Plant Sources of Protein
Protein is found in plant foods including legumes (beans and peas), nuts (and nut butters), and seeds. It’s also found to a lesser extent in grains, grain products, and vegetables (both starchy and non-starchy) and in low amounts in fruits. Although soybeans and other soy foods, like all animal sources of protein, contain complete protein, all other plant sources are incomplete proteins because they don’t contain all the essential amino acids the body needs from dietary sources. Consuming animal sources of protein each day can help you meet your protein needs. If you don’t consume these sources, you need to have soy foods and mix up your intake of legumes, nuts, and seeds to help your body get the full array of amino acids it needs.
Plants sources of protein also contain a wide array of nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Many are also high in water content and can fill you up, help you lower your overall calorie intake, and manage your weight.
Because some plant foods such as beans, nuts, and nut butters are energy-dense, it’s wise to have small servings of these foods to maximize nutrients and minimize calorie intake.
Legumes, including dry beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans, are unique because they’re not only rich in protein, but are also a great source of complex carbohydrates. Although most legumes – like most plant foods – are incomplete proteins because they lack one or more amino acids needed by the body, soybeans and soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk contain all the essential amino acids and are excellent sources of complete or high-quality proteins.
Legumes, like all other plant foods, are cholesterol-free and although they do contain some dietary fat, most of it is unsaturated. And some plan foods, including soybeans and soy foods, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that might lower the risk of heart disease.
Legumes are also a great source of dietary fiber and contain vitamins such as the B vitamin folate and minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
MyPyramid recommends ½ – 3 ½ cups of legumes each week depending on your individual calorie intake as part of a healthful eating plan to get the many key nutrients and potential health benefits they provide.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts, nut butters, and seeds are also good sources of protein, although the protein they contain is incomplete. They also contain high amounts of healthful monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Like soybeans and soy foods, some nuts such as walnuts, flaxseeds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and pecans contain ALA, omega-3 fats that are essential (and must be obtained in the diet).
Some nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Almonds are high in fiber, while peanuts, which are technically legumes but more similar in nutrients to nuts, are rich in the B vitamin folate. Here are some nuts and seeds that are rich in the following key nutrients:
• Vitamin E – Sunflower seed kernals (kernels), almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, peanut butter, peanuts, and Brazil nuts
• Magnesium – Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, pine nuts, peanuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts
Many nuts and seeds – especially walnuts, pecans, and chestnuts – are rich in phytochemicals (many that act as antioxidants) such as flavonoids, resveratrol, polyphenols, and tocopherols.
Studies show nuts and seeds might benefit health by:
• Reducing the risk of and death from cardiovascular disease
• Reducing inflammation that can contribute to many diseases
• Reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes
• Reducing total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol
• Reducing body weight (by suppressing appetite and fat absorption)
• Reducing the risk of some cancers
Incomplete proteins are proteins that lack one or more essential amino acids (amino acids that are needed from dietary sources); without all these essential amino acids, the body is unable to create all the protein it needs to perform vital functions.
An energy-dense food or beverage has a high level of calories per volume.
Complex carbohydrates are carbohydrates made of more than two monosaccharides (single sugar units); starches and fibers are complex carbodydrates.
Antioxidants are substances that protect the body against free radicals, unstable molecules that attack body cells.
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