In my practice we are always asked what our recommended protein sources are for vegetarians. More often than not, patients are surprised when I ask them to limit the amount of lentils, chickpeas and quinoa as these are commonly thought to be superfoods and an excellent source of protein. Lentils, beans and grains like quinoa are rich protein sources, but they also contain a significant amount of carbohydrates. When we are trying to induce weight loss, eating too many carbohydrates will not allow our body to tap into stored fat, which is how we achieve ketosis and resultant fat loss. Of course, meat and eggs offer an excellent source of carbohydrate free proteins, but clearly this is not an option for everyone. Fortunately, there are numerous sources of plant based protein that are also lower in carbohydrates. To identify these proteins, it is important to understand the concept of CARB TO PROTEIN RATIO.
Okay– now I will have to get a little technical, but stay with me, this will quickly make a lot of sense to you!
For example, beans have a carb to protein ratio of 3:1, which means the carbohydrate content of beans is three times the protein content. In fact, quinoa has a carb:protein ratio of almost 5:1. Yikes! For reference here is a quick breakdown of common foods and their carb:protein ratio
Lentils (cooked): 7.86g protein, 17.54g carbs, carb/protein ratio: 2.23/1
Chickpeas (cooked): 5.52g protein, 17.09g carbs, carb/protein ratio: 3.09/1
Quinoa (cooked): 3.74g protein, 18.13g carbs, carb/protein ratio:4.85/1
Chicken breast (cooked): 20.33g protein, 0.0g carbs, carb/protein ratio: 0
Egg (cooked): 8.76g protein, 0.50g carbs, carb/protein ratio: 0.06/1
Now, the good news is that there are numerous plant based options that have a carbohydrate to protein ratio as low as 2.5:1 and are versatile enough to easily incorporate into your diet.
1) Kale – Kale is loaded with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals and yes…a lot of protein. Kale can be used in salads (excellent when mixed with lemon juice), smoothies or chop into stews, soups…everywhere. It’s a great way to add some nutrients for almost no calories.Carb/protein ratio: 2.044/1
2) Flax seed – One of the healthiest foods on earth. First of all, it wins the competition when it comes to omega-3/omega-6 ratio among the plants. That ratio is of huge importance for reducing chronic inflammation (common denominator in most diseases). It’s one of the things that makes flaxseed so special.
Second, flaxseed has other nutrients as well. Among others: fiber, B-vitamins (esp. B1 & 6), magnesium, iron and zinc. The health benefits of flaxseed include lowering cholesterol (study, preventing cancer (study) and weight loss (study).
To make the most out of flaxseeds, grind them and use in smoothies, oatmeal/overnight oats, salads. Carb/protein ratio: 1.56
3) Mushrooms – Mushrooms have been getting increasingly popular as a meat substitute due to their hearty texture and flavor. Additionally, studies have consistently shown that mushrooms boost your immune system, fight cancer, reduce inflammation and hormonal imbalances. Finally, they are extremely low in calories and pack a significant amount of protein. Carb/protein ratio: 1.13:1
4) Sunflower seeds – These seeds are loaded with iron, magnesium and a ton of fat soluble vitamin E. Sunflower seeds can be eaten raw as a snack, sprinkled on salads or chia seed pudding, or in my favorite form-sun butter! Carb/protein ratio: 0.96/1
5) Asparagus – Asparagus is a rich source of the vitamins C, A, B, E. Interestingly, it also has a significant amount of plant protein and fiber. It can be prepared very easily with just a little olive oil and salt drizzled on top and grilled or baked. Carb/protein ratio: 0.65