10 Easy Ways to Add More Protein to Your Plant-Based Meals

I recently hosted a chapter-by-chapter tour of my cookbook in a private Facebook group. It was so much fun connecting with people who’ve bought the book and seeing what they do with the recipes. (It’s over but you can skim through the tour and participant posts by joining the group here.)

I’m also answering their questions, like this one: “You recommend 20 to 30 grams of protein for each meal — yet many of your recipes are half that. How do you suggest we make up for the shortfall?”

Sharing the answer here too, but for perspective, let’s start with…

How much protein do we actually need?

This turns out to be a complicated and hotly debated question. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein in adults is 0.8 grams for every kilogram that you weigh (or 0.36 times your weight in pounds). That works out to:

  • 150 pounds (68kg) –> 55 grams of protein a day
  • 200 pounds (91kg) –> 73 grams of protein a day
  • 250 pounds (114kg) –> 91 grams of protein a day.

While most people meet the RDA, a significant portion (10-25%) of older adults do not. And the RDA is the recommended minimum amount, to prevent protein deficiency. People who’ve recently had surgery or a serious illness need more. Emerging evidence suggests that higher amounts are better for everyone for optimal health.

How much higher? We’re not talking Atkins here, but it might be more than you’re getting. Protein experts suggest that we need more like 1.0-1.5 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight, particularly once you’re over 65 (see here and here).

  • 150 pounds (68kg) –> 68-102 grams of protein a day
  • 200 pounds (91kg) –> 91-136 grams of protein a day
  • 250 pounds (114kg) –> 114-170 grams of protein a day

That’s quite a range!

Although these higher amounts aren’t in official guidelines, the same people who set the RDA, the Institute of Medicine, do say that anywhere from 10 to 35% of calories as protein is considered healthy. If you eat 2000 calories, for example, that would be 50 to 175 grams.

Is there any downside to aiming for those higher amounts? No, not as long as you still have room on your plate for fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts, and other foods that support health. (If you have kidney disease, your dietitian may recommend you limit protein.) But beyond 1.6 grams per kilogram per day there are diminishing returns.

This debate might be interesting if you’re a nutrition geek, but if not, don’t worry about the exact number of grams of protein you eat each day. There’s a great deal of flexibility in what constitutes a healthy amount of protein. More important for heart health is which foods provide the protein in your diet.

I just share this background to help people who might be getting too little (or more than they need) and to provide context for the protein boosts I share below.

But first there’s the prickly issue of…

How much protein do we need per meal?

It turns out that there is also evidence that spreading your protein intake out over the day is optimal for building or maintaining muscles, managing your appetite, and keeping your blood sugar steady. So don’t save it all for that meat and potato dinner.

There aren’t any hard and fast guidelines about this, as more research is needed, but you can see that given the daily numbers above, aiming for at least 20 grams per meal makes sense for most people, with more being a better target for some. Some protein experts recommend aiming for 0.4g/kg at each meal, which works out to 27, 36, and 45 grams respectively for the three weight examples I did above.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

However, the muscle-building benefits of protein are optimal at about 25-30 grams per meal, depending on your age, with older people needing on the higher end to maximally stimulate muscle building. (As you may know, every day our muscles are building up and breaking down, and we tend to lose muscle mass as we age.) A protein-rich meal helps because it signals the body to build up more (exercise helps too, of course).

On the other hand, getting less than 20 grams of protein isn’t a disaster. If your meal includes whole, fibre-rich foods like lentils, veggies, fruit, and nuts, it will still fill you up nicely and help keep your blood sugars steady. If you get hungry before the next meal you can always grab a healthy snack. You just might not be getting the optimal muscle-building power out of that meal.

Anyhow, I did my best to get 20 grams of protein or more into every entree in the book, but some of the breakfast and vegetarian dishes didn’t make it. (It’s easier with chicken, fish, and meat in the mix.) But it’s still worth eating those plant-based proteins and meatless meals for the other benefits they offer to cardiovascular health.

If you want more protein, without further ado, here are…

Ten ways to boost protein in your plant-based meal

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, but similar foods in each category will usually give you similar amounts of protein. All numbers are approximate, because it will vary from brand to brand.

  1. Three ounces (100g) of tofu (14g protein). That’s about a quarter of a package. If frying up a batch of tofu isn’t second nature to you, there’s a recipe in the book. It’s easy and quite tasty if you know what you’re doing.
  2. A 1/2 cup cooked or canned black beans (8g protein), chickpeas (5g protein), or lentils (9g protein).
  3. Two tablespoons of almonds (4g protein), walnuts (2g protein), hemp seeds (6g protein), or peanut butter (7-8g protein).

    Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash
  4. A (40g) slice of sprouted grain toast (6g protein, Silver Hills “Squirrelly Bread”) or whole-grain multigrain (7g protein, Dempsters 100% Whole Grains 12 Grain) vs regular whole wheat toast (4g protein, Dempsters 100% whole wheat)

    (not sponsored)
  5. A half-cup of cooked barley (2g protein), brown rice (3g protein), pasta (4g protein), or quinoa (4g protein).

    Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash
  6. A cup of milk (9g protein) or soy beverage (7g protein) or a plain latte or cafe au lait (coffee with milk) using one of those. Almond and cashew milks, on the other hand, have only about 1 gram per cup.

    Photo by Fahmi Fakhrudin on Unsplash
  7. 1/2 cup plain greek (12g protein) or regular (5g protein) yogurt. Fruit-flavoured would be slightly less: (11g protein) and (5g protein) respectively.

    Photo by Tiard Schulz on Unsplash
  8. An ounce (30g) of cheddar cheese (7g protein). Most other types of cheese are similar, except cottage cheese (15g protein per 1/2 cup) and cream cheese (2g protein per 2 tablespoons).
  9. A large egg (6g protein). It’s evenly split between the yolk and the white.

    Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels
  10. An ounce (30g) of lean meat, chicken, or fish (7g protein). That’s just a few bites, so if you have some left over, chop it up and add it to your beans, chickpeas, nuts, tofu, or whatever plant-based protein foods you have in the mix.

    Photo by Stacey Doyle on Unsplash
  11. Bonus! Plant-based meat alternatives (varying amounts of protein). Plant-based sausage or veggie ground round work too, depending on the dish. See my discussion of these products here.

If it feels confusing, just think: Lots of options! Flexibility. Choose a variety of the ones you enjoy and you’ll be good to go.

What not to do

That said, let’s not start counting every gram of protein that goes into our mouths! You might do that for a day or two, just to get a sense of what 20-30 grams of protein looks like, but let’s not get overly fixated on these numbers.

I share them simply to give you a sense of perspective. When you hear “I add almonds to my oatmeal for protein,” that’s fine, and good for other nutrition, but if it’s just a couple of tablespoons, it’s only going to add 4 grams or so. Every little bit helps, but I want you to understand that alone, it’s not enough to keep you lifting bags of groceries into your 80’s. You might want to also cook your porridge in milk, have a smoothie with it, or even add protein powder.

Yes, what about protein powder?

If you want a simple way to boost the protein in oatmeal or a smoothie, protein powder is also an option. Look for a brand with a short ingredient list. You just need a protein isolate of whey (milk protein), soy, pea, rice, quinoa, or something like that. (Whey is the best matched to our body’s needs, but the others work too, if dairy isn’t for you.)

You don’t need  “advanced” or “designer” products, “shakes”, protein packaged with powdered greens, or flavoured, artificially-sweetened products. More ingredients is not necessarily better.

But remember, protein from whole foods comes naturally packaged with other beneficial nutrients: fibre, calcium, iron, omega-3 fat, and more. So don’t rely on protein powder more than you need to.

Skim milk powder is also an option, and you don’t have to buy a giant bottle of it. Two tablespoons will give you about 6 grams of protein, as well as calcium and other nutrients.

So many options!

Bottom Line

Eating more protein at breakfast, lunch, and midday snacks can help keep your appetite and blood sugars steady, and help preserve muscle strength as you age. Most people generally get enough at supper. As you can see, there are lots of ways to get it that support heart health. Experiment with adding a variety of the ones you enjoy, relax, and get on with the business of enjoying life!

Comments? Questions? Always happy to chat on Facebook.

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