It’s no secret that protein is an important part of one’s diet. Most think that proteins can only be found in animal-based products like meat, however there are plenty of plant-based options that can be a plentiful source of protein.
The generalized misconception around a plant-based diet is that non-meat eaters are lacking in protein consumption. Most meals are built around meats like beef and chicken so it’s almost always assumed that’s the protein part of a meal. Protein itself can be broken down to amino acids and there are 9 essential amino acids that your body cannot produce so you have to get them through your diet. The difference between plant protein and animal protein is that animal protein is considered “complete” meaning it has all 9 amino acids. It is really difficult to find a plant-based protein what is complete, which means you have to eat a lot of different proteins to get all 9 essential amino acids.
Best Plant-Based Proteins
Soy Products & Soybeans
This one is a big deal because this is one plant-based protein that is complete! They also contain the most protein (about 8-15 grams per ½ cup). Additionally, soy contains iron and calcium and fermented options contain probiotics for gut health. Soy products are one of the top GMO products so it’s important to also buy certified non-GMO products.
A popular source of protein for plant-based diets is lentils! They are also carbohydrates and are great sources of iron, folate, potassium, manganese, and promote vitality through the antioxidants they contain. When cooked they have about 9 grams per ½ cup serving of protein and can also have 50% of the RDI of fiber in one cup.
Another winner of the plant-based protein category is hemp seeds because like soy products, they are a complete protein! In just three tablespoons, there are a little under 10 grams of protein. They are also very gut friendly due to them being easily digestible and your body can use these proteins more efficiently when broken down. Hemp is also a very sustainable crop and it requires little water, doesn’t need any pesticides and takes up little space!
Beans (& Chickpeas)
Black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas (garbanzo beans) contain about 7.5 grams of protein per ½ cup serving when cooked. Black beans contain lysine, a commonly missed amino acid in vegan diets. In addition to the protein perk, beans contain great amounts of carbs, iron, potassium, folate, fiber, phosphorous and more. Recently, there has been concern that beans contain lectins, which can cause indigestion. Cooking, soaking, and sprouting beans drastically decrease the lectin content and some research has even said that lectins have some positive effects.
Those starchy vegetables that you may have disliked as a child is actually one of the best plant-based proteins! By eating green peas, you can get protein, fiber, vitamins like A, C, and K, magnesium, manganese and iron! Yellow peas are also a great source of protein and when turned into a powder, can yield 15-20 grams per scoop!
Nuts and Seeds
There are different types of nuts and seeds that contain good amounts of proteins. Almonds are at the top of the list, with pistachios not far behind. Pumpkin seeds are a complete protein and they contain a great amount of magnesium and zinc. Sunflower seeds are also great sources of protein and they also contain a variety of minerals and are full of vitamin E.
Often confused with being in the nut category, peanuts are actually a type of legume. ½ cup of a serving can provide about 10 grams of protein and two tablespoons of peanut butter can have 7 grams of protein (yay for our peanut butter enthusiasts!) One downside is that this is the most common foods to trigger an allergic reaction – possibly due to the pesticides that are sprayed on peanut crops.
Nutritional yeast is a favorite among vegans because it has a natural cheesy flavor. It is also full of nutrients and every ¼ cup has about 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber! Fortified yeast also contains the B-12 vitamin, one that is commonly lacking in vegan diets.
Similar to hemp seeds, these little seeds are a complete protein and have about 2 grams per tablespoon. They are also a good source of omega-3s, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. They can be used as a topping on foods or used to make vegan pudding!
Oats are a great source of protein and though they are not a complete protein, they contain lysine (a commonly missed amino acid in plant-based proteins). They are high in fiber, carbohydrates and they have about 6 grams of protein per ½ cup of dry oats.
Typically found in powdered form, spirulina is a blue-green algae. Two tablespoons have about 8 grams of protein and essential minerals, including iron. Spirulina also contains an antioxidant called phycocyanin that may have anti-cancer properties. It can also assist with heavy metal detox and can boost immune functions!
Although grains are rarely considered complete proteins, some research suggests that sprouting grains can increase lysine content. Whole grains including wheat have a good amount of fiber and protein in them – one slice of standard whole grain bread has about 5-6 grams of protein! For gluten sensitivities, there are gluten-free grain options as well.
White and brown rice has decent amounts of protein, but wild rice is the best choice for protein content – and has a good amount of fiber! Something to consider with eating rice regularly is that rice crops tend to take up more arsenic than others due to them being sometimes grown in contaminated water. A great tip to cut down on arsenic content is to wash rice and use large amounts of cooking water.
Fun fact: corn – often thought of as a vegetable is actually a grain! There is about 3 grams per ½ cup cooked, which is decent. Sweet corn in particular is a gluten-free option with carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin and has a good amount of fiber. However, there is some controversy due to its high starch content. When searching for corn, make sure to look for non-GMO and organic corn to avoid pesticide dangers and genetic modifications.
Fruits and Vegetables
All fruits and vegetables have some level of protein, just not a lot so it’s important to eat lots of produce. Vegetables contain higher levels of proteins than fruits – sweet potatoes, artichoke, spinach and brussels sprouts are among the vegetables with 2-2.5 grams of protein per ½ cup. Bananas, blackberries, guava and mulberries are among the fruits that contain 1-2 grams.