Can you really get enough protein from plants?

It's hard to have a conversation about a healthy diet these days without hearing the terms "high in protein" or "plant-based." But are plant-based diets even healthy? Do you really need more protein? And can you get enough of it from plants? Read on to find out.

Related: Check out our collection of Vegan and Vegetarian recipes.

array of plant-based proteins: beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes
Credit: Andy Lyons

Five Reasons to Start Eating More Plants

1. Lower your risk of heart disease.

Some studies show that vegetarian diets reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 percent. Even if you don't follow a vegetarian diet, just eating more produce is beneficial. A Harvard study found that people who eat about 5 cups of produce a day lower their risk of heart disease by nearly 30 percent.

2. Prevent and manage diabetes.

Population studies show vegetarians have a lower incidence of diabetes than nonvegetarians. Just as important, intervention studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets help control and reduce blood sugar - more than diets using traditional carbohydrate-counting methods.

3. Protect against cancer.

Eating lots of produce while also eating less red meat can reduce the risk for certain cancers. Studies show you don't have to completely eliminate meat. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week.

4. Lose weight.

Vegetarian proteins can help you lose weight. Nuts may be high in calories, but studies show that people who eat more nuts have lower body weight and smaller waists. Nuts provide fiber, healthy fats, and protein - all nutrients that satiate hunger. And eating 3/4 cup of high-fiber and high-protein pulses (lentils, beans, and peas) a day can help you lose weight and keep it off.

5. Help the planet.

If everyone in the United States ate only plant proteins just one day a week for one year, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 7.6 million cars off the road, according to the Environmental Working Group. Plants have lower greenhouse-gas emissions, use less fresh water, and require less land than livestock.

High-Protein Plants at a Glance

illustration of high protein plants: tofu, lentils, peas, edamame, peanut butter, almonds, chickpeas, black beans, walnuts, quinoa, pistachios

Proteins: Complete, Incomplete & Complementary

Protein is made up of different amino acids, nine of which we must get from food. Animal sources provide high amounts of those nine amino acids and are considered complete proteins.

Plants are considered incomplete, because each lacks at least one amino acid. But you can pair two or more different plant sources that have complementary amino acids to get complete proteins. It's the way humans have been eating for centuries. For example, rice and black beans are incomplete alone, but together form a complete protein; peanut butter is deficient in the amino acid methionine, but spread it on whole-wheat bread and you now have a complete protein.

Note: You don't have to eat these plant pairs at the same time; researchers just recommend you eat them within the same day.

plant protein pairings

Caveat: There's Plant-Based Junk, Too

Many junk foods are vegetarian and even vegan. But although a diet high in refined grains, fried potatoes, and drinks with lots of added sugar may be technically plant-based, it isn't doing your body any favors. A healthy plant-based diet consists of minimally processed whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

Label Lingo

Vegetarian: This diet includes animal by-products, such as dairy and eggs, but excludes meat, poultry, and seafood.

Vegan: This diet excludes all products made by and from animals.

Plant-based: This diet emphasizes foods from plants but does not exclude meat or dairy.

Pescatarian: Fish and seafood are eaten in this diet, along with eggs and dairy. Meat and poultry are excluded.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.