How to Power Up on Plant Proteins – Sharon Palmer, The Plant Powered Dietitian


Learn how to swap out animal proteins for more plant proteins to maximize health and environmental benefits.

More and more people are putting plant proteins—beans, lentils, peas, soyfoods, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—at the center of the plate. According to research conducted by Midan Marketing and MeatingPlace, 70 percent of meat eaters in the U.S. are substituting a non-protein meal at least once a week, and 22 percent say they are doing it more often than a year ago. Why are plants soaring? Health benefits and environmental benefits are at the top of the list of reasons why consumers, from vegetarians to omnivores, are swapping out animal proteins for plant proteins.

Health Power in the Plant

Research has linked plant-based diets with lower risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Sherene Chou, MS, RD, a sustainable food and nutrition consultant, says, “Plant foods are associated with a lower risk of disease because plants contain more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and are rich in fiber.” In fact, a Harvard study found that people who increased their red meat intake by about 3.5 servings more per week raised their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 50 percent, while those who reduced their red meat intake lowered their type 2 diabetes risk by 14 percent.

Moroccan Chickpea Sorghum Bowl

Better for the Planet

Studies consistently show that plant-based diets are better for the environment. Diets high in meat increase greenhouse gas emissions from food production and global land clearing, as well as rate of species extinction, according to research. In fact, data from Loma Linda University found that you could significantly reduce your carbon footprint by reducing animal foods in the diet: semi-vegetarians had a 20 percent lower carbon footprint than non-vegetarians, and pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) were 24 percent lower, vegetarians were 28 percent lower, and vegans were 42 percent lower.

Plant Protein Basics

Proteins are made of chains of amino acids; nine are essential, meaning they must be included in the diet: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Proteins in the human body exist in consistent amounts of the essential amino acids—these levels may also be found in soy products and animal foods and are considered “complete” or “high-quality,” compared with other plant protein sources, which may have a lower percentage of at least one amino acid.

Sesame Tempeh Grain Bowl

Plant Protein Quality

All plant foods contain at least some of every essential amino acid, but in general, legumes are lower in methionine and most other plant foods are lower in lysine. As long as you consume a variety of plant foods throughout the day—even if you are exclusively vegan—you can get an adequate amount of amino acids. Chou says, “You do not need to purposefully ‘combine’ foods during each meal to make them ‘complete’ because your body can store essential amino acids. It is critical to eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day for your caloric needs, and to include high-quality plant proteins at each meal.”

Plant Protein Strategies

Include high-protein foods (see Plant Protein Food Sources) in each plant-based meal in order to feel satisfied, suggests Jack Norris, RD, plant-based expert and co-author of Vegan for Life. He adds, “Simply removing animal products from your diet is going to leave you with mostly low-calorie foods, such as salads, vegetables, and fruit. Eating only these foods could quickly leave you feeling hungry and weak.”

Nourish Lentil Bowl

Plant Protein Options

While a couple of decades ago, you might have been hard pressed to find tofu, veggie burgers, or plant-based milk in mainstream supermarkets or restaurants, now they are everywhere. Most supermarkets have plant-based sections, and restaurants are offering more options, including Taco Bell (which has a “Vegetarian Certified” menu), Wendy’s, Chipotle, and TGIF. The best plant proteins come from whole, nutrient-rich foods, such as pulses (beans), soy foods (tofu, tempeh), nuts, and seeds.

Try these delicious plant-based meal options:

Plant Protein Food Sources
FoodServingProtein (g)
Almonds1 ounce  (23 nuts)6
Black beans, cooked½ cup8
Black-eyed peas, cooked½ cup7
Brazil nuts*1 ounce (6–8 nuts)4
Cashews1 ounce (18 nuts)4
Chia seeds1 ounce (2-1/2 tablespoons)4
Chickpeas, cooked½ cup8
Fava beans, cooked½ cup7
Flaxseeds1 ounce (3 tablespoons)5
Hazelnuts1 ounce (21 nuts)4
Hemp seeds, shelled1 ounce (3 tablespoons)9
Kidney beans, cooked1/2 cup8
Lentils, cooked½ cup9
Macadamia nuts1 ounce (10–12 nuts)2
Peanut butter2 tablespoons8
Peanuts1 ounce (28 “nuts”)7
Pecans1 ounce (19 halves)3
Pine nuts1 ounce (3 tbsp)4
Pinto beans, cooked1/2 cup8
Pistachios1 ounce (3-1/2 tablespoons)6
Pumpkin seeds (pepitas), hulled1 ounce (3 tablespoons)7
Sesame seeds1 ounce (3 tablespoons)5
Soybeans, cooked½ cup11
Split peas, cooked½ cup8
Sunflower seeds, hulled1 oz (3-1/2 tablespoon)5
Tofu, regular, with added calcium½ cup (4 ounce)10
Walnuts1 oz (14 halves)4
White beans, cooked1/2 cup8

Source: USDA

For other resources on plant proteins, check out the following:

Plant-Based Protein Tips
Pulses, Cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet
Top 5 Plant-Based Protein Hacks
6 Tips for Boosting Protein on a Plant-Based Diet

For protein-rich plant-based recipes, check out the following:

Savory Steel Cut Oats with Spinach, Mushrooms and Tofu
Scrambled Turmeric Tofu with Mushrooms and Greens
Mushroom Spinach Tofu Pie
Grilled Spicy Sesame Tofu

Main image: Roasted Tempeh Summer Salad, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN



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