Protein in plants

Lots of people ask me how I can get enough protein without eating animals. It’s actually very simple, and lots has been written about it already. Here’s a great blog post on plant protein. The author did some math that shows the concept quite well. Let’s start with consuming the recommended half a gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass- the average for a grown man is 56 grams per day. If you eat a plant-based diet with 14% protein, in a 2000 calorie per day diet, that’s 280 calories of protein. Divide 280 by 4 (because there are 4 calories per gram of protein), and you get 70 grams of protein. That’s more than enough for an adult man, and it’s enough for a pregnant woman who needs more.

What is protein? Proteins are made up of amino acids, which is a fancy name given to a group of molecules held together by covalent bonds (bringing back the high school chemistry!) that all share a common backbone of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms. Different amino acids configured together make different proteins. Your body needs protein in order for your cells to function and to rebuild itself. Your body creates its own proteins all the time from amino acids it can make on its own. It also gets protein/amino acids from the food you eat. Some amino acids are called essential because these are the amino acids your body cannot create on its own. Out of the 22 amino acids, 9 are essential.

All food has protein; it is a myth that animal protein is somehow the best and you won’t get all your essential amino acids if you don’t eat animals. There’s a lot of food propaganda that equates animals to protein, and somehow leaves plants out of the mix. I’ve read on the internet that animal protein is the only complete protein. This is based on the fact that in one meal with animal protein you can get your essential amino acids. However, your body is smart enough to figure out how to get all the essential amino acids from plants, and you don’t need to eat all of the essential amino acids at every meal.

How much protein do you need, and how much is too much? Adult men need 50-70 grams of protein per day (average 56 grams/day), and adult women need 30-50 (average 46 grams/day) or 70 grams/day if they are pregnant. The average Western meat and dairy diet can give you much more. This can lead to weight gain (which can in turn lead to metabolic disturbances, including diabetes and heart disease), kidney strain and possibly later kidney disease, and dehydration.

If you do need extra protein – say you are an avid athlete who’s building muscles all the time, or pregnant and building another human – there are plenty of plant-based sources that give you more than most plants. Spinach, kale, tofu, hemp, chia seeds, beans, and legumes are all great sources. As always, talk to a dietitian or physician if you’re concerned. I’ve been eating a plant-based diet for the past two years, and I’ve never felt better! I have no more sluggishness, nor do I get that heavy pit feeling in my stomach after a meal that makes me have to lie down and recover. I have tons of energy and am more physically active, stronger, and leaner than I have been in my life.

My take home message is this: if you eat a plant-based diet, you will eat enough protein; and if you eat a variety of foods, you will get all of your essential amino acids.

Asian style tofu and vegetable stir fry

This was the first vegan meal I started making back when I was transitioning to eating vegan. It’s reliably delicious. We make it at least three times a month, and it’s enough to feed me and my husband dinner at least a couple of days. The colors are beautiful; you get the chance to eat a lot of healthy vegetables at once. It’s flexible, so you can incorporate any vegetables you like. I find that broccoli, peppers, and mushrooms work well, but I’ve also included eggplant, kale, and cauliflower before. Here’s some nutritional information:

-The bell peppers are a great source of antioxidants.

-The garlic, shallot, and broccoli have been shown in laboratory studies to stop growth of tumor cells.

-Broccoli induces your liver’s detoxification mechanisms – no juice cleanse needed! It has lots of vitamins and fiber, calcium, and more protein per calorie than beef.

-Mushrooms are high in vitamin D and B vitamins, manganese, and selenium.

Start with pan frying the tofu with garlic and shallots, then work in the vegetables. I usually cook a small pot of rice (and heat the rice with sesame oil first for a few minutes to bring out its flavor before adding water).

Servings: 4-6

Time: prep 15 minutes, cook 15-20 minutes


-Squeeze the excess water out of the tofu over the sink, but not so excessively that you crumble it.

-Timing: Start cooking the rice (if you’re cooking rice) when you start cooking the tofu.

-The vegetables don’t have to be cut in a specific way, just make them comfortably bite sized.

-You can use commercially available sauces instead of mirin or soy sauce.

1 pound of tofu, cut up into slices

1 pound of broccoli

8 ounces mushrooms

3 bell peppers

1 shallot

4 cloves of garlic

4 tablespoons sesame oil

1/4 cup mirin (Japanese rice wine)

1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce, mixed with the mirin

Red pepper flakes or Sriracha sauce if desired

1/4 cup cilantro


1. Heat sesame oil on medium heat.  Add tofu, garlic, and shallots.

2. Allow tofu to cook 3-4 minutes on one side, then flip to the other side. Cook on the other side for 3 minutes. Tofu will turn a light brown.

3. Add slower cooking vegetables such as broccoli, cook for 2 minutes, then add the other vegetables and cook for another 2 minutes, rotating the vegetables and tofu around to evenly distribute heat.

4. Add the mirin/soy sauce mixture. Add the cilantro and pepper or sriracha. Cook for another few minutes, until the vegetables are cooked but not soft.

Serve immediately and enjoy!

Side dish: Green beans in a tomato sauce

These green beans are so good! I learned how to make them when I first started cooking, because this was one of my favorite appetizers growing up. It reminds me of hot summers spent in Turkey by the Aegean Sea and eating a light, refreshing lunch in the shade.  The  tomato, onion, and garlic sauce complements the green beans perfectly.  Cooking tomatoes increases the available lycopene in them, a potent antioxidant which may help with macular degeneration and heart disease. Tomatoes are also a good source of Vitamin C, A, and iron. Garlic and onion are a great source of antioxidants as well. Garlic lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Check out this website for more information on garlic.

Servings: 6

Time: 15 minutes of prep, 30 minutes of cooking


1 pound green beans, ends cut

1 large or 2 medium onions, processed into a thick sauce or minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tomatoes

1 cup of water

3/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1 teaspoon each salt and pepper or to taste


1. Heat half of olive oil and all of the onions and garlic on medium heat, cooking until onions turn opaque.

2. Add tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes, tossing occasionally.

3. Add green beans, rest of olive oil, water, sugar, and salt and pepper. Heat to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes, until the green beans become soft.

This dish is traditionally served at room temperature, but we like it warm too.

Stuffed bell peppers

A classic Mediterranean dish, this version is vegan (duh) and delicious!  You can do all sorts of variations.  For example, add Gardein beefless ground to get a meaty texture.  I used barley to add protein and fiber, but the typical version uses rice.  Barley is a whole grain, which means it’s great for your heart and blood vessels. Studies have found that eating whole grains every day lowers systolic blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and could therefore reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. Whole grains such as barley also decrease risk of type 2 diabetes and improve colon health. Bell peppers have vitamin C and antioxidant properties. Red bell peppers are actually more active against oxidation than green peppers. The currants could actually stop the progression of glaucoma and are also rich in antioxidants.

Tighe P, Duthie G, Vaughan N, Brittenden J, Simpson WG, Duthie S, Mutch W, Wahle K, Horgan G, Thies F. Effect of increased consumption of whole-grain foods on blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk markers in healthy middle-aged persons: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Oct;92(4):733-40.

Sun Q, Spiegelman D, van Dam RM, Holmes MD, Malik VS, Willett WC, Hu FB. White rice, brown rice, and risk of type 2 diabetes in US men and women. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Jun 14;170(11):961-9.

H. Ohguro, I. Ohguro, M. Katai, S. Tanaka. Two-year randomized, placebo-controlled study of black currant anthocyanins on visual field in glaucoma. Ophthalmologica. 2012 228(1):26 – 35.

Serves: 4

Time: 45 minutes to cook barley, 15 minutes to make stuffing, 30 minutes in oven = 90 minutes (mostly waiting, not very labor intensive)

4-6 green bell peppers, sliced width-wise at the top to create a “hat”, and seeds and white parts removed on inside

1 cup barley, cooked in 3 cups water for 45 minutes (yields about 3 1/2 cups of barley)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 red onion, chopped into small bits

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup black currants

1 tomato, chopped into 1 inch pieces

1/2 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

2-3 pinches each salt and pepper


1. Cook the barley until just finished, remove from heat before it gets soft

2. In a pan, combine olive oil and onions, and saute for 5 minutes or until onions turn opaque.

3. Add pine nuts, saute for another minute, then add barley and tomatoes.

4. Add cinnamon and allspice, cook for another couple of minutes, then add the mint, salt and pepper, and toss.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large oven pan, fill with water about an inch.

6. Stuff the peppers with the filling. Using a dessert spoon, put spoonfuls of the filling in and then pat down, to ensure that all the spaces are filled. Put the tops on.

7. Put peppers upright with tops on in the pan. Heat at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until the color of the peppers has darkened.

8. Remove from oven and serve.

In Turkey, they also serve this dish room temperature or cold, and drizzle olive oil and lemon on it. The choice is yours!

Once again, thanks to for the helpful nutritional information!

Chickpea and veggie couscous

I wrote about the incredible health benefits of legumes before:

Here are even more reasons to eat them.

Chickpeas have been used by the Uygur people of China to treat hypertension and diabetes for 2500 years, and the science explains why they work. They are higher in fiber than wheat and have saponins that bind cholesterol in the gut, explaining why they are so effective at lowering blood cholesterol levels. Their starches are relatively resistant to breakdown in the small intestine, which leads to lower blood glucose levels and decreased insulin resistance. Therefore, they can decrease the onset and severity of type 2 diabetes.  Chickpeas contain phytosterols, which lower blood pressure. Finally, they contain B vitamins, including thiamine and folate; calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. In summary, chickpeas are beneficial to health and help treat our most common ailments, and I would recommend everyone add them to their diet to reap the rewards.

A. K. Jukanti, P. M. Gaur, C. L. L. Gowda, R. N. Chibbar. Nutritional quality and health benefits of chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.): A review. Br. J. Nutr. 2012 108 – Suppl – 1:S11 – 26.

Mushrooms are used in this recipe, and they have great fighting power against breast cancer, the most common cancer affecting women throughout the world. They work by inhibiting the enzyme aromatase, the key enzyme that synthesizes the estrogens that feed breast cancer growth. Just an average of five mushrooms a day can inhibit breast cancer.

Grube BJ, Eng ET, Kao YC, Kwon A, Chen S. White button mushroom phytochemicals inhibit aromatase activity and breast cancer cell proliferation. J Nutr. 2001 Dec;131(12):3288-93.

Chen S, Oh SR, Phung S, Hur G, Ye JJ, Kwok SL, Shrode GE, Belury M, Adams LS, Williams D. Anti-aromatase activity of phytochemicals in white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus). Cancer Res. 2006 Dec 15;66(24):12026-34.

This is a simple, tasty, and filling couscous. The cornerstone is the chickpea.  For the first time, I used dry beans, which tasted fresher than the canned version.  Using dry beans requires a little planning – you have to soak them for 6-8 hours in water before you cook them. I soaked them in the morning, and then cooked them for dinner. Of course, you can still use canned beans.

Dried garbanzo beans instructions:

Soak 2 1/2 cups dry beans in 6-8 cups of drinking water for 6-8 hours.

At the end of the 6-8 hours, drain and rinse in cold water.

Bring 6-8 cups of water and garbanzo beans to a boil. Then reduce heat, and with lid partially open, simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

While the garbanzo beans were cooking, I proceeded with the rest of the recipe.

Serves 6

Time: 1 hour


2 cloves chopped garlic

1 large zucchini, processed into slices

1 large yellow squash, processed into slices

2 cups of mushrooms, processed into slices

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided in half

2 teaspoons each: ground coriander, oregano, and tarragon, divided into 2

1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley

1 teaspoon pepper or to taste

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 cup couscous (I used whole wheat version).

Couscous: cook according to package instructions while cooking the vegetables. If no instructions, do the following: boil 1 1/4 cup of water, add 1 cup couscous, bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, until water is absorbed.

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium heat for about a minute, then add the chopped garlic.

2. Add the zucchini, yellow squash, and mushrooms.

3. Add half the spices and the parsley. Saute ingredients for 5-10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.

4. Add the cooked garbanzo beans, the rest of the spices and olive oil, and then saute for a few more minutes.

5. Add the cooked couscous and stir together. Serve.





As always, thank you to for the helpful information!

Linguine with Lentils


This dish is based on a Tuscan-style pasta I loved at a restaurant.  Think of it as “spaghetti Bolognese” but substitute lentils for meat to make it healthy and hearty, without the deleterious impacts of animal products.

Lentils (and other beans) are really good for you.  They lower the glycemic index of other foods you eat them with, and keep working for hours afterward.  That means that your blood sugar won’t spike if you eat a healthy serving of lentils with your pasta.  Legumes lessen blood sugar spikes by stimulating your good gut bacteria to produce a hormone that slows the rate at which your stomach empties the food out into the intestines to get absorbed.

(T. M. Wolever, D. J. Jenkins, A. M. Ocana, V. A. Rao, G. R. Collier. Second-meal effect: Low-glycemic-index foods eaten at dinner improve subsequent breakfast glycemic response. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1988 48(4):1041 – 1047)

 Legumes have also shown to improve people’s lifespan.  In cultures where legumes are consumed frequently – Japan (soy, tofu, miso), the Mediterranean region (garbanzo, white beans), Sweden (brown beans, peas) – longevity is increased with increased intake in legumes. (Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(2):217-20 ). A study of nearly 6000 people in Taiwan showed that not eating legumes was associated with increased risk of mortality in women due to increased metabolic syndrome (the precursor to Diabetes and heart disease).  Increased risk of metabolic syndrome was seen in both women and men. (Public Health Nutr. 2012 Apr;15(4):663-72.)

What nutritional value do legumes provide?  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “Beans and peas are excellent sources of protein. They also provide other nutrients, such as iron and zing, similar to seafood, meat, and poultry. They are excellent sources of dietary fiber and nutrients such as potassium and folate, which are also found in other vegetables.”  (

So, you can count legumes as both a vegetable and a protein source!  Score!

I made the tomato sauce with an onion/garlic base, foods which are the best at fighting the growth of many different types of cancers (see my leek soup post). Tomatoes, which are among the richest vegetable/plant sources of potassium (NOT bananas, by the way, which rank 50th!), reduce the risk of vascular diseases, therefore reducing the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

(D’Elia L, Barba G, Cappuccio FP, Strazzullo P. Potassium intake, stroke, and cardiovascular disease a meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011 Mar 8;57(10):1210-9.)

Spaghetti with Lentils

Servings: 6-8

Time: 1 hour


1 cup of lentils

2.5 cups water

1 vegetable buillon cube

1 bay leaf

Combine lentils and above ingredients in a pot. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer on low, covered, until water is absorbed (30-45 minutes) and/or lentils are medium soft.

Combine the lentils with the sauce in the last step, below.

The sauce:

3 tomatoes, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes

1 cup of strained tomatoes

4 tablespoons tomato paste

1 onion, finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

4 tablespoons of olive oil

1-2 cups of loose basil, then chopped roughly

1-2 cups of loose parsley, then chopped roughly

1 teaspoon sage

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil on medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add the onion, saute for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, saute together until the onions become opaque.

2. Add the tomato paste, strained tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, and sage. Turn heat down to medium-low, stirring occasionally for 5-10 minutes. Try not to let the mixture come to a complete boil.

3. After 10-15 minutes, add the parsley and basil. Continue to cook until the parsley and basil have wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. When the lentils are cooked, pour them into the sauce. Cook together on low heat, covered, for 5 minutes.


Pasta: There are all sorts of pastas out there.  You can use whole wheat pasta, quinoa pasta, or whatever else you prefer.  I ended up using the pasta I already had on hand. A spaghetti or linguine works best.  I cooked enough pasta for 8 servings, al dente, according to the instructions on the box.

The finished product:


Thank you to for providing helpful nutritional information!