“How do you get your protein though?” It’s the question that plagues every person on a plant-based diet. When it comes to muscles, it’s no surprise that protein is a lifter’s first concern. You can guarantee that on every muscle building forum across the Internet, you’ll find mention of the quintessential chicken-and-brown-rice diet, supplemented with the vitamins and minerals it’s sure to be missing, and you’re probably curious as to why discussions about plant-based proteins are few and far between. It’s simple: The “Complete Protein” Myth.
In order for a food to be considered a “complete protein,” it must contain all nine Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s). Protein rich foods like chicken, fish, and beef contain all nine EAA’s, and for decades have been regarded as the only way to build lean muscle or gain strength. People often put plant-based proteins in the backs of their minds and make the incorrect assumption that they’re of no help, living under the pretense that every protein you consume must be “complete.” But do all of your proteins really need to have all nine of those Essential Amino Acids?
In short: no. Every bite of protein we eat doesn’t have to be “complete.” In fact, as long as you aren’t deficient in any of the EAA’s, your body is utilizing your food. The best way to ensure that you’re not EAA deficient is to be conscientious of consuming an adequate amount of all nine everyday, but according to most dieticians, plant-based diets often contain a variety of these amino acids that virtually guarantee this goal is attainable with minimal effort. Basically, as long as your plant-based protein intake is varied, you can be sure you’re consuming all of the Essential Amino Acids you need. So why choose plant proteins over animal proteins?
It’s simple - plant-based proteins and diets are generally better for you. Outside of the ethical and environmental reasons people choose to abstain from animal proteins, empirical research has shown time and time again that people on plant-based diets have lower instances of heart diseases, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, as well as longer life spans. It stands to reason that plant proteins might not be a bad addition to your diet - so where do you begin?
Some of the best sources of plant-based proteins are as follows:
Though grains tend to be a staple in most lifters’ diets, the masses have written them off as nothing more than carbohydrates – and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Though it is true that grains like white and brown rice tend to be low in protein, only about 5 grams per cup, they make up only a small percentage of the protein-rich alternatives that exist within this family. In fact, vital wheat gluten (or seitan) is actually a protein that has been isolated from wheat flour, and contains about 21 grams of protein per each ounce. Seitan can be made a “complete” protein by cooking it with soy sauce, which will secure your meal as containing all nine of those Essential Amino Acids.
Essentially, most grains can be prepared with beans or legumes to create a complete EAA profile, which generally make for a tasty combination anyway. (i.e. beans and rice, peanut butter toast or oatmeal, hummus pitas, etc.) Aside from protein content, grains are an excellent source of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals like iron and magnesium.
Other popular protein-rich grains include: wild rice (7g protein/cup), steel cut oats (4g protein/oz), and couscous (6g protein/cup).
Often regarded as only usefully for their content of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals – nuts can actually also be an excellent source of plant-based protein. Nuts like almonds and pistachios contain 6 grams of protein per ounce, and have comparatively low amounts of saturated fats. Aside from the protein content and heart-healthy fats, nuts are an easy, on-the-go food. Most nuts can either be consumed raw or found in the form of nut butters. Products like almond butter (7g protein/2 tbsp) and cashew butter (6g protein/2tbsp) can be purchased at most grocery stores, and are a great alternative to peanut butter or other plant-based protein spreads.
Though they lack some of the Essential Amino Acids necessary to be considered “complete” proteins, nuts and nut butters can be consumed with grains like oats or whole-wheat crackers to fulfill all nine EAA requirements.
Beans and Legumes
Contrary to popular belief (and its own name), peanuts are legumes. Characterized by their underground growth, peanuts belong to a family that includes the likes of lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans. Although the soybean is the only legume that is considered a “complete” protein, fan favorites like peanut butter or hummus (chickpeas) can be eaten with whole grain bread or chips to ensure that consumers are ingesting all Essential Amino Acids they need.
High in protein and fiber, the most popular legumes, or legume-derived foods, are as follows: lentils (18g protein/cup), peanut butter (8g protein/2 tbsp), hummus (3g protein/2 tbsp), chickpeas (15g protein/cup), and soybeans (22g protein/cup).
You would be hard pressed to find someone on a plant-based diet that doesn’t regularly consume beans or legumes, and there’s a reason why. Beans come in many shapes, sizes, and flavors, and are often high in protein, fiber, B vitamins, potassium, and calcium. Though alone they lack all nine EAA’s they need to be considered a “complete” protein, beans can generally be prepared with grains like rice to satisfy all necessary daily amino acid requirements.
Among the most common high protein beans are: black beans (15g protein/cup), pinto beans (15g protein/cup), fava beans (13g protein/cup) and kidney beans (15g protein/cup).
One of the only “complete” proteins in the plant-based arsenal, quinoa is often regarded as a “super seed.” Though usually mistaken for a grain, due to the way it’s cooked and consumed, quinoa is actually a species of goosefoot. Quinoa is a great, lower carbohydrate and calorie alternative to rice, and contains 24 grams of protein per each uncooked cup. Additionally, quinoa contains almost 50% of the recommended daily value of iron and has twice the fiber of most grains.
Other high protein seeds include: buckwheat (23g protein/cup), hemp seeds (10g protein/oz), chia seeds (5g protein/oz), sunflower seeds (5g protein/oz), and pumpkin seeds (5g protein/oz), among many others. Seeds can be prepared with legumes, like lentils or chickpeas, to ensure that none of your EAA’s will become deficient.
Possibly the best kept secret of this list is nutritional yeast, another plant-based “complete” protein anomaly. As you probably guessed by its name, nutritional yeast is packed full of nutrients, and has a similar consistency to Parmesan cheese. Though nutritional yeast is actually harvested from molasses, it is high in B-12, zinc, folic acid, and you guessed it – protein. Nutritional yeast contains 14 grams of protein in each ounce, and oddly enough, is low in fat, sodium, and sugars. Aside from being a great source of protein, nutritional yeast is renown for its “cheesy” taste, and can be added to everything from pasta to popcorn to create delicious dishes or to thicken your favorite sauces.
Plant-Based Protein Supplement Powders
In addition to consuming foods in the categories mentioned above, many people seek out protein supplements in order to meet their daily protein consumption quota. “Supplement” is a word used to define “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” Lifters often confuse supplements as their main sources of nutrients, and this alone can impede many people from reaching their potential – especially athletes who predominately consume plant-based proteins. With that being said, the amount of plant-based protein supplements with amino acid profiles that closely mimic whey are on the rise, and already there is no shortage of great tasting, easily digestible options.
Aside from plant-based protein powders that contain a “complete” amino acid profile, protein isolates like pea, wheat, hemp, soy, and rice can be used to satisfy any EAA’s you might be deficient in, and to raise your over all protein consumption.
In conclusion, there are seemingly endless amounts of options out there for lifters who choose to abstain from animal-based proteins, or have decided to diversify their diets. Though many people may still hold a steadfast belief in the “chicken-and-brown-rice-diet”, and will claim that each meal must contain “complete” proteins, literature exists to say otherwise. There are many reasons to choose plant-based proteins throughout your day, and hopefully you’ve discovered at least one.
Resources and References
Hey Damon - great article. Had no idea that quinoa was a seed?! I've been meaning to try nutritional yeast for a while but haven't gotten round to it. Sounds good.
well done, Damon!! You continue to earn my awe and respect!