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Plant-Based Protein Sources

Carrie Mccorkindale, MPH, RD, CDE
4
June 3, 2021

Protein is an essential building block for the body. It helps build cells and muscle and is important for growth and development. The human body creates 11 amino acids but needs another 9 from food. Animal products such as meat, eggs, and milk are naturally high in all 9 essential amino acids. This makes it easier for people who consume animal products to meet their daily protein needs. But what about people on plant-based diets like vegetarians or vegans?

Some plant foods are complete proteins, while others are incomplete proteins, meaning they do not have all 9 amino acids. Eating a variety of foods is important to get enough protein while on a plant-based diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a minimum daily protein intake of 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram of body weight. Pregnant or nursing women and older adults may need more protein.

The following healthful, plant-based foods have a high-protein content per serving:

1. Soy products: Variable

Soy is amongst the richest sources of protein in a plant-based diet. The protein content varies with how the soy is prepared:

  • Firm tofu: 10 g of protein per ½ cup
  • Edamame beans: 8.5 g of protein per ½ cup
  • Tempeh: 15 g of protein per ½ cup

Tofu takes on the flavor of the dish it is prepared in, so it can be a versatile addition to a meal. People can try tofu as a substitute for meat in a favorite sandwich, soup or some dishes. Soy products also contain good levels of calcium and iron, which make them healthful substitutes for dairy products.

2. Lentils: 8.84 g of protein per ½ cup (cooked)

Lentils are a great source of protein to add to lunch or dinner. They can be added to stews, curries, salads, or rice to give an extra serving of protein. They also contain fiber and other nutrients like iron and potassium.

3. Chickpeas: 7.25 g per ½ cup (cooked)

Chickpeas can be eaten hot or cold and can be prepared in many ways. They can be added to stews, curries, or mixed with spices and roasted in the oven. Hummus, which is made from chickpea paste, can be added to a sandwich for a healthy, protein-rich alternative to mayonnaise or as a dip for vegetables.

4. Peanuts: 20.5 g of protein per ½ cup

Peanuts are protein-rich, full of healthy fats, and may improve heart health. A peanut butter sandwich is a great choice as a high-protein snack. Peanuts can be eaten by themselves or added to stir-fries for a nice crunch. 

5. Almonds: 16.5 g of protein per ½ cup

Almonds also provide a good amount of vitamin E, which is great for the skin and eyes. They can be eaten by themselves or added to other dishes like salads or rice. Almond butter is a great alternative for peanut butter and is great with fresh fruit.

6. Quinoa: 8 g of protein per 1 cup (cooked)

Quinoa is a grain with a high protein content and is a complete protein. This grain is also a good source of other nutrients like magnesium, iron, fiber, and manganese. Quinoa can be used instead of pasta in soups and stews. It can be sprinkled on a salad or eaten as a main course.

7. Chia seeds: 2 g of protein per 1 tablespoon

Seeds are low-calorie foods that are rich in fiber and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds also are a complete protein with all 9 essential amino acids. Try adding chia seeds to a smoothie, sprinkling them on top of plant-based yogurt, or soaking them in water or almond milk to make a pudding.

8. Hemp seeds: 5 g of protein per 1 tablespoon

Similar to chia seeds, hemp seeds are a complete protein. They can be used in a similar way to chia seeds.

9. Rice and Beans: 7 g of protein per cup

Separately, rice and beans are incomplete protein sources. Together, they provide all 9 essential amino acids. Try rice and beans as a side dish or with a salad. 

10. Potatoes: 8 g of protein per 1 large baked potato

Potatoes are also high in other nutrients, such as potassium and vitamin C.

11. Protein-rich vegetables: Variable

Many dark-colored, leafy greens and vegetables contain protein. Eaten alone, these foods are not enough to meet daily protein requirements. Adding a few vegetable snacks can increase protein intake, especially when combined with other protein-rich foods. Some vegetables with higher amounts of protein include:

  • A medium stalk of broccoli: 4 g of protein
  • Kale: 2 g of protein per cup
  • 5 medium mushrooms: 3 g of protein

Try a salad made from baby greens with some quinoa sprinkled on top for a protein-rich meal.

12. Seitan: 21 g per 1/3 cup

Seitan is a complete protein made from mixing wheat gluten with various spices. The high-wheat content means that it should be avoided by people with celiac or gluten intolerance. For others, it can be a protein-rich healthful meat substitute in stir-fries or sandwiches.

13. Ezekiel bread: 4 g of protein per slice

Ezekiel bread is a nutrient-dense alternative to traditional bread made from barley, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt. It is an excellent choice for bread lovers who want a more nutritious way to eat toast or sandwiches. Get even more protein by toasting Ezekiel bread and spreading it with peanut or almond butter.

14. Plant-based protein powders: Variable

The protein content among protein powders varies. Some contain all 9 essential amino acids while some do not. The position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that while supplements can help people meet their daily nutrition goals, eating a wide variety of foods rich in protein is usually a better strategy for meeting daily goals. Some protein supplements may also be high in sugar or sodium to improve the taste, so it is important to read the nutrition labels.

Summary

Going vegan or vegetarian requires some planning. With the right protein-based plant food, people who avoid animal products can eat balanced diets that support a healthy body and reduce the risks of some diseases.

It is beneficial to speak with a doctor or dietitian before switching to a plant-based diet. They can offer guidance to make sure you are getting enough nutrients from a variety of plant foods, and make recommendations for supplements accordingly.