Eating a plant-based diet is becoming more and more common and popular these days. Despite what many think, getting enough nutrients, like protein, is very possible on a mostly plant-based diet. This means that those with strength training goals like building muscle can achieve their fitness goals without needing any animal protein in their diet. It just might require a little more work, like tracking your macros, to make sure that you're getting enough protein to obtain muscle-building goals, but also to keep your body functioning at optimal levels!
Whether you're following a vegetarian or a vegan diet, we're going to show you how to get protein on a plant-based diet in a way that helps you meet your daily protein requirements by giving you a list of the top, quality vegan protein sources and why you should add them to your grocery list!
Best sources of protein for vegans
You want to optimize your meals and snacks to have as much protein as possible, but you also want to make sure you're getting good high-quality protein. Animal protein sources like meat, poultry, and seafood are considered to be complete proteins, meaning they contain all essential amino acids. There are 20 in total, 11 are non-essential and 9 are considered to be essential. The reason essential amino acids are so important is because our body doesn't produce them.
So, for vegans, it's especially important to seek alternatives to animal sources that are either complete proteins or at least rich in essential amino acids. Below are the best sources of protein for anyone following a plant-based or vegetarian diet!
Edamame is an immature soybean that makes for a delicious plant protein source! Shelled edamame can contain up to 9 grams of protein per 1/2 cup. That's a good amount of protein that you can add to your salads, veggie stir-frys, or even just steam them and sprinkle some pink salt on top for a tasty protein-rich snack! On top of that, edamame is rich in folate, vitamin K and fiber, and contain a good amount of iron and calcium.
However, there is one downside... Edamame is considered to be unfermented soy. Other unfermented soy products (some are on this list) include soy milk, meat substitutes, tofu, and soy protein powder. Overconsuming unfermented soy can create certain health problems. For example, eating too much of it can cause digestive issues and can even keep your body from absorbing important minerals and protein. To avoid the risks of unfermented soy, make sure not to consume more than 35 grams a day!
Legumes are a powerhouse when it comes to plant protein! Legumes are known for having a high protein content, containing a variety of amino acids, and is an excellent source of fiber, iron, potassium, and several other beneficial nutrients. Three nutrient-rich legumes to include in your diet are...
- Black beans: 14 grams per cup
- Chickpeas: 11 grams per cup
- Lentils: 18 grams per cup
Kidney beans and pinto beans are also good options! The downside is that legumes aren't considered a complete protein because they are low in methionine, but fortunately, rice is high in methionine. Combining the two will allow you to get enough of each essential amino acid! So, combine your favorite beans with a cup of white or brown rice, topped with guacamole or your favorite veggies! You can also make lentil soups, or use it as a taco filling, or add chickpeas into your salads or make tasty hummus out of it! There are a variety of ways to include legumes into your meals and snacks, so get creative!
Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast that looks like yellow powder or flakes. What's so great about it is a 1/4 cup servicing contains 8 grams of complete protein. It's also an excellent source of B vitamins, specifically vitamin B12. This is actually quite important because most food sources of vitamin B12 come from animal products, so to get enough vitamin B12 and sprinkle some protein into your meals and snacks, add nutritional yeast to your pantry!
Nutritional yeast is not a commonly eaten food. It has a unique, cheesy, umami-like flavor that can add flavor to various vegan dishes and snacks! Sprinkle it on top of some popcorn, salads, mix it in eggs, mashed potatoes, or even make a cheesy-like pasta sauce out of it!
Meat substitutes are often made from soybeans, nuts, or legumes making them a good source of protein. Some substitutes, like a Beyond Burger Patty, packs 20 grams of plant-based protein and claims to have no GMOs, soy, or gluten! However, these plant-based substitutes are often filled with other additives that can make them higher in sodium and saturated fats than meat. So, be mindful about how much you consume in your diet, as with any processed food, moderation is best.
There are a variety of plant-based meat substitutes to choose from, there are burger patties, sausages, ground meat, chicken, deli meats, and so much more. You can incorporate a plant-based substitute in one of your meals to really drive your protein intake up!
Also known as wheat meat, seitan is a soy-free product that resembles the look and texture of meat. It's derived from gluten, the main protein found in wheat. 100 grams of seitan contains a whopping 25 grams of protein, making it one of the richest plant protein sources!
You can make seitan yourself by purchasing vital wheat gluten and pan-fry it, grill or sautee and top it with your favorite sauces. Seitan pairs well with barbeque sauces, tamari, soy sauce, or coconut aminos. You can also find it in the refrigerated section next to the tofu in the grocery store! In fact, it's the base for many popular vegetarian products like Tofurky deli slices and vegetarian bacon.
Note: Seitan is derived from gluten, so if you have a gluten sensitivity, allergy, or are following a gluten-free diet for health reasons then avoid this product!
You might not be able to eat this on its own, but adding spirulina to your meals or snacks can help boost your protein and nutrient intake! Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is a popular supplement used by those following vegan or vegetarian diets. It's commonly found in a powdered form, but it can also be purchased as tablets and taken as a supplement. Vegans and vegetarians love this supplement because one tablespoon of dried spirulina provides 4 grams of complete protein. Plus, it's rich in antioxidants and a good source of a variety of B vitamins, copper, and iron.
The best way to incorporate spirulina to boost your protein intake is by sprinkling it on your soups, salads, green juices, and fruit smoothies. Add two tablespoons to your snack and meal and you just added 8 grams of protein - every little bit counts!
Swap out your regular whole grain or white bread for sprouted grain bread, also known as Ezekial bread! Why? Because this baked good contains 4-5 grams of protein per slice, slightly more than the average bread. In addition, sporting grains increase the number of healthy nutrients they contain, including their amino acid content! It specifically increases lysine and most sources of plants are low in this amino acid, so adding sprouted bread can help boost the overall protein quality in your plant-based diet. It's also high in soluble fiber, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E!
We don't really need to tell you how to include bread into your diet, but we will anyway! Use sprouted bread for avocado toasts, or top it with hummus, make a hearty vegan sandwich using vegan sandwich meat, or get really creative and make a tasty vegan french toast or breakfast strata!
Tofu is an extremely popular food in the vegan world and for a good reason. Just 3 ounces of it contains around 8 grams of protein, but also 15% of the Daily Value of calcium - which is great for those following a vegan or dairy-free diet! It's made from coagulated soy milk and pressed into white blocks that is essentially flavorless and takes on the flavor of the foods with which it's cooked.
To add flavor to your tofu-based meals add some spices like turmeric, black pepper, garlic, or sauces like tamari or coconut aminos. You can create a hefty veggie stir with other protein-rich foods like brown rice or chickpeas. Or create an egg scramble and add some nutritional yeast, spinach, mushrooms, and other veggies!
Tempeh is another soy-based food that is similar to tofu. It's made from fermented soybeans but they are often combined with seeds and grains to give it a dense texture and nutty flavor. Tempeh contains slightly more protein than tofu, containing up to 11 grams per serving, in addition to containing a good amount of fiber, iron, potassium, and calcium.
You can prepare tempeh the same way as you would tofu! Marinate it in your favorite spices and sauces and create a delicious protein-rich meal out of it.
Although whole grains are considered to be mainly a carbohydrate source, choosing the right ones can sneak a good amount of protein into your diet. There are four whole grains that you should include in your diet...
- Quinoa: Quinoa is an ancient grain that is considered a complete protein and contains more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than other common grains. Just one cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein. You can simmer it in a pan with plant-based milk for a sweet breakfast porridge, use it in place of rice, or add it to your salads for an extra crunch!
- Wild rice: Try something new and swap your brown rice for wild rice! Wild rice contains almost 1.5x more protein than other long-grain varieties. One cup of cooked wild rice contains around 7 grams of protein along with a good amount of fiber, B vitamins, copper, magnesium, and other important nutrients. Pair it with black beans, chickpeas, veggies, or other whole foods for a nutrient-dense meal!
- Oats: Start your morning with a cup of oatmeal! Just half a cup of dry oats can provide you with 6 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and other important nutrients. Although they aren't a complete protein, they are considered to be a higher-quality protein than other popular grains and they're versatile! Make oatmeal for breakfast, or bake with it and make a protein-rich snack like oatmeal bars.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat is considered to be a complete protein with one cup containing approximately 6 grams of protein. It's not as common as other grains, but you can cook it similarly to oatmeal! You can bake with it, or buy a pack of soba noodles (they're made from buckwheat) and make a vegan Asian-inspired dish!
Vegan protein powder
Whole foods from natural sources should always be your go-to, but sometimes you might need a little more help from a supplement like vegan protein powder! Fortunately, there are various plant-based protein powders in the supplement market for vegans. They are derived from high-protein plant sources like hemp seeds, brown rice, split peas, soy, and even pumpkin seeds.
There are different types of protein powder to choose from, but for a quality vegan protein powder, we suggest getting a blend of different plant protein sources. Most vegan protein powders aren't considered complete proteins, but getting a blend of the best plant protein can help make it one! For example, 373 Lab's Vegan Protein Isolate contains 20 grams of a completely plant-based blend of Pea Protein, Brown Rice Protein, and Pumpkin Seed Protein. All three protein sources are comparable to whey protein, however, they lack one amino acid. So, when blended together they make up for the lacking amino acid and form a complete protein. Not only that, but 373 Lab has perfected their flavor – so you don't get that nasty chalky taste that you usually get with vegan protein powders! Best part is, they use all-natural flavors!!
Hit your daily protein goals with the best plant-based protein sources
As you can see, it's very possible to get enough protein following a plant-based diet. In fact, lifters and gym-goers are still able to attain muscle-building and weight loss goals as long as they're making sure to get sufficient protein in their diet. So, calculate how much protein you need to consume, start tracking, and start incorporating these high-protein plant-based foods into your diet!