Written by Jaz Popa

Protein is a vital nutrient that we must all get in our diet. It gives us energy and helps fuel our bodies. It is also essential for building our bodies. Protein makes muscles, tendons, organs, skin, enzymes, hormones, and more. Protein carries oxygen throughout our bodies and makes antibodies that can fight infections. Not getting enough protein in our diets can be detrimental to our health by causing tissue to break down. That being said, protein is obviously very important to consume, however we don’t need as much as you might think!  

MyPlate recommends that half of our plate be fruits and veggies whereas just a quarter of it should be protein. However, most Americans plates look the opposite. Half the plate is often filled with protein and then there is a small side of vegetables. This is very apparent in many restaurants.  

The amount of protein we need daily depends on our age, sex, and level of physical activity. The average sedentary woman needs 46 grams of protein per day and the average sedentary male needs 56 grams. However, the average American consumes 100 grams of protein per day, almost double of the recommended guideline.  Eating too much protein can lead to excess fat buildup and weight gain.  

Grams can be hard to visualize however, so let’s put those numbers into context. One ¼ pound hamburger patty is equal to 28 grams of protein. This means that one average sized burger patty is equal to about half of the protein we need in one day. One single chicken breast is equal to 43 grams of protein! This is almost all the protein we need on one day and that isn’t including any other food consumed throughout the day. Other foods like cheese, milk, yogurt, eggs, bacon, and fish are all high in protein and are greatly present in the American diet. Many Americans have an animal protein source in every meal they eat throughout the day. So, it can easily be seen that many Americans consumption of protein far exceeds the USDA recommended amount. This means that more of our plates are filled with protein rather than other nutrient rich foods like fruits and veggies! 

One common misconception about vegetables is that they don’t have protein or that they don’t have enough protein to meet our daily needs. Most vegetables do contain protein, just in smaller amounts than animal products. However, we can easily get enough protein in our diets from plants alone. Plants like legumes and grains are very high in protein. Beans have about 15 grams of protein per cup, lentils have about 18 grams per cup, peas and quinoa have about 9 grams per cup, and nuts have about 6 grams per cup. Even other veggies are rather high in protein! Corn, brussels sprouts, potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, and avocados all have about 5 grams of protein per cup. To put that into perspective, one egg is about 6 grams of protein.  

The main benefit of getting our protein from plants, is that we are also getting a multitude of other vital vitamin and nutrients that are often lacking in our diets. We also don’t get any saturated fat from plant-based protein as we do from animal-based protein.  

The one downside to some plant-based protein revolves around amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are necessary to make proteins and maintain the tissue in our bodies. There are different amino acids and not all of them are essential, however there are some that the body is unable to make. This means that they must be consumed. There are 9 essential amino acids that we must be sure to get in our diets. All animal-based proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids. This means that they’re a complete protein. However, most plants are not complete proteins. They all contain different amino acids, so we must be more conscious when we eat plants as protein to be sure we get all the amino acids in our diet that we need.  

This is where complementary proteins come in. This is where two or more plants that may be high in one amino acid and low in another are combined to create a complete protein and have all 9 essential amino acids. For example, grains are low in lysine and high in methionine, but legumes are high in lysine and low in methionine. This means that when we eat grains and legumes together, such as rice and beans, we get a complete protein, making them complementary proteins. We don’t have to eat complementary proteins together at meals. They can be eaten at different meals; they just have to be consumed at some point throughout the day. However, there are a few plant-based proteins that are also complete proteins. Soy, quinoa, chia, hemp, amaranth, and buckwheat have all 9 essential amino acids. 

When it comes to complimentary protein combinations, the simplest thing to remember is that whole grains pair with legumes (nuts or beans) to make a complete protein. Some common complementary protein combos are: 

  • Rice and beans 
  • Corn and beans  
  • Nut butter and whole wheat bread or crackers 
  • Hummus and whole grain pita 
  • Bean or lentil soup with whole grain role 
  • Fried rice with peas 
  • Mushrooms and broccoli  
  • Many seeds and greens 

Check out these high protein plant-based recipes that make a complete protein: 

Black Bean and Vegetable Quesadillas

Apple Wraps

Easy Hummus (Better than Store-Bought)

Vegetable Pancakes

Yogurt Parfait

Lentil Mango Salad

Spicy White Bean Dip

Black-eyed Pea and Corn Salad

Rice and Beans Botana

Stir Fry

Lentil Soup

Pasta with Beans and Greens

So, when it comes to protein, remember, you don’t need as much as you think you do, and you can absolutely get enough from plants! Many plant-based foods you already eat are likely a combination that make up a complete protein. Play around with different recipes and get creative. Try new ways of getting protein in your diet, like through plants! It will be delicious and nutritious so your bellies and bodies will thank you!