20 Vegan Protein Sources to Help You Crush Your Macros

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

While most pant based eaters likely don't struggle with getting enough protein for basic needs, achieving a high protein vegan diet may be a different story. Plants aren't traditionally protein-rich, even though they can contain some protein, so when it comes to switching up your vegan macro balance to align with your fitness goals you have to know where to look. To help you crush your daily macros, here's everything you need to know about upping your protein with plants. 

How Much Protein do Vegans Need?

Whether you are looking to lose fat, gain muscle, or just improve your health, protein is one of the best macros to eat more of. Higher protein intakes are associated with decreased appetite, reduced food cravings, and better body composition (1,2,3). Not to mention it plays a major role in building and maintaining just about every cell in your body - including your precious lean muscle mass! 

Protein needs are most strongly determined by the amount of lean body mass you have.

You should aim to get about one gram of protein per one pound of muscle mass. 

For a 200 pound adult with 20% body fat, that would equal out to be roughly 160 grams of protein each day (200 pounds x 80% lean mass = 160 pounds lean mass).

Of course this estimate also includes your bone mass, water, weight and organs, so it is not a perfect calculation. The best way to find your exact muscle mass is through body composition testing. 

Moreover, if you are cutting calories for weight loss or increasing calories for muscle gain, you may need even more protein - anywhere from 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight. 

How Do Vegans Get Protein?

In a traditional diet, the meat and seafood make up the bulk of the protein food group, so how exactly can plants fill in the gap? 

Plant proteins are not nearly as protein dense as meat-based source. Plus they tend to be high in either carbs or fat, in addition to the protein they provide, which can make hitting your vegan macros feel a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.  

plant-vs-animal-protein-macros-vegan-protein

Getting high amounts of protein from plants can seem challenging at first, but it is not impossible. Protein can be found in a wide variety of foods, even if it's not the featured macro. The trick for plant based eaters is to find protein containing foods they enjoy and aim to get them at every eating opportunity. 

Moreover, food manufacturers have gotten pretty good at creating meat-like substitutes that provide more protein than plants alone to support a higher protein vegan diet. 

Plant Based Protein Considerations

There is some debate around what are considered the "best" vegan protein options to opt for. Of course, what truly reigns supreme can differ from one person to the next, depending on your fitness and heath goals, as well as your food preferences. 

Here are some of the top considerations when looking to add more protein to your vegan meal plan. 

Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins

Complete proteins are those that contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs in balanced quantities. Whereas an incomplete protein is lacking in one or more essential amino acids. 

Plant based proteins can often get snubbed because many are considered "incomplete". While the naming alone is unfair to say the least, the research suggests that whether a protein is complete or not may not actually matter for most people (4,5,6). 

You can get all the amino acids you need by eating "complementary proteins" - two incomplete proteins that balance each-other out, or by getting all the essential amino acids throughout the day. 

Processed Foods vs. Whole Foods

Some argue that eating only whole foods, with little processing involved is best. However, in the case of a vegan diet, this adds an extra level or difficulty when it comes to hitting your macros.

The bottom line is, sticking to only plants leaves you with a higher carb, moderate protein diet that may not work for everyone. That's because carbs come from everything that grows out of the ground - aka all plants. And this makes it pretty hard to get protein from plants without some additional carbs, or fat for that matter. 

At Trifecta, our vegan meal plan focused only on whole foods for years, and after many trials and tribulations we decided that meat-like alternatives were the best solution to help our customers get more protein. 

While the term "processed" can make some of these options automatically seem unhealthy, this us far from the case. All food is processed to some extent and the level of processing between a tempeh strip and a bag of Cheetos is a fairly drastic difference. You can't just group all processed foods into one bucket and call it bad. 

Clever food manufacturers have found a way to extract protein from plant-based sources like peas, brown rice, soy, wheat, etc. and use these ingredients, along with other plant foods to curate a higher protein vegan option that tastes and mimics its meat-based counterpart. And most of the time, you can find these options made with simple ingredients and outstanding macros. 

Food Allergies and Intolerances

Because vegan proteins are becoming more manufactured, this often leads to increased concerns around allergies and food intolerance - specifically those looking to avoid soy, or opt for gluten-free proteins. Luckily, even options that were traditionally made with soy or wheat, like tempeh and seitan, are now emerging with brown rice and lentil based ingredients to satisfy this need. 

To find options that meet your food preferences, be sure to check the label for gluten-free certification and the ingredients for anything that might impact your diet. 

Best Sources of Vegan Protein

The best sources of vegan protein for you should follow the following criteria:

  • Provides a good amount of protein density - at least 25% of the calories are coming from protein.
  • Provides other nutritional benefits like vitamins, minerals, healthy fat or fiber.
  • Fits within your calorie and macro goals.
  • Tastes good and makes you feel good from the inside out!

To get some ideas on where to start, here are some favorites:

1. Spirulina - 64% Protein Dense

I bet you couldn't guess this strange green "superfood" was going to top the list for protein dense plants! Although to be fair, spirulina is more of a supplement than a food and its difficult to get a significant amount of protein from it.

Spirulina is actually classified as a type of bacteria found in blue-green algae and is consumed primarily in supplement form through powders, capsules and in packaged foods. 

It is fairly protein dense and low caloire, plus it contains notable amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron.

One tablespoon of spirulina has:

  • 25 calories
  • 0.5 grams of fat
  • 1 grams of carbs
  • 4 grams of protein

To get the protein benefits of spirulina, try adding a scoop to your morning smoothie or in other recipes for a small protein boost. 

2. Seitan - 60% to 80% Protein Dense

Made primarily from vital wheat protein (aka gluten), seitan is rarely gluten-free. 

While vital wheat protein as an ingredient sounds strange, it's super easy to come by. Seitan is made by washing wheat flour with water until all of the starch is removed and just the sticky, protein-rich components remain. This protein is then seasoned a bit and "beefed" up with some flour or starch to add the right texture and then viola!

One 4-ounce serving of seitan will get you: 

  • 200 caloires
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 14 grams of carbs
  • 30 grams of protein

Just like tofu and most other vegan "meats", seitan takes on added flavors easily and works in most recipes as a meat substitute. Personally, I like it pan fried or oven baked the best!

3. Soy or Pea Protein Crumbles - 53% Protein Dense

Protein is extracted from peas or soy in the form of a protein isolate (aka pea protein isolate and soy protein isolate), similar to how protein powder is made. This protein is then blended with other plant based ingredients and cooked into small crumbles that can be used just like ground meat!

A 1/2 cup scoop of pea protein crumbles provides: 

  • 90 calories
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 3 grams of carbs
  • 12 grams of protein

Protein crumbles are also typically gluten free and can replace ground meat in many recipes. 

4. Nutritional Yeast - 53% Protein Dense

Nutritional yeast works as a great cheese alternative for vegans that also has a solid amount of protein.

When used as a topping alone it can be hard to get high amounts of protein from this food, but when used in recipes like vegan mac and cheese (pssst... use high protein pasta, duh!), stirred into cooked quinoa, or blended with a tofu scramble, it adds a bit more. 

It's also a tremendous source of B-vitamins and folate. 

A hefty 1/4 cup portion of nutritional yeast contains: 

  • 60 calories
  • 0.5 grams of fat
  • 5 grams of carbs
  • 8 grams of protein

Use nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute in your favorite high protein vegan recipes! 

5. Protein Pasta - 48% Protein Dense

All hail our favorite carb that has now transformed into a source of quality protein. Pastas made from beans, lentils and soy are typically made with simple ingredients (sometimes only one ingredient), and can be a great vegan protein staple. 

By upping the fiber and protein content using beans and legumes, these pastas can still give that chewy al dente taste we love, but also bring a serious bout of protein with it. Even better, these noodles are also naturally gluten-free. 

A two-ounce standard serving of edamame pasta contains:

  • 210 calories
  • 2 grams of fat
  • 22 grams of carbs
  • 25 grams of protein

Edamame pasta is also a source of calcium and iron, and it has 11 grams of fiber per serving, bringing down the net carb content significantly. 

6. Tempeh - 46% Protein Dense

Similar to tofu, tempeh is made with soybeans. However, the process of creating tempeh uses fermented soybeans to create a cake-like texture. Tempeh is slightly less processed than tofu and packs a serious protein punch, along with fiber and iron. 

Four ounces of tempeh has:

  • 175 caloires
  • 6 grams of fat
  • 12.5 grams of carbs
  • 20 grams of protein

Tempeh is also naturally gluten-free. 

7. Tofu - 42% Protein Dense

Made from soybeans that are ground, heated, and then thickened with added calcium, magnesium, and salt, tofu is a vegan staple. It takes on the flavor of just about anything you season with, can be found in soft to extra firm textures.

Four ounces of tofu has:

  • 85 calories
  • 5 grams of fat
  • 2 grams of carbs
  • 9 grams of protein

Because tofu is made with added calcium, it tends to be a good source of calcium! Which is great for vegans who don't get any dairy products in their diet and may be lacking in this key mineral. 

8. Soy Milk - 40% Protein Dense

Made from soy, soy milk is a source of complete protein. It is also one of the few non-dairy milks that provides protein - most nut and grain milks have less than one gram of protein per serving. 

Opting for soy milk can add a small amount of protein to recipes or to your beverage choice.  

One cup of light, unsweetened soy milk has:

  • 60 calories
  • 2 grams of fat
  • 5 grams of carbs
  • 6 grams of protein

Look for non-sweetened flavor options to cut back on added sugar and calories!

9. Edamame - 38% Protein Dense

It's not surprised that whole soy beans are a source of protein considering so many vegan products are made from them. You can eat them on their own in the pods with a little bit of sea salt as a great protein snack option or use them in a variety of recipes paired with other veggies and protein-containing grains. 

A 1/2 cup serving of edamame has:

  • 90 calories
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 7 grams of carbs
  • 8.5 grams of protein

Edamame also packs some iron, magnesium, and vitamin C. Moreover, soy is a complete protein, so edamame and other soy containing products provide all of your essential amino acids!

10. Vegan Sausage - 34% Protein Dense

Soy, peas, or wheat protein can also be used to made meat-free sausages. Similar to other meat alternatives, vegan sausage uses a protein isolate combined with plant based ingredients that is then shaped and cooked into a sausage-like product.

While pork or beef sausage uses an animal-based casing, vegan sausage uses cellulose from plants. Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate found in plant cells and is primarily responsible for making stems, leaves and branches strong. 

One cooked pea protein sausage has:

  • 190 calories
  • 12 grams of fat
  • 5 grams of carbs
  • 16 grams of protein

11. Broccoli - 33% Protein Dense

Broccoli is one of the most protein dense veggies around, but you have to eat a lot of it to get a significant source of protein overall. Thus, this badass little veggie is best used as an additional protein boost to meals not as a sole meat substitute. 

1 cup of broccoli has:

  • 29 calories
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 6 grams of carbs
  • 2.4 grams of protein

Because broccoli is low in calories, fat and carbs, it works as a great small protein boost to meals without compromising your overall macro balance!

12. Lentils - 31% Protein Dense

Lentils are a great whole food way to add some serious fiber and a bit of protein to your meals. Replace rice or other grains with lentils in soups, pilafs, or as the base for any dish to grab some nutrition benefits.

One cup of cooked lentils provides:

  • 230 calories
  • 1 grams of fat
  • 40 grams of carbs
  • 18 grams of protein

Lentils are also an excellent source of iron, vitamin B-6, potassium, and magnesium. 

13. Beyond Burgers - 25% Protein Dense

Made up of pea protein and other plant based ingredients, these burgers pack a whopping 20 grams of protein each.

The nutrition breakdown for one burger is as follows:

  • 300 calories
  • 20 grams of fat
  • 11 grams of carbs
  • 20 grams of protein

For those that still enjoy the taste and consistency of real meat, they use beet juice to mimic ground beef coloring. These burgers are also made with non-GMO ingredients, are gluten-free, soy-free, and they provide roughly 25% of your daily value for iron (a mineral most commonly consumed in meat products). 

Try them in this vegan burrito bowl recipe!

14. Beans - 25% Protein Dense

Beans are an old school vegan protein that still stacks up quite a few benefits. Naturally gluten-free and soy-free, you can use them in just about any recipe. 

To help cut back on carbs, consider using beans in place of other grains or starchy foods and pair them with some low-carb veggies and perhaps other vegan proteins to help balance out the macros further.

A 1/2 cup portion of cooked black beans has:

  • 228 calories
  • 1 grams of fat
  • 41 grams of carbs
  • 14.5 grams of protein

Beans are also a source of healthy fiber, calcium, magnesium, and iron. 

15. Hemp Seeds - 25% Protein Dense

Hemp seeds are considered a complete protein and a source of healthy fats. They also contain a decent amount of iron and fiber. 

Three tablespoons of hemp seeds provides:

  • 160 calories
  • 12 grams of fat
  • 3 grams of carbs
  • 10 grams of protein

Easily add hemp seeds as a topping to salads, grain bowls, or toasts to give your dish a little protein boost. 

5 Slightly Less Protein Dense Options to Consider

While the following options may not meet at least 25% protein density, they are still a notable source and worth pairing with some of the foods above to increase your intake further. 

1. Sprouted Grains - 20% Protein Dense

Nearly all whole grains can contain small amounts of protein, but sprouted grains may contain a tad bit more. Sprouted grains are grains that have been soaked and allowed to begin to sprout - breaking down the fibrous outer shell along with sugars to produce a more nutrient dense, heartier grain. 

You can shop for sprouted whole grains in the form of rice and quinoa, or opt for sprouted grain breads. 

One small slice of sprouted whole grain bread contains:

  • 80 calories
  • 0.5 grams of fat
  • 15 grams of carbs
  • 4 grams of protein

2. Peanuts and Peanut Butter - 18% Protein Dense

Peanuts are the highest protein nut and also a source of healthy fat. If looking for an added fat option that can also bump up your protein, look no further than roasted peanuts or peanut butter. Just be mindful of your portion size because calories can add up quick with nuts. 

A 1/4 cup or small handful of peanuts has:

  • 160 calories
  • 14 grams of fat
  • 4.6 grams of carbs
  • 7 grams of protein

3. Quinoa - 15% Protein Dense

Quinoa, though more carb heavy than other vegan proteins, is technically a complete protein and one of the higher protein grains out there. 

A 4-ounce scoop of quinoa provides:

  • 136 calories
  • 2 grams of fat
  • 24 grams of carbs
  • 5 grams of protein

4. Almonds and Almond Butter - 14% Protein Dense

Not too far behind peanuts, almonds can also contain a bit of protein along with healthy fats and fiber. 

A 1/4 cup or small handful of peanuts has:

  • 170 calories
  • 14 grams of fat
  • 6 grams of carbs
  • 6 grams of protein

5. Chia Seeds - 14% Protein Dense

While mostly a source of healthy fats, chia seeds can also bring some fiber and protein to the table. In fact, one small serving of chia seeds has a whopping 10 grams of fiber, helping to keep you feeling satisfied. They are also a source of calcium, iron and magnesium. 

Two tablespoons (1-ounce) of chia seeds contains:

  • 138 calories
  • 9 grams of fat
  • 12 grams of carbs
  • 5 grams of protein

Add chia seeds to your morning oatmeal or try them in this tasty pumpkin pie chia pudding recipe

Protein Powders - 87% Protein Dense

Another way to supplement protein intake is with vegan protein supplements. Vegan protein powders include soy, hemp, brown rice, and pea protein and come in a variety of flavors. 

You can use protein powders to help supplement your intake as needed in simple shakes or adding them to recipes like breads and baked goods, pancakes, oatmeal, etc. 

A scoop of vegan soy protein isolate powder has: 

  • 110 calories
  • 1 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of carbs
  • 24 grams of protein

Pssst... these powders are often the culprit behind a lot of higher protein vegan foods like protein bars. Look for options made without filler ingredients. 

High Protein Vegan Meals

Following a high protein diet powered by plants just requires a small amount of planning and getting to know the protein-rich options you enjoy eating most. And getting good a vegan meal prep is a great way to ensure you are always staying on track of your nutrition.

Feeling overwhelmed with planning, prepping, and balancing your vegan meals? Why not opt for a meal prep delivery service that has done all the hard work for you. We'll send you high protein vegan meals right to your door, all you need to do is enjoy them!

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