The question: I want to eat less meat. Which plant foods match meat and chicken when it comes to protein?
The answer: There’s no question a plant-based diet is good for your health. Plant-based eaters have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and a reduced risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity. I encourage all of my clients to include at least four plant-based meals – that means no meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy – in their diet each week to get more fibre, antioxidants and protective phytochemicals.
Nearly all plant foods, including grains, vegetables, beans, lentils, nut and seeds, contain protein. Beans, lentils, soybeans, soy foods, nuts and seeds and nut/seed butters are very good sources of protein, rivalling many animal foods. But when it comes to amino acids – the building blocks of protein that your body uses to make proteins like muscle, enzymes and immune cells – plant and animal proteins differ.
Protein-rich foods supply your body with 20 amino acids, 11 of which can be made by your body and are called non-essential amino acids. The remaining nine however, must be supplied by your diet because your body can’t synthesize them on its own. They are called, as you may have guessed, essential amino acids (EAAs). If your diet does not supply enough of these essential amino acids, the rate of protein building slows down.
Animal protein foods contain all EAAs in sufficient quantities to support growth, repair and maintenance of body tissues. For this reason, animal proteins are considered complete proteins. Plant proteins, on the other hand, are low in one or more of the nine EAAs. The proteins from plant foods are considered incomplete proteins for this reason. Soy (soybeans, edamame, tofu, etc.) is an exception as it provides all nine essential amino acids.
We used to think you had to combine a plant food low in an EAA with another containing large amounts at meals. By doing so, vegetarians would be able to consume all nine essential amino acids. But we now know that as long as you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day, your body will get all the amino acids it needs to create those vital body proteins.
Back to your question: Which vegetarian protein foods match animal proteins in terms of protein content. Consider that a three ounce serving of meat, chicken or fish provides roughly 21 grams of protein. You’ll find the same amount in one cup of soybeans and one cup of firm tofu. Lentils and black beans are also very high in protein, providing 18 grams and 15 grams per one cup, respectively.
Besides soy and legumes, eating grains like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and nuts and seeds also boosts the protein content of plant-based meals. Here’s how certain plant foods stack up when it comes protein:
Which plant foods have the most protein?
|Legumes & Soy Foods|
|Beans, baked, cooked, 1 cup||14|
|Black beans, cooked, 1 cup||15.2|
|Kidney beans, cooked, 1 cup||13.3|
|Lentils, cooked, 1 cup||18|
|Soybeans, cooked, 1 cup||22.2|
|Soy ground round, cooked, 1/3 cup||10|
|Soy beverage, plain, 1 cup||8|
|Soy nuts, roasted, ¼ cup||15|
|Tofu, firm, ¾ cup||15.5|
|Veggie dog, 1 small||8|
|Veggie burger, 1||14|
|Nuts & Seeds|
|Almonds, ¼ cup||7.6|
|Almond butter, 2 tbsp.||6.7|
|Mixed nuts, ¼ cup||6|
|Peanuts, ¼ cup||9.4|
|Peanut butter, 2 tbsp.||8|
|Pumpkin seeds, ¼ cup||8.8|
|Sunflower seeds, 1/3 cup||6.2|
|Tahini (sesame butter), 2 tbsp.||5|
|Walnuts, ¼ cup||4.5|
|Amaranth, cooked, 1 cup||9.3|
|Barley, cooked, 1 cup||3.6|
|Bread, whole-what pita pocket, 1 large||6|
|Brown rice, cooked, 1 cup||5|
|Buckwheat groats (kasha), cooked, 1 cup||5.7|
|Kamut, cooked, 1 cup||11|
|Millet, cooked, 1 cup||6.1|
|Oatmeal, cooked, 1 cup||6|
|Quinoa, cooked, 1 cup||8.1|
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel’s Direct; lesliebeck.com.