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Yes, Plants Have Protein

The classic cartoon hero Popeye was an early champion of plant-based protein demonstrated in his theme song, “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause I eats me spinach….” For years mothers, including my mother, used Popeye as an example to encourage their children to eat spinach because it would make them healthy and strong. Nutritional science has proven once again that Mom was right — approximately 51% of the calories from spinach are protein!

Today, protein is synonymous with animal products and the majority of meals are built around a meat centerpiece. Vegetables have been relegated to a garnish or small side dish that is all too often oiled and overcooked. Where did this dietary concept originate? The word “protein” is derived from the Greek word proteios, meaning “ of prime importance,” perhaps explaining its preeminent position in dietary discussions today. Also, throughout history meat-based meals were a symbol of an affluent lifestyle while those of the lower classes consumed a “substandard” plant-based diet. The unspoken cultural assumption that persists today is that a plant-based diet is inferior and deficient in protein and contributes to a weakened body.

The good news is that the growing body of nutritional research is illuminating the fallacy of this cultural myth. Research has shown that all plants contain protein and at least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein. Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak and, per calorie, spinach is about equal to chicken and fish. Of course, you’ll need to eat a lot more broccoli and spinach to get the same amount of calories that you do from the meat. Multiple studies have shown that if you are meeting your caloric needs through plant-based nutrition, you will satisfy your body’s protein requirements.

Some simple math proves the point. If you consume 2000 calories per day from plant sources containing 14% protein, the total number of calories from protein equals 280. Divide 280 calories by 4 ( there are 4 calories per gram of protein) to find that this diet would supply 70 grams of protein — more than enough for the average man or woman. Classic studies of protein nitrogen balance have shown that women require, on average, 30-50 grams of protein per day and men require 50-70 grams per day based on weight.

Nutritional research has also discovered that plant-based protein from a wide variety of sources adequately supplies all the essential amino acids required for a healthy body. It is not necessary to consume a “complete” protein at every meal. The body’s innate intelligence utilizes the protein from multiple meals to provide the necessary building blocks. In addition, every bite of plant-based protein offers the extra health benefits of fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.

How can you add more plant-based protein to your diet? By simply eating more plants. Beans (27% protein) lentils (36%), chickpeas (33%), peas (30%), and kale (22%) provide the greatest opportunity to acquire micronutrients packaged with protein. Practical solutions to add more of these include adding beans/legumes to salads, stews and soups. Use higher protein vegetables like spinach, kale, lentils, broccoli, beans and peas in each meal or recipe. And for a nutrient-rich breakfast, consider starting your day with a smoothie made with bananas, blueberries, kale, spinach, strawberries and fresh almond milk. So, now you too can claim, “…I’m strong to the finish, ‘cause I eats me spinach” …and kale…and lentils…and chickpeas…and beans!

Dr. Scott Stoll is a board certified specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and currently serves as the medical director for the Center for Advanced Spinal Solutions at Coordinated Health, chairman of the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and team physician for Lehigh University and the United States Bobsled Team.

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62 comments

Comments

Matt G says …

There are some sound facts here, but here's the problem: eating spinach/broccoli etc. is not as easy as eating the equivalent chicken, and the author totally ignores this point. But this is not important either, because at then end of the day, no vegetarian is eating these foods for their protein needs. Chickpeas, beans, nuts and wheat are all excellent sources of protein which can be more readily consumed.

Jaya says …

Dear Jaya Good afternoon! Thank you for your love and appreciation in sharing with me that brocoli contains lots of protein. I am sending back love and appreciation multiplied many times to let you know that spinach also contains lots of protein ... Just like the attached article quoting Popeyes. Happy reading!

Jose says …

None

Zach Annette says …

You say 51% of calories in spinach are protein. This is EXTREMELY misleading as a very high portion of this protein is in the form of cellulose. Which humans DO NOT have the capacity to break down. Meaning a very large portion of the protein from spinach will go right through you. UNLESS you are juicing it.

Barbara says …

Thank you for this article. I had no idea that plants could provide enough protein. I was a vegetarian for a few years, many years ago. I was exercising all the time then and was always worried about getting enough protein. Now I'm much older but still worry about getting enough protein since my natural desire is vegetables, legumes, and some cheese. You have just made my desired diet possible!

Jennifer says …

Love the article... very good info...

Sarah Boschung says …

Very interesting! I am planning to write an article about plant-based protein and I'm wondering where you found your sources? Any information you can provide on research studies that have been done on this topic would be much appreciated!

Erik says …

The only problem with getting protein from veggies is that in order to eat 2000 calories in let's say broccoli, you would have to eat about 66 cups. That's a lot of broccoli.

carolyn says …

kale gives my husband hives. what would be a safe substitute for kale?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@CAROLYN - I would suggest checking with your health care professional for their advice. Some alternative green options could be chard, collard greens or spinach.

Rashelle Brown says …

Hi! Please provide the source for this: "Research has shown that all plants contain protein and at least 14% of the total calories of every plant are protein." Thank you!

Grace says …

". Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak and, per calorie, spinach is about equal to chicken and fish. " No way. I punched in amounts of food I would need to get 24g protein and here are the calories: 1 kg brocolli: 353 cals 93g of raw filet mignon: 248 cals 82g of raw beef brisket 198 cals 240 g plain oikos greek yoghurt: 128 cals Spinach vs fish? Well no one can freaking decide on how much protein spinach has or something: 360g "raw spinach": 84 cals 1kg "Heb - Spinach, raw": 240 cals 680g raw baby spinach: 200 cals 120g salmon sashimi: 139 cals 104g tuna sashimi: 115 cals 120g raw tilapia: 115 cals 104g raw fatty toro sashimi: 167 cals 73g chicken breast: 121 cals Seriously why why why are you trying to lie to us?

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