When I was Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Loma Linda University—a Seventh Day Adventist school—we were encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle and eat vegetarian at work to comply with the school’s beliefs. Over the years, when friends or patients found out my workplace was a meat-free institution, I was asked the following question time and time again —
If you don’t eat meat, how do you get enough protein?
It’s true, of course… beef, chicken and other animal proteins are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and fatty acids.1 But, meat isn’t the only significant source of protein nature provides.
And honestly, I think Americans eat too much meat. In fact, we are living in an age of protein obsession. I call it ‘protein-aholics’.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good steak (only if it’s grass-fed beef though)! 2
Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to become a vegetarian. But, you probably eat too much protein from meat and too little from veggies.
And that’s unhealthy — for your heart and the environment.
Did you know there are several vegetables packed with protein?
And not just lectin-loaded beans, either. In fact, a cup of broccoli has 2.6 grams of protein.3
But, before you discover more about protein-rich, low-lectin vegetables… you should start by understanding what proteins are, and how they help functions in your body.
What is protein?
Proteins are a type of molecule found throughout your body…in your skin, bones, muscles, hair, organs, eyes, and even your fingernails. In fact, protein is an incredibly abundant substance in your body — it’s second only to water. It’s one of the most essential nutrients and it’s required for your survival.4
What to get even more technical?
OK…Protein is any group of complex nitrogenous organic compounds forming protoplasm. In other words, protein forms the core of your cells and tissues.5
But let me break it down further:
Proteins are composed of amino acids — that means they’re essentially the building blocks responsible for the structure of your body’s cells. You can bet they play an important role of carrying out a large variety of bodily functions.7
There are about twenty-one different amino acids found in each protein. And every amino acid serves a different role in upholding the structure of said proteins.8 Now, proteins can be big or small and they can change or hold their shape. Whether or not they do, depends on the unique units of amino acids making them up. Their special traits determine what other molecules they can interact with.9
The combinations of amino acids are so diverse that it seems like there’s almost no limit to the kinds of proteins they create.10
Why do I need protein?
Without protein, the whole the structures of your body collapse. Turns out, your body really can’t support life without them.
So, here’s a list of major reasons why you need protein in your system:
1. Body Repair and Maintenance
Protein isn’t called the “building block of your body” for nothing. In fact, it plays a vital role in everything from building, maintaining, and repairing your body tissues to composing your hair, muscles, and eyes, and even making up your internal organs and skin. If you’re growing and developing new tissue — and you always are — then you need a lot of protein in your system.12
2. Source of Energy
Now, let’s say you consume more protein than your body needs…it can still be put to work. There are two major ways excessive protein can be put to use.
It can be stored and converted to energy.13 Your body can use this energy when other power sources, such as carbohydrates, run out.14But if you’re one of those “protein-holics” and you eat WAY too much protein, it can also be stored in your body as fat. Now, a little fat’s a good thing – it can be used to keep you warm and protect your vital organs. But too much fat can lead to HUGE long term health consequences.
3. Formation of Antibodies
Did you know antibodies are a type of protein? Specifically, they’re employed by your immune system as immunoglobulin.15 This makes them the scouts of the immune system. They seek out intruders known as antigens, stick to them and stop them in order to protect your body.16
Each antibody is made to destroy one specific antigen. So if you’re low on proteins, you might be low on antibodies…which could make you more susceptible to certain viruses and infections. This is just one more reason to make sure you get the right proteins. You never know what kind of bacteria might invade your body.17
4. Production of Enzymes
Enzymes are extremely important chains of amino acids folding themselves into unique shapes. These shapes become catalysts for specific chemical reactions in your body.18 For example, an enzyme for digesting lactose breaks down sugar in milk. So, if you’re lactose intolerant, it’s because your body lacks the enzyme required to break down sugar.
There are about 2000 different kinds of enzymes known to mankind. Without them, basic chemical reactions such as breaking down sugar and digesting proteins and fats wouldn’t be able to occur, resulting in possible health concerns.19
5. Production of Hormonal Proteins
Certain other activities in your body are coordinated by hormonal proteins. For example, insulin controls blood-sugar concentration. Oxytocin helps females contract while giving birth. And protein is produced in your muscles by way of somatotropin — a major growth hormone to help carry out all of these biological tasks.21
Protein in Food
Now, the list above includes just a few of the vast array physiological functions protein manages. But, how do you get important proteins you need if they’re not already in your body? Easy, you eat them.
The most popular protein rich food is meat, of course. But, you don’t want to eat too much of it because it’s high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. This means it can increase the risks of the development of certain health concerns.22 So, in order to avoid health issues related to overdosing on protein, your best bet for clean sources of protein are vegetables…especially dark, leafy green ones.
But which vegetables have the most protein?
Well, before we continue, I want to address something…
Many high-protein vegetables happen to be loaded with disease-and-allergy-causing lectins. Lectins are sugar-binding proteins and they’re not great for you. So you want to stay away from lectin-rich vegetables like lentils and soybeans. I strongly recommend getting your daily dose of proteins from alternative high-protein vegetables.
Below, you’ll find a list of lectin-light veggies also rich in protein:
1. Spinach, Kale and Collards —
Dark leafy greens are one of the most powerful sources of vegetable proteins around. A 10 ounce portion of spinach has about eight grams of protein. Ten ounces of collards have over 8.5 grams of protein. A 10-ounce portion of kale has over 12 grams of protein – almost as much as a chicken drumstick!
2. Broccoli and Brussels Sprouts
Not only does broccoli contains more than a 100 percent of the recommended daily dose of Vitamin C and K, it’s one of the best sources of protein. And 10 ounces of brussels sprouts contain over 9.5 grams of protein. Check out my tasty brussels sprouts you’ll actually eat recipe!
Nuts are one of the healthiest, highest protein foods around. They contain up to 10 grams of protein per half cup.23 And, they’re delicious—but make sure to limit your intake to a quarter cup twice a day… at most. That is, unless you’re trying to gain weight. Up your dosage to half a cup twice a day.
But, some nuts contain a load of lectins, such as almonds with skins on, peanuts (a legume, in reality), and cashews. Stick with these Gundry-approved nuts below to make sure you’re in the lectin-free zone:
4. Asparagus —
Asparagus is one of the best plant sources for obtaining vitamin K. In fact, one cup will provide you with 100% of your daily recommended intake! Asparagus also levels up as a high-protein food. One cup of asparagus yields 2.9g of protein, which is right up there with kale and brussels sprouts. Asparagus is also a natural diuretic, which means it can help reduce fluid retention. Asparagus can be baked, grilled, boiled, steamed, or pan-fried, and it always makes a simple, delicious side dish to any meal.
5. Mushrooms —
It may be a fungus, but don’t let that deter you. Mushrooms are an iron-rich vegetable that are also high in protein – with 3.9g of protein content per cup-sized serving. Mushrooms come in so many varieties that you will never grow tired of their varied shapes and flavors. They can also be used in place of meat for vegans and vegetarians, as they have a naturally “meaty” flavor and texture.
6. Beet Greens —
You may know the beet green as the part that you cut from the delicious purple bulb and toss in the trash. Well, here’s a thought: Beet greens are actually full of high-quality protein – as much as the beet itself. The protein content of a cup of beet greens is 3.7g with just 39 calories! Cook your beet greens as you would chard, adding some extra-virgin olive oil and garlic to taste.
7. Artichokes —
Artichokes put many people off because of the need to cook them so intensely in order to soften them. But they’re well worth the wait, as artichoke clocks in at 4.2g of plant-based protein per cup! They also have more antioxidants than cranberries and blueberries, and they are a good source (make that a GREAT source) of dietary fiber. A simple and quick way to get cozy with an artichoke is to steam it (about 25-30 min) on the stove-top and then serve it with some warm olive oil. Dip the artichoke leaves in the oil and use your front teeth to scrape the flesh into your mouth.
Go Green & Be Lean!
Instead of constantly turning to animal proteins as your main protein source, try loading your diet with high-protein vegetables instead. There are infinite possibilities to get complete proteins from high-protein, lectin-free vegetables, and so many delicious ways to serve them that you will never get bored. A plant-based diet has so many nutritional benefits, including the fact that it is very low in calories, which can be helpful in the fight against weight loss and heart disease.
Now that you know which vegetables have the most protein, you can start reassessing the foods that you may currently be eating. Are you consuming too much meat? How can you adjust your protein intake for a healthier balance? Don’t forget the Gundry food pyramid whenever you need some assistance!
Looking out for you,
Dr. Steven R. Gundry
P.S. As discussed above, veggies are great source of protein. However, there is one particular ‘green’ veggie to avoid at all cost!
Article updated on August 21st, 2017
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