set them aside
Next, cook carrots, onions, celery and garlic in a big pot with some olive oil. Cook for about 4-5 minutes.
Then add the rest of the ingredients, except for the spinach and lemon juice.
Simmer until lentils are tender and the mixture has thickened. This should be between 25 and 35 minutes.
To make the mixture creamy, add mixture to a blender and blend.
Lastly, stir in the spinach and lemon juice.
Beans are a type of legume. Beans fall into both the protein and carbohydrate category. Beans have been shown to improve blood sugar levels. One randomized cross-over trial found that in comparison to white rice alone, white rice with ½ cup of either black beans or chick chickpeas resulted in a lower blood glucose value.⁵
However, there were several important limitations to this study including a very small sample population (12 participants). The sample population consisted of only healthy adult women who were mostly Caucasian, except for two women who were Hispanic. For these reasons, this study is not generalizable to the whole population.
Additionally, legumes in general have been found to release hormones that aid promote the feeling of fullness. This functional property of beans may lead to improved weight maintenance.⁵
Beans are rich in important nutrients including beans, folate, fiber and iron. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 1 - 1.5 cups of legumes be consumed per week. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are published every five years and provide evidence based nutrition advice for individuals over the age of two.
Nuts are a rich source of protein, beneficial fats, and fiber.
In one study, nuts and seeds were found to reduce the risk of heart disease by 40%. ⁷
Seeds such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds are rich in protein, beneficial fats, fiber and many vitamins and minerals. These are perfect for topping off your oatmeal, yogurt parfait, cereal, or add them to your baked goods.
Flax seeds specifically have to be ground up in order to access their nutritional benefits. The beneficial components of flax seeds include their polyunsaturated fatty acid profile ( beneficial fat which helps raise good cholesterol levels in the body), lignin and fiber. The beneficial fat components of flaxseeds have been found to reduce inflammation. In fact, flax seeds have been shown to decrease blood pressure in patients diagnosed with peripheral artery disease. This demonstrates the health promoting benefits of incorporating flaxseed into the diet on a regular basis. ⁷
New flaxseed containing foods products are becoming more widely available in the food market. Some of the many flaxseeds containing food products include flaxseed oil, flaxseed milk, cereals, granola bars, among other food sources. Flax seeds are relatively heat stable, maintaining their beneficial fat content even when baking at 178 ℃. Additionally, it’s nice nutty smell makes it a perfect addition to baked goods. So, the next time you’re baking some muffins, consider adding a tablespoon or two of ground flax seed into the mix to boost the nutritional profile of your muffins. ⁷
Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding Recipe: ⁸
Ingredients for 1 serving:
3 tablespoons of chia seeds
½ cup of milk
1 tablespoon of Maple syrup
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract ( not needed but provides a little extra flavor)
Toppings: fruits, granola, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut flakes, etc.
Mix 3 tablespoons of chia seeds with milk
Add the cocoa powder and syrup
stir and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
After, giver an additional stir. Add toppings and refrigerate for 3+ hours
Grains can contain considerable amounts of protein. Some of the protein rich grains are listed below.
Protein rich grains include:
Oatmeal (5 grams of protein/ ½ cup dry)
Quinoa (6 grams of protein/ ¼ cup)
Couscous (6 grams of protein/ ¼ cup)
Whole wheat pasta (6 - 8 grams of protein/ ½ cup)
Wild rice (6.54 grams/cup)
Buckwheat (22.5 grams of protein/cup)
Protein content was estimated using the USDA Food Data Central. Different brands may yield a different protein content. ⁹
It is important to mention that not all grains are created equal. Wheat kernels are made up of three different parts including the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole grains and whole wheat products retain all parts of the seed. This is important as the bulk of nutrients are retained in the germ and bran portions of the wheat kernel. The bran portion of the seed is rich in fiber. The germ is packed with B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, iron and B vitamins. The endosperm contains the starch and protein.⁹
In comparison to whole grains and whole wheat food products, refined grains, such as white rice and white bread, have gone through a milling process which removes the nutrients from the germ and bran portions of the kernel. The endosperm is what is left.¹º
Because of the nutrient dense composition of whole grains and whole wheat food products, it is recommended to consume at least ½ of your grains as whole grains. ⁹
Plant based proteins come in many forms and offer benefits beyond energy and protein. You don't need to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy the tasty and nutritious benefits of these protein sources.
Written by Helayne Speroni on behalf of Supriya Lal
Gordon B. How much protein should I eat? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/how-much-protein-should-i-eat. Published May, 2019 Accessed October 2020
American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(6):748-65. doi: 10.1053/jada.2003.50142.
Ganesan K, Xu B. Polyphenol-rich lentils and their health promoting effects. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(11):2390. doi: 10.3390/ijms18112390. PMID: 29125587; PMCID: PMC5713359.
Taylor, N. The Best Lentil Soup. Nora Cooks. https://www.noracooks.com/vegan-lentil-soup/. Published October 2020. Accessed October 2020. Recipe inspired by NoraCooks, adjusted for the purposes of this blog by Helayne Speroni
Winham DM, Hutchins AM, Thompson SV. Glycemic response to black beans and chickpeas as part of a rice meal: a randomized cross-over trial. Nutrients. 2017;9(10):1-12 doi: 10.3390/nu9101095.
Tharrey M, Mariotti F, Mashchak A, Barbillon P, Delattre M, Fraser GE. Patterns of plant and animal protein intake are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality: the adventist health study-2 cohort. Int J Epidemiol. 2018;47(5):1603-1612. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyy030
Parikh M, Maddaford TG, Austria JA, Aliani M, Natticadan T, Pierce GN. Dietary flaxseed as a strategy for improving human health. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):doi: 10.3390/nu11051171.
Bryan, L. Chocolate Chia Pudding. Downshiftology with Lisa Bryan. https://downshiftology.com/recipes/chocolate-chia-pudding/. Published May 2019. Accessed October 2020. Recipe inspired downshiftology, by Adjusted for the purpose of this blog by Helayne Speroni
Harvard T.H. Chan; School of Public Health. The nutrition source; whole grains. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/whole-grains/. Accessed October 22, 2020
United States Department of Agriculture. Food Data Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/. Accessed October 2020