08/05/2016 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/05/2016 12:15 EDT

Get All The Protein Your Body Needs -- From Plants

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Close-up of a woman holding a bowl with freshly harvested vegetables

Did you know eating the right plants can give your body the protein it needs? Move over meat, we're adding a different protein source to our family's dinner plates. No, you don't have to give up meat entirely or become vegetarian or vegan, but why not consider adding "Meatless Mondays" to your family meal planning? It's a great opportunity to introduce new foods.

Let's start with why we need protein? Protein is an essential nutrient needed for cell growth and repair, enzyme and hormone development, muscle function and growth, nerve function, and immune protection -- basically to keep your body strong and healthy.

Adults 19 and older need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain nitrogen balance in the body, while children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding require even more. To determine your individual protein requirements, speak to a registered dietitian.

So you might be wondering what you should be eating to get protein from plants? Well, there's soy products including tofu, tempeh, edamame and textured vegetable protein; pulses such as chickpeas, dried beans and lentils; nuts, seeds and their butters such as almonds and almond butter or sunflower and sunflower seed butter. And last of all, certain grains such as quinoa, amaranth, barley and wild rice. Did you do a double take when you read 'grains'? That's right; grains can also provide protein.

It's important to note, that many proteins from plants are not considered to be a high quality source of protein, meaning they don't contain all nine essential amino acids or they do but one or two of these amino acids are present in small amounts. Therefore, it's best to eat a variety of proteins from plants, especially if you're vegan, to ensure you're getting enough of each of the essential amino acids. On the flip side, consuming more proteins from plants is a great way to boost your fibre intake, as animal proteins are not food sources of this nutrient.

This year is the perfect time to start introducing proteins from plants. Why? Because 2016 marks the year of pulses (dried seeds of legumes). What I like to hear is that Canadians are already enjoying pulses. In fact, according to PEN (Practice Evidence-Based Nutrition), approximately 13 per cent of Canadians consume pulses daily, and why not, they're delicious!

The other ingredient you should look at adding to your grocery cart is soy. As with meat, milk and eggs, soy is considered to be a high quality protein and contains iron and isoflavones, as well as fibre, zinc and B vitamins. On top of being good for you, prepared the right way it tastes great and can easily be added into your meal rotation. Think beyond tofu, there are roasted soybeans, tempeh, soy beverages and edamame.

We're on to my favourite, especially for snacks - nuts, seeds and their butters. They each have different nutritional benefits, but all provide protein, unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals in varying amounts.

In fact, nuts and seeds can actually help with maintaining good blood cholesterol and blood pressure, not to mention they may also help control your appetite by keeping you full longer -- I'd say that's a win! Look for a variety of different nuts, seeds and their butters including cashew, almond, hazelnut, pecan, pine nut, pumpkin seed and more.

Lastly, let's talk about different ways to add these proteins from plants to your meals. For breakfast, take a creative leap and try a smoothie! Or, if you prefer not to drink your meals, try these Cranberry Flaxseed Muffins made using a fortified soy beverage. For lunch, how about a Soba Supper Bowl?

You can easily make it the night before and take it to work. When dinner rolls around, tasty meatless meals like Tex-Mex Pizza are a great option to get your kids involved in the meal preparation, letting them help pick the toppings and encourage them to try new foods. Who knows, you might even decide to have more than one meatless meal in your week.

If you want to learn more about proteins from plants, or chat about healthy meal options for you and your family, come visit me or one of my registered dietitian colleagues at your local Loblaws or Zehrs store.

Néma McGlynn is a registered dietitian with Loblaws. She is part of a network of more than 76 dietitians who provide free services like one-on-one consultations, assisted shopping, school tours and recipe ideas at locations across the country.

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