When we think of protein-rich foods, we don’t usually think of vegetables. Most veggies have just a few grams of protein per cup, and they don’t have complete proteins.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t supply protein for our bodies. We just need to understand the idea of complete proteins and how to combine foods to maximize plant-based protein.
Proteins are made of amino acids. Our bodies need 20 different amino acids to function well. There are nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t make on their own: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
We need to get those from food. Our bodies can combine them to do the important jobs protein does for us: building and repairing muscles, for example.
Animal foods like eggs, meat, and dairy products contain all 9 of the essential amino acids we need. When we eat these foods, our bodies break them down into their amino acids, like a child taking apart Legos. They can then be used in the ways our bodies need them to be used.
Animal foods provide complete protein: protein containing all the essential amino acids.
Plant foods usually provide some but not all of the amino acids. They don’t provide complete protein. There are some exceptions — quinoa, for example, has complete protein. Soybeans, too. Vegetables generally don’t.
However, they can be combined to make complete proteins. Tomatoes, for example, are lacking isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine and valine. Combine them with carrots and pumpkin seeds, and you have a complete protein.
Carrot and tomato soup is delicious — but that doesn’t mean that you have to combine the two in a single dish. If you eat tomatoes for breakfast and carrots for lunch, your body has access to all the amino acids over the course of the day.
In fact, if half your protein comes from animal sources, you can feel confident that your body has enough of all the essential amino acids available.
If you’re vegan, it makes sense to get in the habit of combining grains and legumes — like beans and rice or whole wheat bread and peanut butter — to make sure you cover all the bases.
If you eat some animal foods, though, you don’t have to focus too much on food combining.
What about those veggies?
Among plant foods, beans, whole grains, and nuts are the protein heavy lifters. Quinoa has 8.5 grams of complete protein per cup, cooked pinto beans have over 15 grams of protein per cup, and almonds have about 6 grams per cup.
Non-starchy vegetables also have some protein. When it comes to protein per calorie, they can be higher than some high-protein foods.
For example, Brussels sprouts have almost 6 grams of protein per cup, and 38 calories. Ground beef has ten times the protein — and ten times the calories. You’d have to eat a lot of Brussels sprouts to match beef cup for cup. However, if you eat plenty of veggies you’ll get vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants as well as protein.
Enjoy some of these high-protein veggies:
- Green peas
- Collard greens
- Snow peas
- White mushrooms