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Where's the plant-based protein on Passover?

Updated: Mar 18

I'm often asked by vegetarians and vegans if they're eating enough protein. During the year, people who eat predominantly plant foods can easily get enough protein. This becomes more challenging for vegans and vegetarians who celebrate Passover, when they can't rely on their usual protein sources. Still, with the right foods, meeting your protein needs can be done.

quinoa appetizers

Passover, the holiday that celebrates freedom, is accompanied by symbolic foods on Seder tables around the world. The holiday commemorates the miraculous exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. Since they did not have time to bake bread, foods which are leavened when they come into contact with water are not eaten on the holiday.

Five major grains, among them oats, wheat (wheat matzah is permitted), barley, spelt, and rye are off the list, along with any dishes made from or combined with those grains. Matzah, which is baked quickly, is a major staple of the holiday. Most people have a love-hate relationship with matzah, as it is tasteless and dry. However, when hand prepared from whole wheat, I find it quite tasty. Especially when laden with chocolate spread...but I digress!

It may seem as if there's still plenty of food left to eat, as holiday meals include fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins, and desserts made from almond and coconut flour. But there are other customs many adhere to, depending on family traditions. Ashkenazim also don't eat beans, some seeds, peanuts, and a few vegetables such as corn and string beans. Sephardim do allow them, and I always envied the rice and bean dishes at their tables.

This means, for Ashkenazim, there is no peanut butter, tofu, soybeans, and bean dishes. These foods provide more than enough protein and other nutrients during the year for plant-based eaters. Where does that leave vegetarians and vegans, and how do they find the protein on Passover? With a little planning, they can meet their needs without any ill effects.

How much protein?

How much protein do people generally need? I won't go into specific amounts, because it should be individualized, depending on age, gender, and health status. For example, older people will need more protein to avoid losing muscle mass. Athletes need additional protein to keep up with their specific physical demands. Patients after surgery will need extra protein for wound healing. Patients undergoing cancer treatments will also need additional protein to keep physically strong.

For vegetarians, the amount of protein needed can be the same as meat-eaters, especially if they eat eggs and fish. That means 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day. But you'd have to know the amount of protein (not calories) in every food to figure out how much you're actually eating. For vegans, I advise a little more protein to make sure they meet their needs. Generally, most Americans get more than enough protein in their diet, although many don't think so.

It's important to consider your overall pattern of eating as well. Generally, I look at your nutrition level on a weekly basis. Food intake varies from day to day. Some days you may load up on beans, and other days you'll be satisfied with a peanut butter sandwich. Your body is wise, and you can learn to trust what it needs, if you pay attention to it in a compassionate and kind manner.

For general guidelines, the maximum amount of protein for a healthy male adult is 6½ ounce equivalents every day (5½ ounce equivalents for women). What does that translate to? These are all 1 ounce equivalents from the protein foods group:

  • A quarter cup of cooked beans

  • 1 egg

  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter

  • 1 ounce of cooked fish

  • ½ ounce of nuts or seeds. A ½ ounce of nuts is 12 almonds, 24 pistachios, or 7 walnut halves.

So you would just need a maximum of 6 portions a day of these 1-ounce equivalents. You can see how easy it is to meet your protein needs throughout the year. But what are the options for passover?

hemp hearts

Passover high protein foods

The following are suggestions for higher protein foods available for the Passover holiday. Follow your family's traditions, as some foods on this list may not be suitable for Ashkenazim. These are noted with an asterisk.

Higher protein foods with the amount of protein per gram for Passover include:

  • Flax seed, chia and hemp seed (It's recommended to buy the seeds before passover and check through for any grains mixed in)*. Protein varies, but hempseeds are the highest, with 13 grams per ¼ cup.

  • Almond butter (5 grams per 2 tablespoons).

  • Almonds (8 grams per ¼ cup).

  • Black walnuts (8 grams per ¼ cup).

  • Brazil nuts, cashews, and hazelnuts (5-6 grams per ¼ cup).

  • Avocado (yay!), at 4 grams for a whole avocado.

  • Dried shiitake mushrooms (9 grams per ¼ cup).

  • A baked potato has a fair amount, 4 grams per potato. Have two!

  • Quinoa, pictured below (4 grams per ½ cup).

*May not be not be suitable for Ashkenazim.

quinoa cups

Remember to enjoy the holiday, and don't stress too much about meeting your nutritional needs during Passover. Make it a holiday to discover new foods, new ways of preparing tasty vegetables and desserts, and being part of social eating. After the holiday, you can return to your hummus dip and peanut butter sandwiches with a newfound gusto.

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