10 of the Best Plant-Based Sources of Protein
Yes, it’s entirely possible to score your protein fix from plants alone. Here are the ingredients that’ll get you there.
That you must eat meat to get your protein fix is a myth.
When you hear the word “protein,” you likely think of a chicken breast or a hunk of steak. That makes sense — meat is one of the best sources of this macronutrient, according to the Heart Foundation. But it’s not the only source. In fact, it’s entirely possible to get the protein you need each day without eating meat like poultry, beef, and pork. “When done thoughtfully, individuals can meet their protein needs exclusively from plant-based sources,” says Nathalie Sessions, RD, of Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.
The Possible Benefits of Trading Meat Protein for Plant Protein
One perk of eating animal protein is that these sources are complete — meaning they provide the nine essential amino acids our bodies can’t make, according to the Cedars-Sinai Blog. But there are benefits to trading or reducing your meat consumption and filling up on plant proteins, including:
Losing weight When followed properly, plant-based diets, such as a vegetarian diet, may help you lose weight, according to a review of 12 randomized controlled trials published in January 2016 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Helping the environment Swapping meat for plants to get your protein fix can similarly benefit the environment, notes an article published in December 2018 in Nutrients.
Boosting your heart health When it comes to red meat, the benefits of relying on plant alternatives for protein arguably get even more impressive. “Some studies have linked red meat with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, partly due to the saturated fat content,” Sessions says.
In fact, a randomized controlled trial published in June 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that among diets with red meat, diets with white meat, and diets with plants, the plant-based diets had the most positive effects on LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. Per the American Heart Association, replacing saturated fat with healthier fats, such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, can benefit lipid and cholesterol levels.
Meanwhile, other research, like a meta-analysis published in April 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, reveals that compared with omnivorous dieters (those who eat both plant and animal proteins) vegetarians had lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure numbers. Those benefits can lead to a healthier ticker, lowering your risk for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lengthening your life The National Institutes of Health reports that red meat consumption may shorten your life. The group recommends swapping it out of your diet in favor of healthier protein sources.
By following a diet with a variety of foods, it’s possible to get your fix of the amino acids your body needs to perform at its best, notes Cedars-Sinai.
“No one needs to eat red meat to be healthy,” Sessions says.
‘How Much Protein Do I Need?’
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram of body weight. Multiply your weight in pounds (lb) by 0.36 — that’s how many grams of protein you should be getting each day at a minimum. Therefore, if you weigh 150 lb, you’d aim for 54 g of protein daily. To think of it another way, protein should make up between 10 and 35 percent of your daily calorie intake, says Shira Sussi, RDN, the founder of Shira Sussi Nutrition in Brooklyn, New York.
That’s not a difficult ask for most Americans. “We are not terribly worried about getting enough protein — most Americans are meeting or exceeding the recommended intake,” Sessions says. “In many cases that I’ve seen working with clients and patients, they are overdoing protein intake while also underdoing the recommended intakes of the nutrient-rich vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.”
Sussi suspects it’s because “people are raised with the idea that protein — specifically animal protein — needs to be the center of the meal, and that a meal without protein is not satisfying or fulfilling.” She challenges this thinking and says it doesn’t need to be all about a large piece of meat at dinner. You could get your fix by incorporating high-quality protein to meals and snacks throughout the day, such as by adding a serving of beans to a salad or stacking grilled tofu steaks in between slices of bread for lunch, Sussi says.
Ready to explore the plant side of protein? Here are 10 of the best plant-based proteins to start incorporating into your meals, whether you’re looking to ditch animal products completely or are simply looking to diversify your protein options.1
Lentils (Up to 9 g of Protein per ½ Cup)
Sessions says lentils and other legumes (such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds) offer a full protein package. “They’re rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and [can] provide up to 9 g of protein per serving,” which is ½ cup cooked legumes, she says. They also contain antioxidant-rich polyphenols, which a study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences says have anti-obesity, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetes properties.
Incorporate lentils as the protein in a veggie-packed soup (such as in Cookie and Kate’s Best Lentil Soup) or as the star of your next veggie burger (try Vegan Richa’s Lentil Walnut Burger recipe).2
Chickpeas (7 g of Protein per ½ Cup)
Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are legumes that are rich in protein, folate, fiber, iron, phosphorus, and healthy fatty acids, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A ½-cup serving of chickpeas has about 7 g of protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Sussi suggests roasting them for a crispy snack, or you can get your fix in hummus — chickpeas are the main ingredient in the dip.
Hemp Seeds (10 g of Protein per 3 Tbsp)
“These little seeds contain all nine essential amino acids, and 3 tablespoons (tbsp) provide 10 g of protein,” Sussi says. You may also spot them at the grocery store as hemp hearts, which are shelled hemp seeds.
Sussi suggests sprinkling hemp hearts or seeds on salads, soups, yogurt, or on top of nut-buttered toast. “They have a subtle nutty flavor profile and nice crunch — I call them ‘nutrition sprinkles,’” she says.4
Tofu (8 g of Protein per 3 Ounces)
Like hemp seeds, soy contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein, Sussi says. Soy is at the root of several types of foods, including soy milk, edamame, miso, tempeh, and soy nuts, giving you plenty of ways to incorporate soy products into your diet. It’s the main ingredient in tofu, too, which should be high on your list of meat substitutes. One slice, which is 85 g or 3 ounces, offers 8 g of protein, according to the USDA.
It also contains potassium and iron, Sussi says. Soy products don’t have the best reputation — you may have heard that soy can lead to breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, that link was found in animals and doesn’t appear to be an issue for humans, which is why their experts say it’s safe and advisable to enjoy soy products.
The great thing about tofu is it’s a great addition to stir-fries and one-pan recipes you can roast in the oven. For inspiration, check out Pinch of Yum’s Honey Ginger Tofu and Veggie Stir-Fry or Kitchen Treaty’s Sheet Pan Tofu and Veggie Dinner recipe!)
Nuts (5 to 6 g of Protein per ¼ Cup)
No matter which nut is your favorite, it likely is a good source of protein, clocking in at about 5 to 6 g per small handful (less than ¼ cup), Sussi says. Almonds offer the most protein per serving, with pistachios close behind in the No. 2 spot, according to California Almonds. In addition to protein, nuts are good sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, which can lower cholesterol levels, according to the Mayo Clinic. And thanks to the many options — including almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, and hazelnuts — it’s easy to add a variety to your diet. Sprinkle them on salads, in smoothies, or on top of veggies, Sussi suggests. 6
Quinoa (8 g Protein per Cup)
Though it’s technically a seed, quinoa is commonly referred to as a whole grain and can be used in place of other grains like rice and pasta. One cup of cooked quinoa offers 8 g of protein and 5 g of satiating fiber, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Not to mention that quinoa is a complete protein because it contains all essential nine amino acids.
Enjoy quinoa throughout the day — in the morning in milk like you would a breakfast cereal, for lunch as the protein in your salad, and at dinner in place of pasta.
Nutritional Yeast (8 g of Protein per ¼ Cup)
Many vegans go nuts over nutritional yeast’s cheese-like umami flavor, but there are several reasons non-vegans should also give it a try. “It’s packed with B vitamins, the antioxidant glutathione, and protein,” Sussi says. “A quarter cup has 8 g of protein.” Plus, it’s free of gluten, sugar, dairy, and artificial flavors or ingredients. “Add it to soups and sauces, sprinkle it on popcorn or avocado toast, or blend with soaked cashews to make a great homemade vegan cheese on pasta or veggies,” Sussi suggests.8
Tempeh (13 g Protein per 3 Oz)
Though not as popular as tofu, tempeh is another high-protein soy product that makes a great meat substitute. It’s essentially a packed cake-like helping of fermented soybeans, though oftentimes spices and grains, such as rice, will be added. A 3-ounce serving of tempeh contains 13 g of protein, per the USDA. You’ll find it in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Once you get it home, try it in a stir-fry (here’s a recipe from Minimalist Baker) or in a sandwich (such as with this recipe from Vegetarian Gastronomy).
Black Beans (10 g Protein per 1 Cup)
Take your pick for your bean of choice — black beans, navy beans, cranberry beans, kidney beans, and so on. Sussi says there are more than 20 varieties and they all offer essential nutrients. “They’re nutritional powerhouses,” says Sussi, explaining that they’re rich in protein, fiber, folate, magnesium, and iron. A ½ cup of black beans contains 5 g of protein, according to the USDA. Sussi suggests adding beans to salads, stir-fries, soups, and stews. Opt for low-sodium or no-sodium-added varieties when shopping for canned beans at the grocery store, she says.10
Peanut Butter (7 g Protein per 2 Tbsp)
Yes, the childhood staple is delicious and a good source of quality, plant-based protein. Two tbsp has 7 g of protein, plus other key nutrients such as heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and some fiber, per the USDA. Just be sure to buy healthy varieties and keep your portion size in check — the aforementioned portion has a whopping 180 calories, so it can quickly move from a healthy protein source to an indulgent treat that may contribute to weight gain if you overdo it.