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8 plant-based foods surprisingly packed with protein

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Apr 30, 2019

Mention the word, “protein,” and images of cattle, chicken or fish come to mind. But are animal sources our only supply of this vital nutrient? The answer to this is “no.” While nutrition information keeps pointing to the importance of protein, animal sources are not our only and best source of this nutrient. Many plant-based foods can also be very good options for obtaining protein.  How else do you think vegans get by without eating any animal foods and still manage to maintain a healthy protein status?

Not that long ago back in 2009, just one percent of the US population reported eating vegetarian or vegan.  Today around 5% or about 16 million Americans have adopted the plant protein lifestyle.  That means if you are someone who refrains from or seldom eats meat, eggs, milk, fish, or poultry, your diet may be lacking in protein.  Insufficient protein can lead to loss of muscle mass and reduced immunity among other things.  Even though animal products are our best sources of high-quality protein, the good news is plant protein sources can be just as healthy in providing the necessary protein you need.

There are the usual plant proteins we think of such as beans, nuts or whole grains, but what about other sources that someone who is vegan would eat?  Fortunately, there are many plant sources of protein to choose from.  The following list are of some foods that may get overlooked yet still provide a good source of this nutrient:

  1. Green peas and split peas

Okay, maybe green peas are not your favorite but did you know this garden vegetable contains as much protein as a single serving of peanut butter?  One cup of peas has eight grams of protein in addition to almost 100% of your daily vitamin C needs along with plenty of satiating fiber.

Split peas are another variety of peas not to pass on by.  Low in fat and high in fiber, split peas are often confused with lentils.  One cup of boiled split peas has a whopping 16 grams of protein plus they are also filled with calcium and folate.

  1. Quinoa

Now here is a protein powerhouse.  This gluten-free grain contains up to eight grams of protein in one cup and is high in calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.  Instead of using rice, replace it with quinoa in a stir-fry or add it to cooked greens. Other ideas for incorporating this extremely versatile food into your diet include the following:

  • Add cooked and cooled quinoa to your leafy green salad for an instant protein boost
  • Make quinoa “taco” meat. Since quinoa is a great vegan alternative to meat, it acts as a perfect and flavorful substitute for taco meat when cooked with spices and salsa.
  • Stir quinoa into soups and stews not only for extra protein but also to add bulk and texture.
  • Experiment by adding in cooked quinoa to ramp up the health value of treats like muffins, cakes, and cookies.
  1. Chickpeas and chickpea flour

Chickpeas are a very versatile food with more than seven grams of protein in a half cup.
Easily add them to a salad, pureed with tahini, garlic, vinegar and some oil to make hummus or roast them for a delicious protein boost.

Chickpea flour is a common and popular ingredient in Indian and Pakistani cuisine.  This gluten-free flour has a nutty, savory flavor and best of all, is bursting with protein – one cup contains 20 grams.  This flour can be used in homemade waffles, cookies, muffins, and flatbreads.  If you have trouble finding chickpea flour at the grocery store, it may be labeled with a different name such as besan, gram, or garbanzo bean flour.

  1. Sundried tomatoes

This one may surprise you the most as most people don’t associate tomatoes as being a good source of protein.  Yet sundried tomatoes pack in eight grams of protein in one cup and are a perfect addition to add to chili and other bean dishes as well as salads and salsas.

  1. Hemp seeds

If you haven’t tried hemp seeds, this is one to put on your grocery list.  The tiny seeds are loaded with protein and essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein. One cup contains six grams of protein, the same amount as one large egg.  Very versatile, hemp seeds can be easily sprinkled over salads, smoothies, cereals, oatmeal, or rice dishes.

  1. Pumpkin seeds

Make this seed a year round favorite and not just in the fall.  One ounce of these delicious seeds contains nine grams of protein.  Very portable, pumpkin seeds are a perfect pick-me-up protein source along with high amounts of vitamin A, potassium, zinc and magnesium.  This crunchy treat can also be added to a trail mix, oatmeal, or salads.

  1. Spirulina

Naturally grown in salt-water sources, this blue-green algae has a rich history dating back to the 16th century Aztecs in Mexico.  It also has a plethora of important nutrients such as iron and the B-vitamins plus packs eight grams of protein in two tablespoons.  When compared to beef which has 22 percent protein, spirulina is 65-70 percent protein.

Spirulina comes in a powdered form and can be added directly to juice or water.  If the taste is not to your liking, you can combine it with fruit such as pineapple or banana and blend together in a smoothie.

  1. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are another vegetable brimming with unexpected protein at eight grams in one cup.  Couple this with their fiber and you’ve got a vegetable that can help you meet your protein needs.  Add in mushrooms to soups, stews, salads, meatloaf, or stir-fries.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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