10 Plant Proteins That Can Boost Your Health

When you think of protein, the image that comes to mind is likely a steak, possibly an omelet, maybe a scoop of powder or even a handful of nuts. Protein is not only a necessary building block of every cell in our being, but it is also integral in helping our bodies to build and repair tissues, including those torn down and built up in our muscles during cardio and strength building activities.

While red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, can be a good source of protein, according to the American Heart Association, it also contains more saturated fat and cholesterol than chicken, fish and vegetable protein sources. A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise your blood cholesterol and contribute to heart disease or make existing heart conditions worse. Furthermore, eating too much animal protein, specifically, also puts a strain on your liver, an organ that has a difficult time processing uric acid, one of the by-products of animal protein digestion.

Whether it's red meat's bad rap to blame or the rise in interest in health and wellness, though, it seems the tide may be shifting in a new direction for protein sources. In 2016, a report from Packaged Facts entitled "Food Formulation and Ingredient Trends: Plant Proteins" found that the demand for protein in the United States showed no sign of slowing, but is instead evolving to focus more on plant-based options due to their association with better health, not only for people, but animals and the planet as well. If you haven't already, it might be time to consider finding ways to easily work plant proteins into some of the foods you already eat in an effort to better your overall health.

"There has definitely been a rise in the popularity of plant-based foods. Not only are plant-based meals healthy, but they're often less expensive and more convenient than meat. There has been a huge increase in the marketing of plant-based protein products," registered dietitian Kaleigh McMordie says.

Plant Protein's Superpowers

Easier to Digest

Because our bodies don’t store protein, we need to eat it every day. Our bodies break down the proteins we eat into amino acids that aid our cells in growth, enzyme production and tissue repair. While amino acids are essential for living, there is no benefit to eating more than you need, as your body will either use them, burn them off as excess energy, store the excess calories as fat or excrete them. 

Between plant versus animal proteins, your body actually has to work harder to break down animal sources into separate amino acids before it can use them, which causes your digestion to slow. Leafy veggies and greens, on the other hand, are easier for your body to digest and therefore absorb their amino acids. Your body can then use the energy it saved on digesting plant proteins for more noble causes, like helping your body repair the muscles you used in your bootcamp class.

Not only are plant proteins easier to digest, your gut loves the fiber they contain. "Plant-based proteins are more affordable, often easier on the body [and] your gut. Your microbiome—often called your second brain and the biggest factor in the health of your immune system—loves plants. Overall, plant-based proteins are much better for you, for the planet and for your wallet," says Tania Van Pelt, author of "The Ageless Diet."

Better for the Environment

Although both meat-based and plant-based food systems require energy, water resources and land to sustain them, "The meat-based diet requires more energy, land and water resources than the lacto-ovo-vegetarian [or plant-based] diet. [For these reasons], the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is more sustainable than the average American meat-based diet," according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

If you are concerned with both your own health and that of the environment, then eating more plant-based proteins could be for you. "As people are becoming more concerned about their own health and the health of the environment, plant proteins are an inexpensive, low-calorie and sustainable option," says registered dietitian Vincci Tsui.

Helps Maintain Weight Loss

If you are concerned about your weight or actively trying to lose weight, plant proteins can play an important role in your efforts. Because fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes contain a lot of water in addition to fiber and protein, you can fill your belly with these foods without consuming a lot of calories.

"When you replace high-fat meat with plant protein, calories are slashed along with saturated fat while helping to improve the nutritional composition of your diet," Ashvini Mashru, MA, RD of Wellness Nutrition Concepts, LLC says. "Diets that contain plenty of protein, fiber and water usually make you feel fuller, faster and ultimately may decrease subsequent energy intake."

A study out of the University of South Carolina showed that a vegan or vegetarian diet can lead to greater weight loss results than those that included meat without counting calories. That's not to say you need to adopt a meatless lifestyle, but rather that by adding plant proteins and filling up on fruits and vegetables when you're hungry can help trim your waistline as well as provide you with the essential nutrients your body needs.

Eating Plant Protein

With the amount of protein powders on the market and the talk of protein so abundant these days, you might think the more protein you eat, the more muscles you have. But protein doesn't build muscle, stress to the muscles does, typically in the form of exercise.

After a workout, plant proteins can help maintain and build your muscles without adding extra fat or calories, especially if you are watching your weight. "Compared to animal sources of protein, plant-based sources of protein like legumes, nuts/seeds and some whole grains can also provide nutrients that can't be found in animal-based foods, like fiber and some healthy fats," Tsui says.

Fitness pro, sports nutritionist and herbalist Jeff Grayson Miller recommends plant over animal proteins whenever possible. "Processing animal protein is a long, energy-consuming, inflammation-causing process. That's the primary reason I recommend eating plant protein. Plants are also much more nutrient-dense than meat. You body needs 120 minerals, 17 vitamins and omega 3, 6 and 9 fats just to function. You can get all but one of these nutrients (B12) from plants, whereas meat lacks many essential nutrients," he says.

Miller recommends adding a salad to meals whenever possible to get your daily dose of healthy plant proteins. "That's probably the easiest source of leafy greens, and you can put almost any raw veggies you have on hand into a salad. Most people crave foods that are calorie-dense, rather than nutrient-dense, and that may have worked as hunter-gatherers, but now calories are much easier to come by than nutrients. Once you get your body into the habit of eating healthy, you will start to crave healthy, nutrient-dense food. The better you feel, the more you will want to eat those veggies," he says.

There are many ways to add more of these popular plant proteins to your diet, from snacking on a handful of almonds to blending kale into your morning smoothie. Familiarizing yourself with the wide-range of protein-packed plants opens up a world of recipe possibilities for every palate.

1. Lentils

A member of the pulse family, lentils are rich in dietary fiber, folate, magnesium and iron. Quick and easy to prepare, one cup of prepared lentils contains 18 grams of protein. Add cooked lentils to meat in tacos, as a salad topper or in soups. 
2. Buckwheat

A relative to the rhubarb plant, buckwheat is actually a fruit seed that is used as a common alternative to wheat or other gluten-containing grains. Rich in manganese, magnesium, copper and B vitamins, one cup of the seeds contains 23 grams of protein and 17 grams of fiber.
3. Protein Powders

When you haven't had time to stock up on produce to make a smoothie, or want to make sure you're getting all your macronutrients for the day, there are plenty of plant-based protein powders on the market. Brands such as ALOHA contain 18 grams of protein in two scoops.
4. Tofu

A vegetarian and vegan staple, tofu is made of condensed soy milk and takes on the taste of whatever it's being cooked with. Each half-cup serving contains 10 grams of protein and is high in manganese, calcium, iron and zinc and is low in calories and fat.
5. Spirulina

An algae found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers, spirulina contains protein (57 grams per 3.5 ounces), thiamin, riboflavin, iron and manganese. Commonly used as a dietary supplement in the form of a powder or tablet, you can also use it to bake.
6. Hemp Seeds

Don't be put off by their name—with 9.5 grams of protein in three tablespoons, these seeds (which are technically nuts) are very nutritious. Full of essential omega-3 fatty acids with more than 25 percent of their total calories coming from protein—more than both chia and flax seeds—hemp seeds can be sprinkled into smoothies, cereals and salads, or mixed with a handful of other nutritious nuts.
7. Nutritional Yeast

Two tablespoons of "nooch" can contain up to six grams of protein, fiber and a host of other good stuff, like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B12 and folic acid. Said to have an "umami" taste with a meaty or brothy flavor, you can sprinkle this yeast on top of popcorn or pasta, or stir it into soups or casseroles to your taste preference.
8. Amaranth

Similar to grains, but not quite a grain, amaranth is sometimes called a "pseudo-cereal" because of its similar nutritional profile. Gluten-free and easy to prepare, these protein-laden buds contain four grams of protein in one cup. Also packed full of calcium, phosphorous, iron and carotenoids, go ahead and pair with another grain for a side dish, or use it in flour form to thicken sauces, stews or soups.
9. Chia Seeds

Because chia seeds turn into a jelly-like substance as they absorb water, they serve as great food thickeners while boosting the nutritional content of your foods. With four grams of protein in two tablespoons, they are also a good source of fiber. Enjoy them in the morning by tossing a dash into your oatmeal, cereal or smoothies.

10. Quinoa

Another gluten-free grain (technically a seed) with loads of protein (one cup of cooked quinoa contains eight grams of protein), go ahead and use this one as the base grain for stuffed peppers, as a hot or cold cereal, or in stir-fry dishes.