The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources to Add to Your Diet

Published on: 03/02/2022

There’s this myth out there that plant-based eaters don’t get enough protein. While this may be the case for some people, the truth is that plant-based eaters can absolutely get enough protein in their diet. They just have to know what to include. This post will review what foods to eat to make a high protein vegan meal, and includes an easy to read vegan protein sources chart.

Before we dive in, for the purposes of this article, I’ll be using plant-based and vegan interchangeably, however outside of this piece, they don’t mean the same thing. Since vegan protein sources are more limited and can be eaten by everyone, regardless of their dietary choices, I figured it’s a relevant topic for all.

 

What is protein, and why should you care

Protein is commonly talked about but I would guess few people truly know what it is, does or why it matters. So let’s start at the beginning. Protein is a macronutrient, along with fat and carbohydrates. Almost every part of our body contains protein – hair, nails, skin, muscles, organs, etc – but it also plays a vital role in bodily chemical reactions. So needless to say it’s essential.

The protein we eat is made up of amino acids, aka the building blocks of protein. Think of them like unique lego pieces, and different pieces are used to build different types of foods. Hence, some foods have larger quantities of certain amino acids than others.

 

When we eat a food with protein in it, our body breaks it down into its individual amino acids. Those amino acids are then sent throughout the body where they are needed.

There are 20 amino acids that our body needs to function properly, and 9 of those are classified as essential. This means our body cannot make them, so they have to come from food.

 

If you’ve heard the term ‘complete protein’, it means that food contains all 9 essential amino acids. I’ll save my opinions on complete proteins and protein combining for another time, because, well, I have some thoughts.

 

The best way to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids is to focus on eating a wide variety of foods.

How much protein do I need?

Protein is slower digested than carbohydrates, which means it keeps us feeling full longer, and can keep some of those urges to snack mindlessly at bay.

Ideally, a good rule of thumb is to try to include 1-2 protein sources at meals, and one source at snacks.

Protein is an interesting nutrient because everyone’s requirements are different. The amount of protein a person needs depends on many factors – age, gender, activity level, weight, health conditions. So it’s hard to give a general recommendation, but I’ll try.

The average healthy person likely needs somewhere between 1.0-1.4g/kg protein per day. Some math is involved to figure out how it applies to you, so bear with me. Take your body weight in kilograms (lbs divided 2.2) and multiply it by 1.0-1.4. This will give you your minimum protein requirement per day.

 

Here’s what that looks like in real life: A 160lbs (72.7kg) person would require somewhere from 70 – 100 – ish grams (72.7kg x 1.0-1.4g) of protein per day.

But remember, you may need more, so it’s best to talk to a registered dietitian to figure out your exact protein needs.

 

So the logical next question is…”what are good sources of plant-based protein?”

I’m so glad you asked!

 

Plant-based protein sources

I have grouped these protein sources into categories based on similar food groups and ingredients, making it a little easier to follow.

  1. Legumes

This group includes all beans, chickpeas, pulses etc. These protein-packed little powerhouses provide between 4.5-9 grams of protein if you eat ½ cup cooked.

 

Not only are they a great source of protein, they’re also a great source of fibre, folate, iron, potassium and complex carbohydrates. And they’re low in saturated fat, hence a healthier protein alternative to meat.

Here’s the breakdown for ½ cup cooked:

  • Chickpeas = 9 grams

  • Lentils (red, brown or green) = 8.5 grams

  • Black beans = 7.5 grams

  • Kidney beans = 7.5 grams

  • Green peas = 4.5 grams

 

Note that if you’re using canned legumes, they don’t need further cooking, so ½ cup is ½ cup. But if you prefer to buy and use dried beans, lentils or chickpeas, then measure ½ cup once they’re cooked.

 

Legumes are incredibly versatile and can be used in so many things. Try adding them to salads, tacos, burritos, curries, veggies bowls, bean salads, chickpea ‘tuna’ or chili.

2. Soy products

In this group we have edamame, tofu and tempeh. They’re all made from soy, so if you have a soy allergy, or intolerance, probably not a group you’ll focus on.

 

Soybeans, and therefore anything made from soy, are a complete protein, so you’re getting all nine of those essential amino acids.

 

Edamame are young soybeans. You can find them shelled or in pods, but you only eat the little beans inside.

They need to be cooked before eating, but they can be eaten on their own (with a lil salt) or added to stir fry, salads, or honestly anything you want. ½ cup of cooked edamame (shelled) is about 12 grams of protein! They’re also a good source of fibre, folate and vitamin K.

 

Tofu is made from soybeans, and comes in a variety of textures from silken (or quite soft) to extra firm. Each firmness can be used for different purposes.

Tofu doesn’t have much flavour on its own, but it takes on the flavour of whatever is added to it. ¼ of a block or package of tofu ranges around 14 grams of protein. Try adding silken tofu to smoothies, or extra firm tofu can be crumbled and made into a tofu scramble.

In addition to protein, tofu can be a good source of calcium. Look for tofu that is made with calcium sulfate.

Tempeh is also typically found in block form, but it has more flavour than tofu because the soybeans have been fermented. Due to this fermentation tempeh also contains some probiotics.

½ cup tempeh provides about 16 grams of protein. Try adding it to salads, bowls, sandwiches, burgers or as a ground meat replacement.

3. Meatless products

There is some controversy around meatless products because some may say they are heavily processed. I say, if you enjoy them, then include them in your diet. Do I suggest eating them every day? No. But I would say the same thing about regular burgers, bacon, etc.

 

I think they’re a great alternative for plant-based eaters, and they allow us to go to fast-food restaurants or BBQs and enjoy a burger or hot dog just like everyone else.

The world of ‘fake meat’ has come a long way in the 14 years since I’ve been plant-based. The products these days are tasty, high in protein, have good texture and could fool some non-plant-based eaters.

 

Meatless burgers (for 1 patty) range from 13-20 grams of protein depending on the brand. Sausages (per 1 sausage) range from 18-19 grams of protein. That’s a great source of protein per meal in my eyes.

 

I’ve also included seitan in this group. It’s made from vital wheat gluten, therefore if you have Celiac Disease or are gluten intolerance, this isn’t for you. ½ cup provides 20 grams of protein, as well as selenium, and some iron and calcium.

Seitan resembles meat more than tofu or tempeh. It can be added to salads, grain salads, tacos, burritos or sandwiches.

4. Plant-milks

Soy milk and pea milk are the non-dairy (or plant-milks) milks with the highest amount of protein. For 1 cup (250ml) you’ll get 7-8 grams of protein, which is comparable to dairy milk. Other plant milks, like almond, oat or cashew, are quite low in protein.

You’ll also be getting vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium from these milks, but ensure you’re choosing a brand that’s fortified. Check the nutrition facts and/or ingredients to confirm.

 

These plant milks can be consumed on their own, added to smoothies, cereals or oats, or added to your coffee or latte.

5. Nuts & Seeds

Nuts and seeds are packed with protein as well as healthy fats, making them a great addition to any meal or snack.

They can be eaten on their own, or in their butter form, or added to salads, oats or sauces and dressings.

Since they’re a source of fat, they are calorically dense, which means, if weight management is something you’re mindful of, be aware of your portion sizes. Stick to about ¼ cup or a small handful daily.

 

Here’s the breakdown for ¼ cup of some of the higher protein nuts and seeds:

  • Pumpkin seeds = 11 grams

  • Almonds = 8 grams

  • Walnuts = 4.5 grams

If peanut butter is more your style, 2 Tbsp provides 6 grams protein, and if you love hemp hearts, they offer 10 grams of protein per 3 Tbsp.

 

I’m obsessed with hemp hearts! So versatile! I add them to granola, sprinkle on salads and bowls, add them to smoothies or partfaits.

 

6. Grains

Yes, some grains can be a good source of protein, while also being a good source of complex carbs. Yes, nutrition can be confusing sometimes.

 

Spelt is considered an ancient grain, and is a type of wheat. 1 cup of cooked spelt offers 11 grams of protein. You’ll also get some B vitamins, fibre, magnesium, zinc and selenium.

 

Amaranth and quinoa are gluten-free ancient grains and 1 cup cooked provides 9 grams and 8 grams of protein respectively, in addition to many of the micronutrients that spelt offers. Both quinoa and amaranth are complete proteins, so you’re getting all 9 of these essential amino acids from them.

 

You can use spelt, amaranth and quinoa in place of other grains like rice. Add to salads, soups, stews, or in grain salads.

 

7. Nutritional yeast

A vegan’s best friend! Nutritional yeast or ‘nooch’ is an unactivated yeast, meaning, you won’t rise like bread does.

It’s yellow and flakey with a nutty or cheesy smell and flavour. Commonly used as a cheese replacement in mac and ‘cheese’ sauce.

 

2 Tbsp of these magical flakes gives 4 grams of protein, but it’s also an amazing source of B12 (although it is not a natural source of B12 and has to be fortified, so make sure your brand is).

There is no right or wrong place to add nutritional yeast, but I find it goes best sprinkled on popcorn, pasta, or salads, and added into sauces and dressings.

Vegan protein sources chart

Some people are visual learners, so I made this cute little chart to make it easier to see and remember!

 

 


 

 


Hi, I’m Bailey! A plant-based culinary dietitian who loves teach people how to adopt & thrive on a plant-based diet. You can learn more about me here or give me a follow me on instagram @harvesttablenutrition for more plant-based nutrition and cooking tips, tricks and info!

 

And if you haven’t already, grab my Plant-Based Pantry & Kitchen Guide. It’s perfect is you struggle with knowing how to stock your pantry with healthy foods, or if you want to add more plant-based foods to your diet but you’re confused about where to start. 


It’s totally free, and you can grab your copy right
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