How Do You Get Protein From Plants?

How Do You Get Protein from Plants?

Download On Track with Barix: How Do You Get Protein from Plants?

The Basics

Protein is a powerhouse used for the building, maintenance, and repair of almost all the tissues in the body. It keeps the immune system strong. It supplies energy and a sense of fullness long after eating.

The body doesn’t store protein the same way it does fat and carbohydrates, so it needs a fairly steady dietary source. Protein is made up of 21 amino acids—the body can make 12 of them, but it needs to get nine amino acids directly from foods and beverages.

Protein from animal sources is considered “complete,” meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body can disassemble and reassemble into the specific proteins it needs. Most plant-based protein sources are missing one or more essential amino acids, therefore are referred to as “incomplete.” No worries, as long you eat a variety of foods and enough overall protein is consumed, the wondrous body is able to keep enough “spare parts” or essential amino acids around to build whatever protein is needed.

 Why Plant-Based?

Animal proteins (meat, fish, poultry and dairy) are concentrated complete proteins. They are the only dietary source of vitamin B12. Vitamin D is found in oily fish, eggs and dairy. Heme iron, the form best used by the body, is found in red meats. In general, smaller quantities of food or beverages, important to consider after weight loss surgery, are needed to meet protein goals. Why would anyone consider getting all or part of their protein from plant based sources? There are some potential downsides to animal proteins:

  • Diets that rely heavily on animal sources of protein are typically higher in saturated fat, cholesterol, unwanted hormones, antibiotics, and potential carcinogens.
  • Processing meat, similar to many other foods, enhances its disease potential. Processed red meat, in particular, has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and early death.

On the other hand, studies show, diets that get the majority of protein from plants are linked with many health benefits:

  • Those who avoid animal products, vegetarians, tend to have lower body weights, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels. They also have a lower risk of stroke, cancer and death from heart disease.
  • Eating a lower- carb, higher-fat plant-based diet may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure more than a higher-carb, lower-fat plant-based diet.
  • Replacing 2 servings of red meat with legumes 3 times a week may improve cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Plants are rich sources of fiber, vitamin and minerals.

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.   –Michael Pollan

Balance is the Key

Eating a balanced diet of fresh, wholesome, unprocessed foods that provide adequate protein is key to a healthy body. You may decide to focus on animal sources, plant sources, or a combination of the two to meet your daily protein goal.

Plant-Based Protein Sources

Food Serving  Size Calories Protein (gm) Fat (gm) Carbs (gm)
Seitan 1/3 cup 118 21 2 4
Tempeh 2 oz. 109 11 6 5
Peanuts ¼ c. 204 10 17 6
Almonds ¼ c. 207 8 18 8
Powdered Peanut Butter 2 T. 60 6 1.5 5
Lentils, cooked ¼ c. 56 5 0 10
Tofu 2 oz. 35 4 1.5 1
Black beans, organic canned ¼ c. 60 4 0 11
Spirulina, dried 1 T. 20 4 0.5 2
Walnuts ¼ c. 164 4 16 3
Edamame ¼ c. 32 3 1 2
Hemp Seeds 1 T. 55 3 5 1
Chickpeas, organic canned ¼ c. 53 3 1 8
Sunflower Seeds 1 T. 51 2 5 2
Quinoa, cooked ¼ c. 56 2 1 10
Chia seeds 1 T. 58 2 4 5
Flaxseed 1 T. 55 2 4 3
Broccoli ½ c. 15 1 0 3
Kale, raw ½ c. 16 1 0 3
Mushrooms ½ c. 7 1 0 1


Soy is a plant-based protein source available in different forms such as tofu, edamame, tempeh, and soy milk. In contrast to most plant-based protein, soy contains all 9 essential amino acids.

Tofu (soybean curds) is a very versatile food, taking on the flavor of the seasonings and foods it is prepared with. Extra firm tofu is best for baking, grilling and stir-fries, while soft tofu is suitable for sauces, desserts, shakes and salad dressings.

Edamame (young soybeans often still in the pod) are soft and can be cooked or eaten directly from the pod (note: the pod itself is not edible). You can also find fresh edamame that has been removed from the pod—great in salads, rice dishes, Japanese recipes, or just popped in your mouth. If you’re looking for a crunchy snack, edamame can be roasted or baked with a little seasoning.

Tempeh (fermented soybeans) has a firm, dense cake-like texture. It may also contain grains, beans and flavorings. It has a strong, nutty flavor, but also tends to absorb the flavor of foods it is mixed with. It can make tasty chili, soup, sandwiches, stir-fry, breakfast dishes, and tacos.

Soy Milk is a comparable alternative to cow’s milk providing 7 grams of protein and 300 mg of calcium per cup. It’s also a rich source of iron and B-vitamins. Look for no-added-sugar versions.

Beans, Peas, and Lentils

Lentils contain almost 9 grams of protein per ½ cup serving. They are also a good source of fiber, iron and potassium. They are often added to soup, stew, curry dishes, and rice.

Chickpeas can be eaten hot or cold. You can process them into hummus, add them to a salad, roast in the oven or add to stews.

Black beans are a favorite for any south of the border dishes or black bean soup. Buy organic canned beans if you’re looking for convenience without unwanted added ingredients.

If you keep good food in your fridge, you’ll eat good food.   –Errick McAdams

Nuts and Seeds

Peanuts are protein-rich and full of healthy fats. Keep portions in check with 100 calorie packs—from the store or measure out your own.  Powdered peanut butter is a low calorie option to use in recipes, make a fruit dip or add to a smoothie.

Almonds are not only a good protein source, but also a rich-source of vitamin E—great for the skin and eyes.

Chia seeds have complete protein and are rich in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Sprinkle on a salad, add to a smoothie or make chia pudding. They only have 2 grams of protein per tablespoon, but are easy to add to different foods throughout the day.

Chia Pudding

1 1/2 cups soy milk, no added sugar (no added sugar nut milks can be used too)
1/2 cup chia seeds
1-2 Tbsp. sugar free maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

Optional: serve with fresh fruit

Whisk all ingredients (except optional fruit) together to combine. Cover and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight. The pudding should be thick and creamy. If not, add more chia seeds, stir, and refrigerate for another hour. Keep uneaten portion covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Hemp seeds are a complete protein powerhouse at 5 grams of protein per tablespoon. Add to smoothies and sprinkle on salads or other foods.

Overnight Smoothie

1/4 cup rolled oats
1 scoop chocolate protein powder
2 Tbsp. shelled hemp seeds
¾ cup soy milk, no added sugar
1 Tbsp. sugar free maple syrup
½ tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt

Add all ingredients to blender and blend on high until smooth and creamy. Pour into a glass, cover and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. In the morning, you have a delicious protein drink ready to go!

Spirulina is dried blue or green algae. It contains 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. It is also a good source of iron, B vitamins, and manganese. Find it online and add to smoothies, or sprinkle on food to boost protein content.

Quinoa is a high-protein grain that contains all of the essential amino acids. When cooked, it contains 8 grams of protein per cup. It is also a good source of magnesium, iron, fiber, and manganese. Quinoa can fill in for pasta in soups and stews, substitute for meat in many dishes, and boost the protein of salads.

Vegetables, especially those that are dark green and leafy contain protein. Alone, they are not enough to meet protein goals– pair them with quinoa, beans, soy or other rich-protein sources. Broccoli has 4 grams of protein per stalk, kale has 2 grams per cup, and 5 mushrooms have 3 grams of protein.

Seitan is made from mixing wheat gluten with various spices. It is used as a meat substitute. Just one serving provides 21 grams of protein. Seitan can be marinated, baked and cut into slices like meat; used as a ground beef substitute; sliced into strips for fajitas or stir-fries; or threaded onto skewers and baked or grilled.

Plant-based protein powders and drinks are a good option if you’re cutting more animal protein out of your diet. They are often made from soy or a variety of plant proteins combined to provide all essential amino acids.

Bottom Line

You’ve taken a big step to improving your health with weight loss surgery. Reducing your dependence on animal products—one meal a week or all the time may help you take your health to the next level. It’s fun to experiment with new foods and learn how the foods you are eating impact your health and well-being.


Marinated Tempeh
Adapted from the

8 oz. tempeh
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1½ Tbsp.  sesame oil
2 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp. lime juice
3 Tbsp. sugar free maple syrup

Fill a saucepan with 1 inch of water. Add tempeh and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Steam for 5 minutes, flip and steam for an additional 5 minutes. Rinse tempeh, pat dry and cut into thin bite-sized pieces.

Mix together all other ingredients. Add tempeh and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 2-24 hours. Stir occasionally to make sure tempeh is evenly coated.

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay tempeh out evenly on baking sheet. Reserve any leftover marinade. Just before baking, drizzle with a little more sugar free maple syrup and soy sauce. Bake for 22-30 minutes or until caramelized and a deep golden brown color. Remove from oven and brush with any leftover marinade. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 213 calories, 13 grams protein, 15 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrate, 208 mg sodium.

Vegetarian Chili

2  medium zucchini (chopped)
1  medium onion (chopped)
1 cup green pepper (chopped)
1 cup sweet red pepper (chopped)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 (28 ounces) cans diced tomatoes
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (15 ounce) can organic pinto beans (drained)
1 (15 ounce) can organic black beans (drained)
1  jalapeno pepper (seeded and chopped)
¼ cup fresh cilantro (minced)
¼ cup fresh parsley (minced)
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cumin

In a large pot, saute zucchini, onion, peppers and garlic in oil until tender. Stir in all remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes or longer, stirring occasionally. Makes 12 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 185 calories, 8 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 31 grams carbohydrate, 262 mg sodium.




About Deb Hart

Deb Hart is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. For the last 28 years, she has been helping bariatric surgery patients reach their health and weight goals. She teaches people how to set up a lifestyle that supports a healthy weight. Deb set up her own lifestyle to include lots of long walks with her furry family members, workout classes at her local wellness center, meal prepping, and finding new ways to enjoy foods without added sugar.
This entry was posted in On Track With Barix Newsletter. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.