We’ve heard the craze about “What the Health” we’ve heard the counter that you can’t get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. So here’s the question. Can you really get the proteins you need through plants? You may have heard that animal proteins tend to contain a good balance of all the amino acids that we need. On the other hand, plant proteins are considered incomplete proteins because plant proteins are low in certain amino acids. Bottom line, all proteins are made up of amino acids, although the amount and type of each amino acid varies based on the protein source.
In total, there are around 20 amino acids that the human body uses to build proteins. These amino acids are classified as either essential or non-essential. Your body can produce non-essential amino acids. However, it cannot produce essential amino acids, which need to be obtained through your diet.
We’ve often been told that we need to combine certain plant based protein sources to get the “complete protein” that we would otherwise be getting from an animal source. Recent research has found that in a well balanced diet, it is not necessary to eat complete proteins in the same serving. In other words, as long as you get the necessary essential amino acids throughout the day, your body is able to use them as needed. Here is a list of the essential amino acids and some plant based foods that contain them!
Classified as a semi-essential or “conditionally” essential amino acid, depending on the developmental stage and health status of the individual.
Find it in: almonds, beets, Brazil nuts, buckwheat, carrots, cashews, celery, chickpeas, coconut, cucumbers, flax seed, garlic, green vegetables, hazelnuts, kidney beans, leeks, lentil, lettuce, nutritional yeast, onion, parsnips, pecans, pine nuts, potatoes, pumpkin seeds, radishes, sesame seeds, sprouts, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
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Especially needed during infancy for proper growth and development—once was believed to be only essential for newborns, but is now known to be essential for adults, as well.
Find it in: apples, bananas, beans, beets, buckwheat, carrots, cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, citrus fruits, cucumber, dandelion, endive, garlic, greens, legumes, mushrooms, pomegranates, radish, rice, seaweed, sesame, spinach, spirulina and turnip greens.
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Necessary for muscle production, maintenance and recovery—especially post-workout. Involved in hemoglobin formation, regulating blood sugar levels, blood clot formation and energy.
Find it in: almonds, avocados, cashews, chickpeas, coconut, lentils, olives, papaya, seaweed and most seeds like sunflower.
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Essential for growth hormone production, tissue production and repair. Prevents muscle wasting and is used in treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Find it in: almonds, asparagus, avocados, chickpeas, coconut, lentils, oats, olives, papayas, rice, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
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Great for calcium absorption, bone development, nitrogen maintenance, tissue repair, hormone production, antibody production.
Find it in: amaranth, apples, apricots, beans, beets, carrots, celery, cucumber, dandelion greens, grapes, papayas, parsley, pears, peas, spinach and turnip greens.
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The “cleaner”—important for fat emulsification, digestion, antioxidant (cancer prevention), arterial plaque prevention (heart health) and heavy metal removal.
Find it in: black beans, Brazil nuts, cashews, kidney beans, oats, sesame seeds, spirulina, spinach, sunflower seeds and watercress.
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A precursor for tyrosine and the signaling molecules: dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and epinephrine (adrenaline), as well as the skin pigment: melanin. Supports learning and memory, brain processes and mood elevation.
Find it in: apples, beets, carrots, cashews, flax seed, hazelnuts, nutritional yeast, parsley, pineapples, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, spinach and tomatoes.
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Monitors bodily proteins for maintaining or recycling processes.
Find it in: almonds, beans, carrots, celery, chickpeas, collards, flax seed, greens, green leafy vegetables, kale, lentils, lima beans, nori, nuts, papayas, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
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Needed for niacin production, serotonin production, pain management, sleep and mood regulation.
Find it in: Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, chives, dandelion greens, endive, fennel, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, snap beans, spinach, sunflower seeds, turnips and walnuts.
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Helps muscle production, recovery, energy, endurance—balances nitrogen levels and is used in treatment of alcohol-related brain damage.
Find it in: apples, almonds, bananas, beets, broccoli, carrots, celery, dandelion greens, lettuce, nutritional yeast, okra, parsley, parsnips, pomegranates, potatoes, squash, tomatoes and turnips.
In addition to protein, the food you are eating has other factors to consider. For instance, while red meat is a great source of complete protein, it also increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. One study found that a diet rich in protein (about half from plants) lowered blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease more than a standard diet or a healthy high-carb diet ( 16). The EcoAtkins trial found that a low-carb, high-plant protein diet helped lower cholesterol and blood pressure more than a high-carb, low-fat diet (17).
So what plants are good sources of protein and how much protein do they offer? Here are a couple charts that attempt to show you just that.
Animal vs. Plant Protein – What’s Better?
How do you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?