Whether you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet or simply want to cut some meat out of your weekly meal planning, plant proteins are the best way to ensure that as you reduce or eliminate animal products, you don't lose out on needed protein.
About twenty percent of the human body is made up of protein, so it's a vital nutrient that we need to eat a hearty amount of. While animal protein like meat and dairy are straightforward ways of meeting those needs, many people prefer to avoid them for moral or health reasons. To help you have a good sense of what your go-to foods should be when looking to get your protein from plants, we've rounded up our top choices. They're in order from highest protein to lowest, and with the lowest still being at least ten grams per servings, they all pack a full protein punch. Read on for these plant foods, along with how to use them in your cooking.
Containing 34 grams of protein per cup, or 18 in a 3-ounce serving, tempeh is our top choice for plant-based protein. It also has 10 grams of fiber, making it a great source of that as well. It also has a wide range of amino acids, which many plant proteins don't. Tempeh is made by fermenting soybeans, and that fermentation process makes its nutrients better utilized by your body. Try it in an easy sweet and sour dish, as the meat alternative in chili, as a "chicken" salad, or in a Philly "cheesesteak" sandwich.
Not far behind tempeh in protein content is seitan. It has nearly 32 grams of protein per cup, and a 2.5-ounce serving offers 17 grams. Unlike tempeh, which is the fermented version of soybeans, seitan is not exactly a whole food, but that doesn't mean it isn't nutritious. It's made from wheat gluten, so it's only suitable for people who don't have celiac or gluten intolerance. You can make your own seitan from wheat gluten yourself, or you can buy it ready-made. The texture is meaty, and it picks up flavors nicely. Use it as the base for spicy Buffalo wings, tacos, or "chicken" tenders.
This high-fiber pulse adds 18 grams of protein per cup to your diet, and with a serving size of 1/2 cup (AKA 9 grams of protein) or more, that's a great addition to your day. Lentils have nearly as much fiber as they do protein, and that attribute makes them particularly filling. They come in several varieties, and the textures range between them. You'll find pink lentils soft and creamy when cooked, whereas French black lentils retain their shape and bite. They're wonderful with Moroccan spices added, in a high protein soup with barley, or as the base of an easy vegan and gluten-free loaf.
Before being processed into tofu or fermented into tempeh, soybeans still in their pod are known as edamame. These small green beans have over 9 grams of protein per half-cup. With 4 grams of fiber added to that, they make for an appetizer that is filling enough to satiate alongside a light entree. You can serve them boiled simply, with just salt to taste. If you prefer something a little spicier, this bean can take a punch of chili flavors, as in this angry edamame and this spicy version.
It's known for being high in amino acids for plant-based food, but quinoa is also a powerhouse of protein, with each 1 cup serving offering 8 grams of protein. Known as a complete protein for being the rare plant food to contain all 9 essential amino acids, quinoa has become incredibly popular. The amino acids make it more nutritionally dense than other grains, and while it's treated as a grain, it is actually a seed. Quinoa tastes somewhat similar to couscous, and can be enjoyed in dishes like quinoa in marinara sauce, vegetarian stuffing, or tabouleh salad.
Soft and easy to chew, hemp seeds pack 7.5 grams of protein into each 1.5 tablespoon serving. That's about double what chia seeds and flax seeds contain, making them a stronger choice for your plant protein needs. They're known for being full of healthy fats, as they contain both omega 3 and 6 acids. Also called hemp hearts, these little seeds can be sprinkled on anything from salads to smoothies. Use them to make a plant-based milk that's creamy and nutritious; or top smoothies like this high protein peanut butter one with them.
There's no shortage of bean choices that are chock full of protein. Cranberry beans, chickpeas, black beans, pintos, and kidney beans all offer between 7 and 8 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving. They contain nearly as much fiber as they do protein, and almost no fat. They're high in B vitamin Folate, as well as phosphorus and manganese. Beans can be enjoyed as a side dish, a main, or in salads. They can be used as the base of a vegetarian chili, to make veggie burgers out of, in a slow cooker taco soup, paired with rice, or in a pasta salad.
This nut is actually a legume, and a high protein one at that. Peanuts offer over 7 grams of protein per ounce along with about 2.5 grams of fiber. A high-fat food, they're filling and rich. Though you can of course enjoy peanuts as peanut butter, there are other culinary uses for them too. Consider adding them to a spinach stir fry, or in a noodle cole slaw. If you prefer peanuts that are already ground into nut butter, your recipe choices include an easy peanut sauce or a sticky rice.
With 7 grams of protein per 1/2 cup, this humble block of soy is often used in main dishes as the star protein. It's low in carbs and fat, and while it's not as nutritious as its fermented counterpart tempeh, it is still considered quite healthful. Tofu holds up well in stir-fries, such as this one with a peanut sauce. You can also use it in place of ricotta for lasagna, to amp up a fruit smoothie, and even as a base for a vegan whipped cream.
What is plant-based protein?
Plant-based protein is the term for foods that are good sources of protein but contain no animal products. All of the foods listed in this article can be considered plant-based proteins, as they are high-protein plant foods.
What is the difference between animal-based and plant-based protein?
The difference between animal and plant proteins is that plant proteins are made from plants and animal proteins are made from animals or animal products. Where meat is animal flesh, dairy is made from animal milk, something mammals produce. Conversely, plant proteins are made only of things that grow from the ground.
What are good protein supplements to add to my daily routine?
If you're concerned about getting enough protein from whole foods alone, there are many excellent plant-based protein powders. These include pea protein, hemp protein, sunflower seed protein, and brown rice protein.
Defining Protein. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. 2020, August 13.
Tempeh. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Seitan. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Lentils. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Edamame. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Quinoa. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Hemp seeds. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Beans, pinto, mature seeds, cooked, no salt. Fooddata Central, United States Department of Agriculture
Peanuts, all types, raw. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture
Tofu, firm. Fooddata central, United States Department of Agriculture