For a number of reasons, plant-based diets have become increasingly popular in developing countries. Whether for ethical or health-conscious reasons, people are increasingly hungry for high-quality plant-based protein foods. (1)
Quality protein foods are essential for a healthy and balanced diet, and it’s a common misunderstanding that people following plant-based diets are unable to consume “enough” protein. (2) In fact, in a recent study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology that studied over 200,000 people over a 25-year span, “Higher intake of a plant-based diet index rich in healthier plant foods is associated with substantially lower coronary heart disease risk.” (3)
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian looking to bump your protein intake, or just curious how to eat sufficient levels of protein on a mostly meat-free, vegan diet, let me help separate the fact from myth and share with you some of the best plant-based protein foods on the planet.
Plant-Based Protein vs. Other Protein Foods
Everyone on the internet has an opinion, right? That’s certainly the case when it comes to plant-based diets and protein, from the ethically vegan to the skeptically omnivorous.
But what does the science say about eating plant-based protein versus animal protein?
First, you need to understand why protein is so important to your diet. Protein is the building block of life, made up of amino acids that our bodies use in virtually every internal process we have.
Because their genetic makeup is more similar to ours than plants, animals provide protein that is most easily digested by the human body. When you eat fish, eggs, raw dairy or any meat product, you’re eating protein that your body totally knows how to process.
Plant-based protein, on the other hand, is a little less digestible for the human body. (4a) Sources of protein from plants also rarely contain a “complete” amino acid profile, meaning that they contain all 20 necessary amino acids including the 9 (10 for children) that are “essential.” (4b)
Does this mean the protein in plants is worthless? Absolutely not — there are some complete protein plant foods, and it’s not actually vital to eat only complete proteins; you simply need to adjust for what you might be missing from one food to the next.
Plant foods also have a huge number of other benefits, which is why good veggies should make up a large part of your plate at each meal.
Since plant protein shows up in smaller quantities than animal protein, choosing to eat a plant-based diet requires intentionality. It is definitely possible to get all the nutrients you need from only plant foods, as long as you put thought into your meal planning. (5)
Not every diet works for every person, so paying attention to your own individual biofeedback to determine what’s best for your body is an important part of living a healthy life. For example, I’ve tried many healthy diet combinations to see how my body responds, and when looking at Paleo vs. vegan diets, I personally found that I don’t do well on a plant-only diet.
Instead, I eat plenty of organic vegetables, fruits, healthy fats/oils, lean meats, fish, a limited amount of grass-fed red meat and some raw, full-fat dairy.
Other people have found benefit in plant-heavy options, like a vegetarian diet on which you eat no meats but do have eggs and some other animal derivatives, or the pescatarian diet, featuring no meat but including fish and seafood products.
People interested in bodybuilding or building large amounts of muscle mass may have a harder time on a completely plant-based diet, like the vegan diet, but can still achieve their goals with the right planning and focus. (6)
On thing to keep in mind is that some plant-based proteins are high in lectins, antinutrients that can cause damage.
Lectins are found in high quantities in beans and wheat, which as mentioned earlier reduce nutrient absorption and can cause indigestion, bloating and gas for many people. One of the most nutritionally important features of plant lectins is their ability to survive digestion by the gastrointestinal tract, which means they can penetrate cells lining the digestive tract and cause a loss of gut epithelial cells, damage the membranes of the epithelium lining, interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption, stimulate shifts in the bacterial flora, and trigger autoimmune reactions.
Lectins can cause GI upset similar to classical food poisoning and immune responses like joint pain and rashes. Improperly prepared raw grains, dairy and legumes like peanuts, and soybeans have especially high lectin levels.
11 of the Best Plant-Based Protein Foods
To give you some of the best plant-based protein sources, I first want to say that, while the FDA recommends an average of 50 grams of protein per day (the numbers differ for men and women), I personally think it best to divide your body weight in half and eat that many grams. (7)
For example, the average weight of an American woman is about 166 pounds. Therefore, I’d have that average person aim at consuming around 83 grams of protein each day — about 180 percent of what might be generally suggested. That would put the average U.S. man of 196 pounds at a goal of 98 grams of protein per day.
The list I’m providing isn’t necessarily comprised of the highest protein counts in plant-based protein foods, but rather foods that are valuable for the quality of their protein and availability of amino acids.
Natto is a type of fermented soybean consumed most often in Japan. At 31 grams of protein in one cup, you can probably see why it ranked No. 1 on my list. It’s also a complete protein.
The smell and texture of natto often turn off people to trying it, but I enjoy the taste and don’t mind using it as a side dish — especially with all the benefits it provides.
This algae superfood looks a little bizarre, but this plant protein powerhouse has some unbelievable benefits, like heavy metal detox, HIV/AIDS improvement and cancer prevention.
While not a complete protein on its own, spirulina has a whopping 39 grams of protein in just a serving (part of why it’s a delicious part of a morning green smoothie). To supplement the methionine and cysteine it’s missing, just pair it with a whole grain or some nuts.
Spirulina also includes the highest amount of glutamine found in a plant food. Glutamine is an amino acid that is called “conditionally essential,” because the body is able to create it on its own, but it’s used in such large amounts that you also need to consume it through foods. (8)
Another one of the world’s best plant-based protein sources is tempeh, an Indonesian soybean. Like natto, this probiotic-rich bean is fermented to eliminate the common issues soy often provides.
You’ll get 18 grams of protein in a serving of this complete protein. Some people boil and eat it with soy sauce or coconut aminos, and since it absorbs neighboring flavors, you can use it with almost any recipe. Try it in chilis, salads and stews for a start.
Don’t let the name fool you — this yeast isn’t the same stuff that helps to bake bread. Nutritional yeast only contains about 9 grams of protein per serving; however, unlike almost any other plant food, it usually includes fortified Vitamin B-12.
Generally, you should treat nutritional yeast like a condiment or an ingredient in cheesy dishes or as a shake ingredient.
A cup of pumpkin seeds contains 12 grams of protein. (9) Another complete protein source, pumpkin seeds are high in healthy fats, magnesium, lysine and zinc (the latter two of which are often limited on plant-based diets).
However, a word of caution: if you are counting calories (which I don’t often deem necessary), you should know that a cup of pumpkin seeds contains 264 calories.
6. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds have 9 grams of protein per serving, and are also complete in their amino acid profile. They contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is probably one reason they have so many health benefits, like reducing inflammation and helping with multiple sclerosis.
A gluten-free “ancient-grain” cultivated first in history by the Aztecs, amaranth grains are an excellent source of nutrition. Amaranth is a complete protein, offering 9 grams per serving, and also contains over 100 percent of your daily recommended manganese intake.
Quinoa is another one of those incredible “ancient grains,” although it’s technically not a grain at all, but a “pseudocereal,” a seed that you use similarly to barley.
Due to its 8 grams of protein per serving, complete inclusion of amino acids and relative ease of access, quinoa is one of my favorite plant-based protein foods to eat often.
9. Black Beans
Although black beans are short just one amino acid (hydroxyproline) of being called “complete,” they still offer an awesome source of protein at 15 grams per serving.
They also contain a large amount of lysine and leucine, two of the amino acids rarely found in plant-based protein foods. (10) Leucine is the primary of three branched-chain amino acids, which is extremely significant for weight loss and metabolism management.
10. Green Peas
Apparently, your mom was right when she said eating your peas was important — green peas have 9 grams of protein per serving and include significant amounts of leucine, lysine and glutamine. (11)
They’re also one of those high-fiber foods that help decrease your risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Referred to nutritionally as an “edible pulse,” lentils are part of the legume family and provide a great nutritional profile including 18 grams of protein.
They do technically contain all 20 amino acids, but the amounts of cysteine and methionine in lentils are negligible, so if you’re watching protein macros, try adding almonds or another healthy nut to even out the numbers.
5 Plant-Based Protein Benefits
1. Protects against heart disease
Overwhelmingly, the most well-researched benefit of a plant-based protein diet is a protection from common heart diseases.
Plant-based diets have been known to help prevent coronary artery disease, a precursor to coronary heart disease. (12a, 12b) Researchers specifically recommend that if you do choose to eat animal foods in addition to plant-based proteins, focus on unprocessed options. (13)
In general, a low-carbohydrate plant-based diet seems to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. (15)
Because of the issues with processed meat, more recent research has been conducted on the relationship between organic, grass-fed red meat versus processed varieties. Results showed that the issue seemed to lie particularly with the processed meat, as organic, grass-fed meat did not reflect the same type of heart disease or stroke risk. (16, 17, 18)
2. May be beneficial for diabetes
As diet changes become a central focus for doctors and patients, plant-based diets have risen to the top as one of the most cost-effective medical interventions for diabetes symptoms with a low risk compared to pharmaceutical methods. Plant-based protein foods can lower your risk for diabetes as well as other related factors like body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol. (19)
The type of protein a diabetic patient consumes (as well as the type of carbohydrates and fats) seems to have a role in managing type II diabetes, as it seems to help relieve insulin resistance and promote better body weight. (20)
In general, a high protein diet has been found to reduce liver fat, insulin resistance and liver inflammation. (21) Shorter-term studies have not always found a distinction between animal versus plant-based protein on diabetes, especially when considering organic, grass-fed meats rather than processed meat. (22)
3. Helps prevent kidney disease
While the research is in its fledgling stage, there is some evidence that a diet heavy in plant proteins may have some positive impact on kidney disease.
Replacing at least some animal protein with plant protein seems to reduce FGF-23, a protein within the body that increases exponentially as chronic kidney disease progresses. This replacement also raises bicarbonate levels, which have usually been increased through supplementation in modern medicine. (23, 24, 25)
Because of the unwillingness of some patients to transition to an entirely plant-based diet, one study concentrated on a more plant-based diet, finding that 70 percent plant protein was tolerable for participants and still helped to decrease severity of the disease. (26)
Related to plant-based protein’s effects on diabetes, some research has also found a benefit for patients with diabetic kidney disease when they increase their ratio of plant-to-animal protein sources. (27)
4. Supports lowered inflammation and balanced internal pH
By now, many of us understand that the internal environment of your body plays a huge part in determining how and if you’ll develop disease, heal from illness and even feel each day. Two of these internal factors include inflammation levels and pH.
Inflammation is at the root of most diseases, so following a diet designed to reduce chronic inflammation can help you to prevent disease, lose weight and feel better.
Plant-based foods high in protein seem to help reduce inflammation by stopping overproduction of inflammatory cytokines, internal proteins your cells secrete that are actually an immune response. (28) The problem comes when too many cytokines are released because of dietary issues and other outside factors, so finding natural ways to reduce their production can make a big difference to your health. (29)
Eating mostly plant-based proteins is also an integral part of an alkaline diet. By removing more acidic foods and focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables and other proteins, you can balance the internal pH of your body and enjoy the vast benefits like improved digestion, weight loss, cancer protection and decreased risk of heart disease.
Reducing inflammation and balancing internal pH may be significant reasons why plant-based protein diets are associated with lowered risk of death, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, bone problems and liver disease. (30, 31)
5. May aid in weight loss
High-protein diets have been known for a long time to help reduce weight, and this is true for both omnivores and people who eat strictly plant-based protein. (32)
However, it’s also true that vegetarians have a lower BMI, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, reduced death rates from heart disease, lowered risk of stroke, less instances of type II diabetes and cancer than meat-eaters overall. (33)
Why? It seems likely that this reduced weight correlation probably has something to do with the health-conscious nature of vegetarians, vegans and others who eat mostly plant-based foods. (34)
Increasing your protein intake (especially in the form of plant foods) is one way to lose weight fast.
Plant-Based Protein Nutrition
A major question people ask when considering plant-based dietary options is, “How will I get protein? Will I ever have enough?”
While kwashiorkor, the medical diagnosis for protein malnutrition, is rarely seen in first-world countries, it is common for people on the Standard American Diet to experience protein deficiency because of the prevalence of processed, empty foods.
As long as you take time to be intentional, as I said before, about your protein intake, you should be able to consume enough protein from plant-based foods.
However, if you start to notice you have trouble building muscle mass, constant fatigue, moodiness, bone/joint pain, slow wound healing or a low immunity, you should consult your doctor immediately to check your protein levels.
It’s okay that plant-based foods don’t all contain “complete” proteins, as long as you are careful to eat a variety of foods to fill in any potential gaps in amino acids.
There are 20 amino acids in proteins, 10 of which humans can produce on our own. The remaining 10 (or 9, for adults) are considered “essential” because our only source for them is through our diet. It’s not vital to have every single one of the 20 at each meal, but consuming a good variety of all of these amino acids throughout the day will help you achieve optimal health. (35)
Plant-based protein nutrition can, contrary to popular belief, also provide satiety, that full feeling at the end of a meal. Specifically, “dietary pulses” (beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils) have a potential to really help you feel full. (36)
Keeping in mind the vast benefits of plant-based protein foods, there are a few nutrients that plant-based nutrition simply does not provide in large quantities.
For one, the amino acid leucine, which triggers muscle growth, is not often found in most plant foods. (37) However, there’s a ton of it in spirulina, watercress and alfalfa seeds, so adding those to your regular diet can help, especially if you’re trying to build a lot of muscle. (38)
Plant-based proteins almost never contain Vitamin B-12. Because of this, it’s vital for vegans in particular to supplement their diet with an organic Vitamin B-12 or B-complex. Studies also recommend vegetarians be regularly screened for B-12 deficiency. (39)
The three exceptions to that B-12 rule are nutritional yeast, soy products (which I do not recommend) and nori seaweed, found in sushi wraps. (40) Nori has 9 percent of your required B-12 each day per serving, so even if you eat vegan sushi every day, you’ll still need an additional supplement.
Lastly, vegans and vegetarians usually do not consume enough ALA or EPA, both omega-3 fatty acids found in fish that help to prevent heart disease. (41) For vegetarians, you may want to try a fish oil supplement. If you strictly consume only plant-based items, you should look into algal oil for these nutrients, although they are not available in the same quantities as fish oil would provide.
The good news is that plant-based proteins are great for your health. For most conditions and dietary changes, one of the first things I recommend is to start eating more protein-rich plant foods, because they offer a host of benefits, whether they make up a large portion or the entirety of your diet. Plant-based proteins have a ton of vitamins and minerals that are essential to bodily functions and longevity.
Best Plant-Based Protein Supplements
The most popular protein supplements like whey protein and bone broth are animal-derived, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the great benefits of a protein supplement.
I like three plant-based protein powders: hemp, pea and brown rice.
Hemp protein powder is made from hemp seeds and has a bunch of fiber to accompany the other nutrients it provides. It’s associated with a decreased risk of osteoporosis, a cleaner colon and immune system benefits and is arguably the best plant-based protein powder.
Pea protein is not technically a “complete” protein source but still offers great benefits, including your daily recommended vitamin D in just a serving. It also can help to regulate your blood sugar, reduce your risk of kidney disease and aid in weight loss.
My other favorite is brown rice protein powder, which contains a lot of vitamin C and has associated health benefits including increased liver function, reduced glycemic response and cholesterol regulation.
In general, I think it’s a good idea to switch up what protein powders you use so that you can benefit from the various nutrients found in each one. Specifically, a combination of pea protein and brown rice protein will serve you well one day, when hemp might be your best plant-based protein powder at other times.
Plant-Based Protein Recipes
To kickstart your protein-rich plant-based diet, try treating yourself with Black Bean Brownies — everybody needs a treat, right? For vegans, substitute the suggested honey with maple syrup and eggs with flax or chia egg.
For something warm and filling, you’ll enjoy this Tomato Basil Brown Rice recipe. Again, feel free to substitute maple syrup for honey.
Did that talk of nori get you craving sushi? Me, too — but nutritious sushi can be hard to come by, which is why I created this Vegan Sushi recipe.
History & Interesting Facts About Plant-Based Nutrition
Plant-based diets have become all the rage, but they date back thousands of years. The history of the plant-based movement can be traced first to the ancient Egyptians in 1550 BC. There is also evidence that Roman gladiators ate a mostly vegan diet.
The word “vegan” was first used around 1847, although “vegetarian” had previously referred to a 100 percent plant-based diet in the past. Some of the most famous historical plant-based eaters include Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.
Today, plant-based diets are generally selected for their potential health benefits, ethical concerns about eating things once living or a combination of both. Diet options for plant-based or mostly plant-based eaters range from pescatarian to vegan, with several variations in between.
When doing your research on eating a plant-based diet, you’ll find many recommendations for soy-based products, including tofu or edamame.
Soy-rich foods are almost always on my list of “health” foods you should never eat, because they are mostly genetically modified and operate as hormone disruptors (except in the case of fermented soy such as natto and tempeh). I also don’t endorse the use of soy milk or soy protein powder.
If you are a pregnant mother, you might want to know that eating proteins specifically from meat is associated with healthier birth weights, especially later in pregnancy. (42) Consult your OB/GYN about dietary choices during pregnancy.
One other precaution to consider involves the common problem of the items you eat to replace meat proteins. There are a large number of delicious, protein-rich plant-based foods, but many people unfortunately supplement their missing calories with sugary sweets or refined grains, which can actually serve to cause rather than prevent disease. (43)
- Plant-based protein foods are valuable to your health and can offer similar benefits as animal proteins when you plan your eating intentionally.
- Many plant proteins do not have complete amino acid profiles, but it is not necessary to eat complete proteins in every food, so combining various foods is the best way to cover all of your amino acid bases.
- In my opinion, the top 11 plant-based proteins include natto, spirulina, tempeh, nutritional yeast, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, amaranth, quinoa, black beans, green peas and lentils.
- These 11 are my favorites due to a combination of their total protein content, amino acid profiles, additional nutrients and ease of access.
- Eating more plant-based proteins can help you lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, stroke and kidney disease.
- It can also help you to lose weight, reduce inflammation and balance your internal pH.
- Be sure to recognize the potential deficiencies you may risk by eating strictly plant-based and adjust for them, namely: Vitamin B-12, EPA/DHA and leucine.
- You can also try some of the best plant-based protein powders to supplement your protein intake, such as hemp, brown rice and pea.
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