Top 11 High-Protein Vegetables You Need to Be Eating More Of

Written by Tim Skwiat

Top 11 High Protein Vegetables

When you think about high-protein vegetables, what foods come to mind?

  • Peas? Not a vegetable. (Peas are a member of the legume family.)
  • Corn? Not a vegetable. (Corn, or maize as it is known to the rest of the world, is grain.)
  • Beans? Not a vegetable. (Beans, of course, are also a member of the legume family.)
  • Lentils? Not a vegetable. (Like beans and peas, lentils belong to the legume family.)

Technically, peas, corn, beans, and lentils are actually fruits. Along those lines, you probably already knew tomato is a fruit, but what about cucumbers, green beans, and squash, including pumpkin? Yep, all fruits.

You see, botanically speaking, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a seed-bearing plant. On the other hand, vegetables, which is not an officially defined botanical term, are all other edible plant parts, such as leaves, stems, roots, bulbs, and tubers.

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Before rattling off a list of high-protein vegetables, it’s important to briefly mention protein quality.

Protein Quality: Complete or Incomplete?

One rub on veggies and other plant-based foods is that they contain “incomplete” protein, referring to the fact that they lack certain essential amino acids (EAAs). Briefly, when we’re talking about dietary protein, we’re actually talking about amino acids, which are the “building blocks” of protein. Out of the 20 amino acids, 9 of them are considered EAAs, or indispensable amino acids (IAAs), because they cannot be produced in the body. They must be consumed in the diet.

While it’s true specific plant-based foods may be low in certain amino acids (known as “limiting amino acids”), for some time now, the scientific community has dismissed the notions that plant-based proteins (which technically have a “complete” amino acid composition) are “incomplete” and that “complementary” plant proteins (e.g., beans and rice) be consumed at the same meal.1,2

Editor’s Note: 17 White Foods For a Flat Stomach

Having said all that, research has quite consistently shown that protein from plants ranks lower than animal-based sources on scales of protein quality. This attempts to quantify how well the body is able to use the amino acids from food, how closely the EAA content of a food matches the body’s requirements, how well the body is able to digest the protein, and the bioavailability of the amino acids.

What’s more, recent research on protein quality suggests amino acids may need to be treated as individual nutrients, not simply as protein.3 Along those lines, the general consensus among the scientific community is that consuming an adequate amount of high-quality protein (at each meal and over the course of the day), preferably in combination with physical activity, is optimal for healthy aging.4 Having said that, future research is likely to enlighten us as to the practical significance of protein quality.

So, what does that leave us with?

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The Top 11 High-Protein Vegetables

Does the protein from veggies count? Absolutely! There are certainly veggies with a modest percentage of protein. However, relying on veggies to meet your protein goals is probably neither practical nor optimal. Here’s a list of some of the most commonly eaten high-protein vegetables along with their nutritional content:

  • Spinach: 5 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
  • Artichoke hearts: 5 g per 1-cup serving
  • Broccoli: 4 g per NLEA serving (about 1 ½ cups)
  • Asparagus: 4 g per 1-cup serving
  • Brussels sprouts: 4 g per 1-cup serving
  • Collard greens: 4 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
  • Beet greens: 4 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
  • Potatoes: 4 g per medium potato
  • Mustard greens: 3 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
  • Kale: 2.5 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
  • Cauliflower: 2 g per 1-cup serving

Now, it’s true those numbers aren’t all that impressive and you’d be hard-pressed to optimize your protein intake through veggies alone. But keep in mind that you’re also likely to benefit from the increased intake of antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And there’s no question that higher intakes of vegetables (and fruits) are associated with better health, longer lives, and reduced risk of various chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.

Although the association between vegetable consumption and weight management isn’t quite as strong as you might imagine, when you increase your vegetable intake, you figuratively swing the scale in your favor by increasing food volume and reducing energy density. That is, by displacing foods highly concentrated in calories with veggies, you actually end up eating more total food but fewer overall calories. I mean, who doesn’t want to eat more while eating less?

Veggies you MUST avoid for a flat belly

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References

  • plant based proteins
  • Young VR, Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994;59(5):1203S-1212S.
  • McDougall J. Plant foods have a complete amino acid composition. Circulation. 2002;105(25):e197-e197. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.0000018905.97677.1F.
  • Phillips SM. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab. 2016;13(1). doi:10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8.
  • Paddon-Jones D, Campbell WW, Jacques PF, et al. Protein and healthy aging. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(6):1339S-1345S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.084061.
  • Is Whey Protein Good
  • Cornelia Bryant

    I found this very interesting — thank you 🙂

  • Dustin Grant

    Excellent article. Very informative . Thanks Coach Tim

    • Cristina

      Hi Dustin. Welcome to the blog.

      We are very appreciative that you are enjoying the content we are providing, and based on your impressive progress in our current 12 Week Shape Up Challenge, you have been putting this knowledge to great use!

      As always, if there are any topics you would like for us to cover, please let us know.

      Thank you for your friendship and patronage, Dustin.

  • Marylou

    Why does the spinach, kale, mustard green, beet greens, and collard greens have to be cooked. I thought if they weren’t cook you get more of the nutrients When cooked you lose it.

    • Great question, Marylou. You don’t have to cook any of the vegetables on that list. I just wanted to point out that the amount of protein was relative to a cooked portion size for those veggies. The amount of protein for the same portion size raw would be less.

      Think about spinach, for example. There are more spinach leaves in a cooked 1-cup serving than 1 cup of raw spinach leaves. Basically, cooking will result in some water loss, which increases the density of the serving size.

      To your point, how foods are prepared can impact nutritional quality/availability. Heck, even chopping/cutting certain vegetables (e.g., onions, garlic) increases nutrient availability. It’s important to note that cooking may both increase and decrease nutrient content, and even though some people speak definitively on the topic, I’m not sure that we have all the answers.

      According to a recent review study on the topic, it is possible to conclude that:

      1. Onion׳s pungency is increased during food preparation, such as chopping and trimming.
      2. Steaming seems to be the best method to maintain the nutritional quality (TAC, carotenoids, glucosinolates, sulphorane, folate and phytochemicals).
      3. Onions should be cooked or baked to improve flavonols’ content.
      4. Sous vide cooking has shown good results in cooking potatoes and should be investigated further.
      5. Soaking and cooking peas and beans are effective in removing or reducing anti-nutrients such as tannins, TIA and acid phytic.
      6. Boiling seems to be the best method to retain folate in peas and should be further investigated.
      7. Soaking with salt, discarding water and cooking in fresh water is the best method to reduce cooking time, and to improve the protein quality, texture and appearance of beans, while reducing gastric issues.
      8. The absorption of Fe can be improved by heat processing.
      9. Other factors besides cooking – such as growth conditions and variety/cultivar – can affect sensory parameters.

      All the steps included before vegetables and legumes consumption can affect directly their nutrition quality. Being informed about these factors might make the consumer more aware on how to optimize the nutrients obtained during a meal.

      I think it’s also worth pointing out that what we eat vegetables with can make a difference in nutrient availability. For example, adding fat (avocado, for example) to a meal containing vegetables (a salad) can dramatically improve the body’s absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. So, sauteeing or roasting with some added fat might be a way to enhance nutrient absorption.

      In the grand scheme of things, I think most people will probably be best off with the following advice: Prepare your vegetables (either raw or cooked) in the way that promotes you eating more of them regularly. We’re pretty much all better off eating more veggies. 🙂

  • Hi Sandra,

    To your point, some of the veggies mentioned, such as spinach, contains goitrogens, which are naturally-occurring substances found in a variety of foods (including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other cruciferous vegetables) that may affect thyroid function by blocking the uptake of iodine by the thyroid gland or by interfering with the activity of TPO (an enzyme required for proper thyroid function). Thus, excessive intake of goitrogens may potentially be problematic, particularly in folks who are iodine deficient.

    For otherwise healthy folks, however, this does not seem to pose an issue. When nutrient-dense foods like spinach are consumed in moderate quantities, they actually support thyroid function, as spinach is such a dense source of so many nutrients that promote thyroid health. It may also be worth mentioning that goitrogenic substances are heat-sensitive, and they are inactivated by cooking.

    Also, keep in mind that the information we provide is intended for healthy folks. It’s not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions. If you have or at risk for a medical condition and/or are taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, make sure that you consult with your healthcare team prior to making changes to your diet.

    Hope this helps!

  • Barbara Hendrickson

    My Spring of Life pea protein has 346 gm of sodium per serving. I got a different brand of pea pro which has 570 gm. I cannot use these and keep my blood pressure under control. I used to use BioTrust but have forgotten how much salt it has. I use the protein often but want to verify the salt content is low before I try it again. I have my diabetes under control with IC-5 and TruGluco. I avoid soy for my thyroid problem.