When people switch toward a diet that is more plant-centered, a question often encountered is “Where do you get your protein?”  As it turns out, it’s easy to get more than enough protein from plant foods. For example, here’s how much protein we get from each of the following: a cup of lentils or beans (such as black, garbanzo,lima, navy, kidney, pinto, or white beans) provides 14 to 18 grams of protein. A half cup of peanuts provides 17 grams of protein and a quarter cup (4 level tablespoons) of peanut butter, 16 grams. For purposes of comparison, note that a quarter pound hamburger patty, often considered a heavy hitter in the protein department, provides 19 grams of protein. Most of the calories in meats actually comes from fat, rather than from protein. In contrast only 2 to 4 percent of the calories in lentils and the beans listed is derived from fat. The veggie “meats” that are available in a myriad of forms (and found in the produce section of major supermarkets) can easily provide as much protein as the biggest burger or chicken breast you can find. Furthermore, these products have little or no saturated fat and are cholesterol free.

This is not to say that everyone manages brilliantly upon shifting to a diet that is more plant centered. We’ve all heard of the people who end up thinking they must be the wrong blood type to be vegetarian.  In fact, the problem was not their blood type at all. It’s just that they never learned how to make something quick, easy, and delicious from lentils. They didn’t keep their fridge stocked up with tasty marinated tofu slices from the deli, or try out the various veggie burgers.  They haven’t discovered that a banana, a cup of soymilk and a handful of strawberries make a fine shake, providing 9 grams of protein.

Whatever your dietary choice, getting enough protein through the day makes a big difference. The good protein sources (especially beans peas and lentils) help to level out your blood sugar, and keeping your energy up throughout the day. Besides, these protein-rich foods also provide essential minerals, like iron and zinc.

How much protein do we need in a day, anyway? To meet our everyday needs for building new cells, enzymes, and for ongoing maintenance, we should aim to get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. Thus, the minimum recommended protein intake for a person weighing 139 pounds (63 kilograms) is 50 grams of protein, and for a person weighing 175 pound (79 kilograms) person is 63 grams.

If we aim for a little more than that, about 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight, here are protein goals for several different body weights.

Body weightin pounds Body weight in kilograms Recommended protein intake, grams
110 50 50
132 60 60
155 75 75
176 80 80

What does a day’s menu look like when the protein comes from plant foods? Here’s an example. The following menu provides 75 grams of protein (along with 1720 calories).  Soyfoods and lentils are the concentrated protein foods in this menu, contributing 60 percent of the day’s protein.  The other 40 percent comes from a variety of foods that you might not think of as protein sources.  However over the course of a day, these amounts add up.

Soyfoods are considered valuable contributors to the day’s protein, because they have an excellent balance of amino acids, and tend to be well digested. (By the way, don’t believe all the anti-soy hype you read, put out by competitive food industries). At the same time,  a menu that meets recommended protein intakes can easily be created without any soy. (Note that a cup of rice milk contains 0.5 grams of protein, much less than that of soy.)

Sample Menu

Protein (grams)

Breakfast
Orangejuice, 1 cup                            1.7
Oatmeal, 1 cup                                      6
Soy milk, 1 cup                                     7.7
Whole wheat toast, 1 slice                2.7
Almond butter, 1 tbsp                        2.4
Breakfast total:                                       20.5        (580 calories)

Lunch

Marinated tofu (3 oz) in sandwich     13.1
Whole wheat bread, 2 slices                  5.4
Carrot sticks, (7” carrot )                      1
Apple, 1                                                         0.3
Lunch total:                                                 19.8        (377 calories)

Supper
Curried lentils, 1 cup                           17.9
Brown rice, 1 cup                                 4.5
Broccoli, steamed                                2.9
Supper total                                            25.3        (474 calories)

Snack/Dessert (Shake)

Soymilk                                                      7.7
Banana, strawberries (1/2 cup)       1.7
Snack/Dessert total                                9.4            (288 calories)

Total protein:                                            75 grams (1719 calories)

A person with a bigger appetite, or an athlete who is building muscle might add a slice of toast with almond butter at breakfast, another half sandwich at lunch, and an extra half-cup of rice and of lentils.

Vesanto Melina, is a Registered Dietitian and co-author of nutrition classics. For more on protein and other nutrients, see Cooking Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian (in the US)Becoming Vegetarian (in Canada), Raising Vegetarian Children, Becoming Vegan, and the Food Allergy Survival Guide. She is based in Langley BC and regularly consults for people who wish to improve their health or are in dietary transition. Web: www.nutrispeak.com Email: vesanto@nutrispeak.com ; Phone: 604-882-6782.

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