The Top Plant-Based Proteins

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Plates are plentiful with plants these days from plant-based burger patties, tofu scrambled “eggs,” and cauliflower “steaks.” With protein playing a key role in health, it’s always a good time to refresh your knowledge on why protein is important and how to get adequate amounts. Whether you consider yourself vegan, vegetarian, or are just looking for ways to add more plants to your diet, there are countless ways to swap in protein from plants for traditional animal-based proteins. Consider some of these top plant-based protein sources that also add other benefits like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Going plant-based

Living a plant-based lifestyle has some food group limitations (aka less meat, poultry, dairy, eggs), so it’s important to carefully plan an eating pattern that incorporates a variety of plant-based proteins. Protein is a major all-star in building and maintaining muscles, repairing cells, maintaining immune function, regulating hormones, and utilizing energy sources.

Know what you need

Everyone’s protein needs are slightly different based on age, gender, activity level, and health condition. But the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ research states that vegans and vegetarians “typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes when caloric intakes are adequate.” That means adequate meals will provide what you need with or without the meat! And, there’s even better news. You don’t have to think about “complementary proteins” anymore. As long as you eat a variety of foods throughout each day, you’ll get enough of those protein building blocks (known as amino acids) to make complete proteins.

The concept of pairing two incomplete plant proteins together to make a complete protein is a thing of the past.

Check out some of the top plant-based protein sources here and start planning the ultimate vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based menu.

Soy-containing foods

Popular foods that contain soy include soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and edamame. Soy is the only complete plant protein, meaning it has all essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. One serving of most soy foods contains about 20 grams of protein, with the exception of soy milk which has about 8-10 grams. Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are also great meat substitutes. They can be marinated, seasoned, and crumbled. Try them in stir-fries, pasta sauce, or tacos.

Grains

Whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, wheat, farro, and barley are higher in fiber and protein than processed grains like white rice and white bread. The protein content in grains ranges from 7-9 grams of protein in a serving of cooked quinoa to 7 grams in a cup of whole-wheat pasta and 10 grams in a serving of steel-cut oats. Grains can be eaten hot or cold. Try adding them on top of salads or as a base to a salad. Bulk up your soups with quinoa, brown rice, or farro.

Nuts and seeds

Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and almonds, oh my! Super rich in both vitamins and minerals, nuts and seeds are a power-house combo of fiber, healthy fats, and protein. With enough options to try something new every day of the week, you’ll never get tired of snacking on trail mix, using these as a base to homemade energy bars, or sprinkling on soups, salads, and pasta. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and Brazil nuts contain 7-9 grams of protein per ¼ cup. Chia, hemp, flax, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds also range from 7-9 grams of protein per ¼ cup.

Beans and legumes

Beans, beans, the more you eat… the more protein you get! Along with protein, beans and legumes are fiber-rich complex carbohydrate sources that are slowly digested and “help you” in the bathroom. Experience the rainbow of beans like black, white (or Great Northern), red kidney, pinto, Black-Eyed peas, and chickpeas by using them in soups, burger patties, and pureed dips. Try a variety of colored lentils in Indian dishes, soups, or in a warm salad. This plant family will give you about 8-12 grams of protein per serving.

Out of the ordinary…other plant-based proteins

One of the great adventures of eating plant-based is opening up your palate to experiencing new foods. Nutritional yeast has a delicious parmesan cheese flavor yet contains no dairy nor active yeast. It’s a flaky, yellow powder with 12 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons. It’s often used to make non-dairy cheese sauce, dips, and dressings (and is to-die-for sprinkled on popcorn).

Green smoothie junkie? You might want to add spirulina to your next green drink for extra protein and nutritional benefits. Spirulina is blue-green algae that contain healthy fats and important minerals along with 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. 

Ready to power up with Popeye? Check out the actionable steps below for more ideas on how to move forward with plant proteins!




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Actionable Steps


1

Assess your protein needs

Calculate the minimum amount of protein you need per day using the equation: ____ (weight in kilograms) x 0.8 = _____ grams protein per day. If you’re very active or like to go hard at the gym, you probably need a little more than the average Joe, so keep that in mind when it comes to meal planning. For example, a 150-pound male would need at least 54 grams protein per day (68 kg x 0.8).

2

Evaluate your current eating patterns

Are you getting the minimum amount of protein your body needs each day? Do you spread your protein portions throughout the day’s meals and snacks? Aim for around 20 grams of protein per meal. If snacks are in your plan, try to get at least 10 grams of protein.

3

Practice your protein portions

Keeping your protein intake requirements in mind, start by portioning with measuring spoons and cups to get a sense of what each portion looks like. Use this plant Protein Guide for protein content per serving size.

4

Experiment with a variety of plant-based proteins

Once you find which protein sources you like, continue enjoying them in a variety of recipes. Change it up throughout the week trying black bean burgers on Monday, tofu tacos on Tuesday, and lentil soup on Wednesday.

5

Not vegan or vegetarian? That’s ok!

Most of us could use more plants in our life, so try swapping in a few plant-based proteins over the course of the week. Try Meatless Mondays or even one meatless meal per day. Plant proteins help meet daily fiber requirements to keep us regular and are high in essential vitamins and minerals to keep us healthy (all day, every day!).

6

Everybody is different

Work with a Registered Dietitian for your exact nutrient requirements and for an in-depth evaluation of your dietary patterns. Read more about how protein requirements differ throughout the lifecycle here.

7

Read more on this topic

To learn more, read these articles reviewed by our professionals: Ask a Nutritionist: What are the best sources of plant-based protein by Samantha Cassetty, RD, 10 Plant-Based Proteins You Should be Eating by McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN, The Ultimate Vegan Protein Guide by Deborah Murphy, Ms, RDN, and 10 Best Sources of Plant-Based Protein by Whitney English, RD.

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About the Author


shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching


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