Plant based diets are rapidly gaining popularity, particularly for their positive impact on our health. But the biggest challenge followers often face is how to get enough protein when excluding most or all animal options.
Luckily, plants have all the protein you need, if you know where to look. Here’s your food list for the best plant based protein sources to choose from.
- 7 Complete Proteins
- 10 High Protein Legumes
- 10 High Protein Vegetables
- 15 Other Vegan Protein Sources
Finding the Best Plant Based Protein Foods
When choosing the best plant based proteins you’ll want to consider the protein density of the food (how many grams of protein it has per calorie), its nutritional value, and how it fits into your overall dietary goals.
Many whole food plant proteins also tend to be a source of healthy fats, fiber, and essential nutrients - making them an excellent nutrition choice. However, their high amounts of carbs and fats can make balancing your plant based macros a little trickier and lower their overall protein density.
For example, peanut butter is often celebrated as a plant protein, but it actually contains more fat than protein per calorie.
Because of this, many people have turned to slightly more processed options or “meat alternatives” like tofu, tempeh, and seitan to up their intake without sacrificing macro balance.
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
You might have heard of certain proteins referred to as "complete". What this means is that these options contain all nine of the essential amino acids you need. Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, are lacking in certain essential amino acids.
While complete proteins are abundant among animal products, they’re more rare in vegan options. All animal proteins are considered complete, and most plant sources are incomplete - with the few exceptions.
Complementary proteins are two incomplete proteins that when combined create a complete protein.
So, while most plant based proteins are not complete when eaten alone, you can get all of the essential amino acids you need by eating complementary proteins together.
The best complementary protein pairings include the following:
- Rice + Peas
- Whole Grains + Legumes
- Grains + Vegetables
- Grains + Nuts + Seeds
- Legumes + Nuts + Seeds
Some believe that consuming complete proteins or combining complementary proteins at every meal is the best way to optimize protein intake.
However, this theory is challenged by a couple key considerations.
- Your body can use free amino acids already on hand through the normal protein breakdown and recycling that occurs (1).
- Because nutrition doesn't work in a vacuum, eating a diet containing all of your essential amino acids throughout the day is likely sufficient enough (2).
In other words, if you don’t get all of your amino acids in perfect amounts every single day, your body has ways of filling in the gaps to get you what you need - as long as you are eating a balanced diet that includes all of the essential nutrients.
Where there may be some more merit to this claim is if your focus is on post workout nutrition and muscle building. Some research suggests that complete proteins from animal sources support muscle growth more efficiently than proteins in plant food, because of their amino acid content and rate of absorption (3). Choosing complementary proteins is also thought to improve overall absorption (4).
Although the research around this is still fairly limited, given the demand for certain amino acids in building and repairing muscle after a workout, it might be worth focusing on getting complete or complementary proteins in your post-workout recovery.
7 Complete Plant Based Proteins
Here are seven, plant based complete proteins are nothing short of superfoods - packed with nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals, and each provides something special to offer us.
Some studies have shown that eating soy products such as tofu and other isoflavones may significantly lower the risk of heart disease. While a recent large study performed by the American Heart Association (AHA) supports this claim, other studies have yielded inconsistent results, and therefore more research needs to be done to fully understand the influence of soy on heart disease (5).
As a popular supplement, spirulina is rich in B vitamins, antioxidants, and iron - which can help people with iron deficiency anemia. It also can positively impact your cholesterol, lowering the ‘bad type’ LDL cholesterol and helping to raise the ‘good type’, or HDL cholesterol.
Spirulina provides 28 grams protein in 2 oz supplement.
3. Hemp Seeds
Along with chia seeds, hemp seeds are one of the few plant based options to contain the vital omega-3 fatty acids.
Hemp seeds provide 18 grams of protein per 2 oz portion.
4. Chia Seeds
Along with hemp, chia seeds are one of the few plant based options to offer vital omega-3 fatty acids.
Chia seeds have 14 grams of protein for every 2oz serving.
Like buckwheat, quinoa is another gluten-free whole grain option. It’s also exceptionally high in fiber, even more so than most other grains. It also has a low glycemic index, which is another bonus for people with diabetes.
Quinoa contains 12 grams of protein in 1/2 cup (uncooked).
6. Nutritional Yeast
People who don’t eat meat are at a high risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. Nutritional yeast is full of B vitamins that can help prevent vitamin B12 deficiency, and all of the health complications that go along with it.
Nutritional yeast provides 12 grams of protein for each 1/2 cup portion.
Buckwheat has 11 grams of protein in 1/2 cup (uncooked).
10 High Protein Legumes
Legumes as a category are generally a rich source of lean protein, fiber, iron, potassium, and magnesium - making them a powerful protein choice for good health. In fact many studies suggest that a diet high in legumes may help lower cholesterol and improve heart health risk factors (6,7,8).
The below 5 legumes are leaders in their protein content.
Provides 22 grams of protein for every cup.
2. Anasazi Beans
Contains 20 grams of protein in a 1/2 cup portion.
Has 17 grams of protein per cup.
Every cup provides 16 grams of protein.
5. Black Beans
Provides 15 grams of protein in 1 cup.
6. Pinto Beans
Provides 15 grams of protein in 1 cup.
7. Kidney Beans
Provides 15 grams of protein in 1 cup.
8. Lima Beans
Each cup contains 14 grams of protein.
9. Fava Beans
Contains 13 grams of protein per cup.
Provides about 10 grams of protein per cup.
10 High Protein Vegetables
Vegetables can offer small amounts of protein in addition to the fiber and variety of essential micronutrients they're rich with.
While they don't have as high of protein per ounce or cup as some of the other sources, they're so low in calories that they can be eaten in large quantities if desired, leading to large boosts in protein and other nutrients for very few calories. This is why they're often called nutrient dense.
These 10 vegetables are leaders in providing protein.
One cup of hearts has 5 grams of protein.
Each cup has 4 grams of protein.
Contains 4 grams of protein for every cup.
Has 3 grams of protein per cup.
5. Brussel Sprouts
Provides 3 grams of protein per cup.
One cup contains 3 grams of protein.
Contains 2.5 grams of protein per cup.
Provides almost 2 grams of protein (1.8g) per cup.
9. Green Peppers
Has about 1 gram of protein per cup.
Contains about 1 gram of protein per cup.
You can get more of these super veggies in your diet by trying different approaches to eating them - such as stir fry, raw with healthy hummus or Greek yogurt dips, steamed, or by including them into your favorite cup of cooked soup.
15 Other Vegan Protein Sources
Successfully eating a protein packed vegan diet may take learning some tricks of the trade. But with more food companies providing vegan options - including meat substitutes and other options that provide a quality protein choice, getting enough protein has become significantly easier.
Here are 15 other vegan protein sources to consider:
Has a whopping 40 grams of protein per cup.
2. Impossible Burger
One patty provides 33 grams of protein.
Contains 24 grams of protein for a 4 oz serving.
4. Beyond Burger
One patty provides 20 grams of protein.
A 4 oz serving provides 20 grams of protein.
Has 14 grams of protein in every 4 oz serving.
A large handful (2 oz serving) has 13 grams of protein.
8. Sunflower Seeds
A 2 oz portion contains 13 grams of protein.
9. Squash & Pumpkin Seeds
Has 10 grams of protein for every 2 oz serving.
A 2 oz serving has 12 grams of protein.
Provides 12 grams of protein in a 2 oz serving.
12. Flax Seeds
Provides 10 grams of protein for every 2 oz portion.
13. Pine Nuts
Contains roughly 8 grams (7.8g) of protein in a 2 oz portion.
Has 5 grams of protein for every 2 oz serving.
Each cup, cooked, contains about 4 grams of protein.
When on a high protein vegan diet, be strategic with your macros by opting for more of the most nutrient dense plant proteins you can get your hands on - aiming to get at least 20 to 30 grams of protein each meal.
What About Best Plant Based Protein Powders?
Supplements can also be helpful if you are finding it difficult to get enough protein without meat and dairy. With so many protein supplements hitting the market it can feel overwhelming to decide which ones are best for you.
For the cleanest powders, look for a third party certification, like USP or NSF. And opt for options with minimal added ingredients including added sugar. Avoid proprietary blends unless the actual ingredients are described.
Even though protein powders and supplements may feel like an easy way to hit your daily protein goals, they may not always be the best way.
Powders typically consist of partially broken down proteins that are ideal for fast absorption. This works great in a lean post-gym snack or protein shake, delivering amino acids quickly to your muscles for fuel. But throughout the day this can end up being an easy way to consume too many calories.
Keep striving to get protein from whole foods in your diet. Aim to use protein powder as a supplement to your whole food diet, not as a replacement for your daily protein goals.
If you're vegan, it may be best to opt for a complete protein like soy or a quality, complementary blend like brown rice and pea protein combined. Whey, casein or collagen aren’t going to meet all of your dietary needs if you’re not eating meat.
You can both lose weight and improve your overall health with a 100% plant based diet. Learn how with this free meal prep toolkit for vegan diets - a step by step guide that includes meal planning templates, approved food lists, and expert tips to get you results faster.