Eating fewer animal products or cutting them out completely comes with a lot of questions. What will I put in my coffee? How do I bake without eggs? Won’t I always be hungry? But the most common question seems to be about protein. Luckily, the plant kingdom is abundant in protein that’s not only healthy but also better for personal and planetary health. Here are the best vegan protein sources.
The 16 Best Vegan Protein Sources
There’s this little myth that you can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet (see #7 here), but that just isn’t true.
“Eating plant-based proteins such as tofu, edamame, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds has many benefits,” Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian in the NYC area and owner of Plant-Based Eats, tells LIVEKINDLY. “When you eat these proteins, you’re also taking in many other nutrients, typically including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.”
And how much protein should you eat?
“This depends on so many factors, including your age, gender, and activity level,” says Gorin. “The recommended dietary allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). This is low, and you will likely need more protein than this.”
Try adding these plant-based protein sources to your plate:
Seitan is made from vital wheat gluten, the main protein source in wheat. It’s high in protein, low in fat, and has a texture similar to meat. It also contains small amounts of iron, calcium, and phosphorus. However, it doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids.
Seitan’s use dates back to 6th-century China, but it’s been enjoying a surge in popularity in the Western plant-based food market. You can now buy pre-packaged, seasoned seitan (the brands Upton’s Naturals, WestSoy, and SweetEarth all make seitan) or you can make your own. As with two other protein sources on this list—tofu and tempeh—unseasoned seitan takes on whatever flavor you make it with, which is what really helps make it taste like meat. See here for tips on making your own seitan and how to cook with it.
Protein per 100 grams: 25 grams
Meals would be a lot duller without tofu. Another centuries-old food hailing from East Asian cuisine, tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the bean curds into a solid white block. It comes in varieties, from extra firm to silken, each of which has a different culinary use. Extra-firm tofu has the highest protein content (and there’s also sprouted tofu, which has an even higher protein content) and like other varieties, it also contains calcium and iron. Tofu is versatile, taking on whatever flavor you marinate it in. See here for recipes.
Protein per 100 grams (for extra firm tofu): 12-14 grams
Hailing from Indonesia, tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, which bind together as a result of the natural culturing process. It’s also one of the best vegan protein sources out there. Not only is it high in protein and low in fat, but it’s also a good source of calcium and iron. Some find it a little bitter, but steaming tempeh for a few minutes before preparing it gets rid of that. It can be stir-fried, baked, and crumbled. Try it in this sweet and sour tempeh recipe.
Protein per 100 grams: 20 grams
Edamame is the Japanese name for immature soybeans often served as an appetizer at restaurants. It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor that can be eaten on its own with a pinch of salt or added to bowls, salads, and soups. Edamame is high in protein, plus it’s a good source of folate, vitamin A, and fiber. Like tofu and tempeh, it contains iron and calcium.
It’s also one of the few plant-based foods that’s a complete protein.
“A complete protein is a protein that includes all nine essential amino acids,” Gorin explains. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The body needs 20 in order to function properly, but only nine are considered essential.
“Examples [of complete plant proteins] include tofu, edamame, and hemp seeds. You don’t need to worry about marrying together amino acids within the same meal. Rather eat a balanced diet with a variety of food groups and these are likely to balance out,” she adds?
Protein per cup: 17 grams
With so many varieties, what’s not to love about lentils? Brown lentils hold their shape, so add them to salads, soups, and grain bowls or try using them to make lentil loaf, burgers, or meatballs. Beluga lentils, named for their caviar-like appearance, retain their shape and an al-dente texture. Red lentils break down when cooked, so they shine in creamy stews and curries. Plus, they’re one of the best vegan protein sources out there! All types of lentils are high in protein (they’re over 25 percent protein!) and fiber, low in fat, and rich in iron, folate, and manganese. They also contain compounds known as phytochemicals, which can help protect against heart disease.
Protein per cooked cup: 18 grams
Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, great northern beans… Every bean has a unique flavor, taste, and texture (and it’s estimated that there are more than 400 edible varieties!) and we love them for it. They’re also one of the best vegan protein sources you can eat. Generally, beans are high in protein and fiber, which helps you feel fuller longer, and low in fat. According to the American Heart Association, a fiber-rich diet can help protect against heart disease. Beans also contain complex carbohydrates, iron, folate, phosphorous, and potassium.
Protein per cooked cup: About 15 grams
Quinoa, Amaranth, and Millet
Technically seeds and not grains, quinoa, amaranth, and millet are gluten-free “pseudocereals” that are thousands of years old. Quinoa was a staple food for the Incas in the mountains of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, who called it chisaya mama, the mother of all grains. Amaranth is native to Mexico and Central America. And millet was a significant crop in Early Neolithic China. All three ancient grains are a good source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and iron. Quinoa has the added benefit of being one of the few complete sources of plant-based protein.
Protein per cooked cup of quinoa: 8 grams
Protein per cooked cup of amaranth: 9.3 grams
Protein per cooked cup of millet: 6 grams
Spelt, a type of wheat grain, was an important crop in parts of Bronze Age and medieval Europe. Today, you can find it in most grocery stores. When cooked, it has a chewy texture and a slightly nutty flavor. Use it to replace rice in bowls, soups, and hearty stews. As far as ancient grains go, spelt is high in protein and a good source of a variety of nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese.
Protein per cooked cup: 11 grams
At home in grain bowls and soups or with a side of seitan, wild rice has a chewy texture and distinctly nutty flavor. Despite its name, it’s not rice, but the grain of a semi-aquatic grass that grows in the Great Lakes region and along waterways across North America. Wild rice is higher in protein than other long-grain rice varieties, plus it’s a good source of fiber and contains folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, vitamin B6, and niacin.
Protein per cooked cup: 7 grams
Who could forget the humble oat? Cheap, versatile, and healthy—we love them. Oats come in a lot of varieties, from quick-cooking instant oats to rolled oats and heartier varieties, like steel-cut. The difference comes down to how much of the oat groat—the whole grain—has been processed. Instant and rolled oats have both been steamed and rolled flat so they cook faster. Steel-cut oats are made by chopping the whole oat groat into fine pieces.
Each type has its own nutritional value (steel cut oats have the most fiber), but oats, in general, are good sources of protein and fiber and contain vitamins and minerals including phosphorus, iron, copper, selenium, and vitamin B1.
Protein per cooked cup: 5.9 grams
Nuts, Seeds, and Butters
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are good sources of protein and good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The former is linked to heart health and can be found in most nuts while the latter contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is known to reduce bad cholesterol. Nuts and seeds also contain iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and some B vitamins. When choosing a nut butter, look for one that’s been made without added oil, sugar, or salt.
Protein per ½ cup of raw peanuts: 19 grams
Protein per ½ cup of raw almonds: 14.5 grams
Protein per ½ cup of walnuts: 8 grams
Protein per ½ cup of pumpkin seeds: 17.5 grams
Protein per ½ cup of sunflower seeds: 12.5 grams
These are just a handful of examples—flax seeds, chia seeds, cashews, and pistachios are all also good sources of plant-based protein—but there’s one shining star among seeds, and that’s hemp seeds. For starters, they’re a complete protein and a good source of magnesium, iron, calcium, zinc, and selenium. Hemp seeds are also a source of plant-based omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Protein per ½ cup: 25 grams
Known for its cheesy flavor and unappetizing name (hence the nickname “nooch”), nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast, usually of the strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that comes in the form of yellow flakes. It’s a source of complete protein and an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and B vitamins. Some nutritional yeast is fortified with vitamin B12.
Protein per serving (2 tablespoons): 9 grams
14. Protein-Rich Vegetables
All vegetables contain protein, but some stand out more than others. Those vegetables are broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. You read it here: always eat your vegetables.
Protein per cup: About 4-5 grams
What is life without bread? Adding some sprouted bread to your diet can help up your protein intake.
“Sprouted grain breads are made with grains that have just started to germinate and are harvested before they get a chance to grow into a plant. Sprouted grains contain nutrients that are more accessible to your body and higher in nutrients,” says Gorin.
Some people have an easier time digesting sprouted grains because the plants release enzymes during the germination process, which start to break down carbohydrates and proteins. So, how do you pick the right kind of sprouted bread?
“The number one thing I advise when shopping for bread is looking for a first ingredient (or second ingredient, if the first ingredient is water) that is a whole grain, such as whole-wheat flour or oat flour,” Gorin explains. “This helps indicate that you’re buying a bread that contains an ample amount of protein and fiber.”
Ezekial Bread, Angelic Bakehouse, or Dave’s Killer Bread all make vegan sprouted bread.
Protein per two slices: 6-8 grams
If you want that meaty flavor without the meat, a lot of alternatives, especially the new wave of realistic plant-based meats, can stand up to the real thing in terms of vegan protein content. One Beyond Burger has 20 grams of plant protein. Impossible meat contains 19 grams of protein per 4 ounces, the same amount as ground beef.
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