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food for thought

Beans and lentils are nutrient-packed (and inexpensive) protein replacements for animal protein.Baiba Opule/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

If you’re making healthy changes to your diet by eating less meat and more plants, you might wonder if you’re getting enough protein. Or, perhaps you worry that the protein in plants is inferior to that found in animal foods.

Depending on which foods you sub in for animal foods, it is possible to fall short of your daily protein quota.

The good news: There are plenty of plant foods – beyond the obvious tofu and lentils – that can shore up your daily protein intake. The protein content of some might surprise you.

How much protein?

Dietary protein supplies amino acids, building blocks for muscle, bone, skin, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, enzymes and thousands of other bodily compounds.

As such, a diet with sufficient protein supports immune function, muscle-building and repair, bone and joint health, digestion and wound healing along with many other processes.

How do I maintain – and gain – muscle while losing weight? Eat more protein and add resistance exercise

Sedentary individuals require 0.8 g of protein per kilogram body weight per day. A 75 kg (165 lb) inactive person, for example, needs 60 g of protein daily.

Adults 65 and older are advised to consume more protein each day – at least 1.0 to 1.2 g per kilogram body weight – to preserve muscle mass and muscle function

Regardless of age, regular exercise increases daily protein requirements to 1.2 to 2 g per kilogram body weight, depending on type of exercise.

Animal vs. plant protein

Plant protein is absorbed less efficiently than animal protein, due, in part, to the indigestible fibre in plant foods. But the difference is thought to be insignificant since the North American diet typically contains more protein than required.

Animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids, ones the body can’t make on its own. Plant proteins are lacking one or more essential amino acids. Whole soy foods (e.g. soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh) and pea protein are exceptions; these protein-rich plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids.

Even if you eat a fully plant-based diet, you can get all the essential amino acids your body needs by consuming a variety of plant protein foods each day.

Getting more protein from plants

Diversify your protein intake with the following plant foods; they’re exceptional sources of other nutrients, too.

Pulses

Beans and lentils are nutrient-packed (and inexpensive) protein replacements for animal protein. One cup of black beans and pinto beans, for instance, each delivers 15 g of protein, along with 15 g of fibre and plenty of folate, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Pastas made from black beans, lentils, chickpeas and edamame are other ways to add satiating plant protein to your diet. Explore Cuisine’s Black Bean Spaghetti serves up, per 85 g dry (about 1.5 cups cooked), 39 g of protein; the same amount of Chickapea Organic Penne (made of chickpeas and lentils) provides 20 g of protein.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts are an easy way to add protein to meals and snacks. One-quarter-cup of almonds has 7.5 g protein; an equivalent serving of pistachios provides 6 g.

Seeds, too, offer up a decent protein hit. One-quarter-cup of pumpkin seeds contains 10 g of protein, not to mention a hefty amount of magnesium (191 mg); women need 310-320 mg of magnesium each day, men require 400-420 mg.

Two tablespoons of hemp and chia seeds each deliver 6 g of protein along with calcium (chia seeds have 132 mg per two tablespoons), magnesium, iron and zinc. Toss hemp or chia seeds into salads, sprinkle over avocado toast, stir into yogurt, add to oatmeal or blend into smoothies.

Whole grains

While not typically considered “plant protein foods,” certain whole grains add a surprising amount of protein to meals. One cup of cooked freekeh offers 12 g of protein, while one cup of cooked quinoa and farro each supply 8 g.

Teff, a gluten free whole grain, delivers 10 g of protein per one cup cooked; it’s also a good source of fibre, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. Add it to stews and pilafs, toss cooked teff into salads or serve it as porridge.

Vegetables

Don’t discount vegetables when it comes to protein. Most provide 3 to 4 g of protein per one cup. Green peas, though, deliver 8 g of protein per cup. One cup of cooked spinach has 5.5 g.

Dairy alternatives

Soy milk and pea milk have the protein equivalent of cow’s milk (8 g per one cup). Non-dairy yogurts and cheese are typically low in protein.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD