Never mind the beef, chicken, beans and eggs – they aren’t your only options when it comes to integrating protein-packed food into your diet. There are plenty of other options, and many in places that you wouldn’t have thought of looking.
Why Do We Need Protein in Our Diet?
Many of us know we need to make sure we get enough protein, but not many of us understand exactly why it is so important we get enough of it.
Protein is one of three macronutrients we need to ensure our health and proper bodily functioning. The other two are carbohydrates and fat.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are over 500 known amino acids, but only 20 types of amino acids can be combined to make protein. The sequence of these amino acids determines the structure and function of proteins in our body.
There are 6 primary functions of proteins in our body:
- Repair and Maintenance of Body Tissue: We need protein for the development and repair of hair, skin, eyes, muscles and organs.
- Energy: In cases where we aren’t consuming enough carbohydrates or fat, or if we consume more protein than we need, our bodies will use protein as energy or it will be used to create fat.
- Hormones: Some hormones cannot be created without proteins. Insulin, for example, is a small protein that regulates blood sugar levels in humans.
- Enzymes: Enzymes are proteins involved in bodily chemical reactions, such as digestion and building DNA.
- Transportation of Molecules: Some proteins are important transporters. Hemoglobin, for example, is a protein that transports oxygen.
- Antibodies to fight of infection: Antibodies are important molecules responsible for preventing illnesses and infections.
For these reasons, it is clear that protein is essential for our health and wellbeing. However, whether for health or ethical reasons, you may be looking for alternative sources of protein that aren’t too difficult to access.
Surprising Protein Sources
Kale is another leafy green superfood high in protein. The great thing is that is highly versatile – with a bit of oil and a pan you can make kale chips or you can integrate it into your morning smoothie. Along with protein similar to that of spinach, you will also be getting loads of vitamins and minerals to support overall health.
Watercress is usually eaten fresh, which means it won’t be compacted to maximize protein intake like spinach, but it still has 0.8g of protein in a cup, plus 100% of your Recommended Daily Intake of vitamin K. The phenolic compounds in watercress, in addition to other leafy greens, may also help to prevent cancer.
3. Alfalfa Sprouts
Alfalfa sprouts provide 1.3 grams of protein in one cup. Topped with your favorite veggies and a squeeze of lemon, you have a great vitamin and mineral-packed lunch. As a plus, eating alfalfa sprouts regularly may help to reduce cholesterol levels.
Avocado is known for providing heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but it also provides a significant amount of protein. A cup of avocado provides 4 grams of protein, about the same as a tablespoon of peanut butter, and oh-so-versatile.
One half cup of this delicious snack provides more than seven grams of protein. Top your salads with them, make hummus, or eat them roasted for those mid-afternoon cravings.
6. Sundried Tomatoes
It might be hard to believe, but a very pleasant surprise to know that there are 6 grams of protein in a cup of sundried tomatoes. Use it in your pasta sauce, salads, and sandwiches to add a new, sophisticated taste.
This one might not be that surprising to you, as pea protein has become more and more popular in the nutrition and fitness world over the past few years. However, peas, often seen and treated as a vegetable, are legumes, which is in the same family as beans and soy. ¼ cup of cooked peas, which include chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, or split peas, are equivalent to one ounce, or about 1/5th of your daily protein needs.
Spinach is known as a “superfood” because of its antioxidant properties. However, it is also a good source of protein. One cup of boiled spinach contains 5 grams of protein, which is more protein than that in one tablespoon of peanut butter.
One More Thing…
Not all proteins are the same. Remember the amino acids we mentioned? There are some that are “essential”, meaning your body cannot make them and must be consumed. Of the amino acids that make proteins, 9 of them are essential. Unlike animal sources of protein, vegetable sources of protein do not have all the essential amino acids, making them “incomplete” proteins.
However, there is no need to worry. If you eat a variety of fresh foods, including the ones mentioned above, your body´s essential amino acid needs will undoubtedly be filled without a problem.