When you think of vegetables, you may not consider them high in protein per se, especially when compared to foods like eggs or soybeans. For example, two eggs, about 3.5 ounces by weight, provide 13 grams of protein, while a 3.5-ounce serving of kale has only 3 protein grams. However, we need to evaluate vegetables differently, as many rank high in terms of protein percentages.
A food’s protein percentage reflects the calories derived strictly from protein. Vegetables with a high percentage of protein per calorie are culinary stars, as they are also typically rich in fiber, nutrients and antioxidants with minimal simple carbs.
Why is protein important?
Protein provides the building blocks for muscle, hair, skin, bone and body tissue. It also plays valuable roles in helping the human system function properly, from producing new cells, to the growth and repair of muscles, to the production of enzymes and hormones, and much more. Of the twenty-two amino acids found in food, nine are essential and eleven non-essential. It is those nine essential amino acids that we must get from our meals, as our bodies can’t produce them. So, it certainly makes sense to pay attention to our daily menu.
Top Vegetables High in Protein
Here are five veggies that deserve special mention, in order of protein percentage:
This popular dark, leafy green is 57 percent protein and offers all 9 essential amino acids in modest amounts. Iron-rich spinach also serves up vitamins A, C, K, calcium and folic acid, plus carotenoid antioxidants like lutein, kaempferol, quercetin and zeaxanthin. To further boost spinach protein, combine it with corn, peas, chickpeas, edamame or kidney beans. One easy, healthy way to incorporate spinach into meals is simply to add fresh leaves to hot soups, stews or pasta entrées before serving as they melt right in with their food value largely intact.
Given its mild, subtle sweetness, spinach is a favorite for green shakes and smoothie bowls. It is also amazing in this good-for-you Spinach-Artichoke Dip, these luscious vegan Stuffed Shells, Vegan Spinach Bolognese Lasagna or Sweet Spinach & Banana Muffins. Serious spinach aficionados will love Fall in ‘Leaf’ With Spinach – Benefits, Ways to Enjoy & More.
Comprised of 56 percent protein, this variety of Chinese white cabbage is a notable player in the Brassica genus of plants─vegetable royalty, if you will, along with kale, Brussels sprouts, arugula, broccoli, and more. A primary staple in Asian cuisine, Bok Choy offers nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, folate, selenium, manganese and vitamin C.
As for protein, this mild cruciferous veggie provides six of the nine essential amino acids sufficiently, remaining rather low in leucine, methionine and phenylalanine. However, Bok Choy transforms into complete protein when paired with Brazil nuts, carrots, chia seeds, yellow corn, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, nori, cashews or rice of any kind. You might like this versatile, nutritious staple in a Veggie-Bean Stew with Bok Choy or this Ginger-Bok Choy Stir Fry. These groovy Black Sesame Seeds make a fun, healthy garnish.
This elegant green veggie is 53 percent protein, containing seven of the nine essential amino acids. The two “limiting” amino acids─leucine and methionine─are easily obtained from Brazil nuts, carrots, yellow corn, chia, sesame and pumpkin seeds, spirulina, Nori seaweed or these darling Nori Krinkles, which make a great salad topper. One easy, protein-rich option is to serve grilled asparagus and corn-on-the-cob alongside this luscious Creamy Carrot Soup, garnished with some flavorful Tamari Pumpkin Seeds.
You might also like Lemon Asparagus Pasta with Mushrooms, Easy Pickled Asparagus or Egg-Free Asparagus & Kale Chickpea “Frittata.” Also, consider this Marinated Rosemary & Oregano Asparagus Snack. Still curious? Check out: All About Asparagus: Nutrition, Preparation & More.
Boasting 52 percent protein, mushrooms are a global culinary staple, adding texture, flavor, and nutritional value to countless entrées. According to the Mushroom Council, few foods naturally contain vitamin D as mushrooms do, along with selenium, choline, and many B-complex vitamins, and that’s not all. Shrooms are also the only plant food with the ability to increase their own vitamin D levels. Some varieties, such as cremini and portabella, contain even higher levels of ergosterol, the plant sterol that converts to vitamin D upon exposure to sunshine.
Mushrooms provide only four of the nine essential amino acids sufficiently, being low in isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, and phenylalanine, but they upgrade to complete protein when combined with carrots, chia or pumpkin seeds, spinach or pistachios. If all this beckons you to the kitchen, you might whip up some Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers, this comforting Vegan Lentil Loaf With Mushroom Gravy, this Easy Veggie & Mushroom Noodle Bowl or this cool Mushroom Stir-Fry.
With 45 percent protein, this hearty dark green has attained food fame as a wrap for a variety of plant-based fillings, from creamy salads to tapenades, tasty spreads and dips, “sushi” veggies and more. Collard greens are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, phosphorus and more, plus beneficial antioxidant plant compounds such as phenols, polyphenols and alpha-lipoic acid.
While they contain abundant amounts of five out of the nine essential amino acids, collard greens fall short on leucine, lysine, methionine and phenylalanine. You can, however, transform them into complete protein in a snap by pairing them with carrots, chia, pumpkin or sesame seeds, pistachios or spirulina. Learn more here about how collards and other dark greens support healthy inflammation levels, and why that matters. Also, consider these scrumptious, fun-to-make Collard Green Veggie Rolls with Tahini-Miso Sauce.
Feeling inspired yet? Have fun getting creative with all these veggies and how easily they can be augmented with other healthy plant foods for egg-quality protein, even in a simple salad. It appears as if embracing a healthy, whole food, plant-centric menu gets more functional, and compelling all the time. Bon appétit!