For a number of reasons, plant-based diets have become increasingly popular in many countries, including the U.S. Whether for ethical or health-conscious reasons, people are hungry for high-quality plant-based protein foods.
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. In fact, in a recent study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology that examined more than 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.”
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian looking to bump up your protein intake or just curious how to eat sufficient levels of protein on a mostly meat-free eating plan, let me help separate the fact from myth and share with you some of the best plant-based protein foods to focus on.
Top 15 Plant-Based Protein Foods
What plants are high in protein? Below are some of the best plant-based proteins to regularly consume:
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.
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 one serving. 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.
4. Nutritional Yeast
Don’t let the name fool you — this yeast isn’t the same stuff that helps 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 B12.
Generally, you should treat nutritional yeast like a condiment or an ingredient in cheesy dishes or as a shake ingredient.
5. Pumpkin Seeds
A cup of pumpkin seeds contains 12 grams of protein. 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. It provides 8 grams of protein per serving.
9. Black Beans
Although black beans are short on hydroxyproline, they provide 15 grams of protein per serving. They also contain a large amount of lysine and leucine, two of the amino acids rarely found in vegan foods.
Leucine is the primary of three branched-chain amino acids, which is extremely significant for weight management 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.
They’re also a high-fiber food that can help decrease your risk of obesity 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 is negligible, so if you’re watching protein macros, try adding almonds or another healthy nut to even out the numbers.
Chickpeas are versatile, tasty and provide about 15 grams of protein per cup. They are also high in fiber, iron, zinc, phosphorus, B vitamins and more.
13. Ezekiel Bread
This type of ancient, sprouted bread is made with a winning combo of whole grains, nuts and seeds. Each slice provides about 5 grams of protein, plus fiber and minerals.
Because it’s made with sprouted ingredients, Ezekiel bread tends to be easier to digest than refined breads.
Although it has the name wheat it in, buckwheat is actually a wheat-free grain that is a hearty protein source. It’s generally low in calories, has about 6 grams of protein per cup, and contains vitamin K, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, choline, betaine, calcium and potassium.
This ancient whole grain has long been consumed in Africa and parts of Asia. Millet is gluten-free, high in fiber and low on the glycemic index, keeping your blood sugar levels stable.
Each one-cup serving contains about 6 grams of protein plus some folate, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
Top 3 Plant 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.
When it comes to the best vegan protein sources, several types of protein powders make the list because they are highly convenient and provide essential amino acids. In general, it’s a good idea to switch up what protein powders you use so you can benefit from the various nutrients found in each one.
Many experts believe that the best plant-based protein powders are hemp, pea and brown rice protein.
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.
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 regulate your blood sugar, reduce your risk of kidney disease and aid in weight loss.
Brown rice protein powder can support liver function, reduce glycemic response and aid in cholesterol regulation.
Plant vs. Animal Protein
Protein is the building block of life, made up of amino acids that our bodies use in virtually every internal process we have.
Is plant-based protein better for you than animal protein? Both sources of protein have their benefits. For example, vegan protein is sustainable and often low in calories but high in fiber, while animal foods are more dense in essential amino acids.
Because their genetic makeup is more similar to ours than plants, animals’ protein is most easily digested by the human body. Fish, eggs, raw dairy or any meats provide protein that your body knows how to process.
Plant-based protein, on the other hand, is a little less digestible for the human body. Sources of protein from plants also rarely contain a “complete” amino acid profile, meaning that they contain all 20 necessary amino acids, including the nine (10 for children) that are “essential.”
Since plant protein shows up in smaller quantities than animal protein, choosing 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.
Your best bet is paying attention to your own individual biofeedback to determine what’s best for your body.
For example, while people interested in bodybuilding or building large amounts of muscle mass may have a harder time going completely plant-based, even they can usually still achieve their goals with the right planning and focus.
1. Helps protect against cardiovascular disease
Overwhelmingly, the most well-researched benefit of a plant-based protein diet is protection from common heart problems. Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians, assuming their diets are low in added sugar and processed foods.
Plant-based diets have been known to help prevent coronary artery disease, a precursor to coronary heart disease. Researchers specifically recommend that if you do choose to eat animal foods in addition to plant-based proteins, focus on unprocessed options.
Regarding another cardiovascular issue, a 26-year study suggested that risk of stroke might be significantly reduced by replacing red meat with other dietary protein, such as nuts and dairy.
In general, a low-carbohydrate plant-based diet seems to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
2. May be beneficial for diabetes
Vegetarian/vegan eating plans are now thought of as cost-effective medical interventions for diabetes symptoms with a low risk compared to pharmaceutical methods. Research suggests that plant-based protein foods can help lower your risk for diabetes as well as other related factors, like body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol, due to their low calorie and fat content and high amounts of fiber.
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. It seems plant-based eating helps relieve insulin resistance and promote better body weight.
In general, a high-protein diet has been found to reduce liver fat, insulin resistance and liver inflammation. 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, but combined with the benefits of a plant diet, plant-based protein consumption can certainly be beneficial to help manage the disease.
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.
Because of the unwillingness of some patients to transition to an entirely vegan lifestyle, one study concentrated on a mostly plant-based diet. It found that 70 percent plant protein was tolerable for participants and still helped to decrease severity of the disease.
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.
4. Supports lowered inflammation and balanced internal pH
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.
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 eating plans are associated with lowered risk of death, cancer, kidney disease, bone problems and liver disease.
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.
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, and less instances of type II diabetes and cancer than meat-eaters overall.
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.
According to a 2020 systematic review, results from various studies suggest that plant-based diets may improve weight status due to overall restrictions in energy and fat intake.
A separate 2020 randomized control trial published in JAMA Network Open found that a plant-based diet also boosts after-meal calorie burning, leads to weight loss and improves cardio-metabolic risk factors in overweight individuals.
6. May promote longevity
One 2019 study found that a high intake of plant-based proteins may contribute to longevity. Specifically, the study found substituting animal proteins (primarily red or processed meats) was associated with a lower mortality risk overall, as well as a lower cancer-related and cardiovascular disease-related mortality risk.
What is the best plant-based protein for promoting healthy aging? Certain sources of protein, such as 100% whole grains and flax and chia seeds, not only provide protein, but also fiber, healthy fats and essential minerals, so these should top your list.
7. Can positively impact gut health
A number of studies also suggest that vegan diets can positively affect people’s microbiomes by improving diversity of bacteria species, which has benefits for immunity and even cognitive function thanks to the “gut-brain connection.”
Risks and Side Effects
The American Diabetic Association states that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes,” assuming that enough protein, omega-3s, iron and B vitamins are consumed.
That said, some vegan proteins are better than others. Many meat-avoiders turn to soy-based products for protein, including tofu, soy milk, soy protein powders and edamame.
Soy-rich foods are unfortunately commonly genetically modified and can even operate as hormone disruptors (except in the case of fermented soy, such as natto and tempeh).
If you are a pregnant mother, you might want to know that eating proteins specifically from meat is linked with healthier birth weights, especially later in pregnancy. Consult your OB/GYN about dietary choices during pregnancy if you have any concerns about this.
A vegan diet can also be potentially harmful for young children with risks of inadequate supply in terms of protein quality and energy, as well as fatty acids, iron, zinc, vitamin D, iodine, calcium and vitamin B12.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some plant-based proteins are high in lectins, a group of antinutrients that can cause damage to the GI tract and interfere with absorption of nutrients.
Lectins are found in high quantities in beans, peanuts/peanut butter and wheat, which may trigger indigestion, bloating and gas for many people. If they seem to cause you problems, the best thing to do is limit your intake of improperly prepared raw grains, dairy, legumes like peanuts/peanut butter and soybeans, which have especially high lectin levels.
To kick-start 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 seeds.
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.
The reason that protein foods in our diets are important is because they provide us with essential amino acids, which our bodies can’t make on their own. Combining various types of whole foods is the best way to cover all of your amino acid needs.
What are five great sources of plant-based protein? Tempeh, nutritional yeast, seeds like hemp seeds, whole grains like amaranth and quinoa, and legumes like black beans and lentils are among the best.
Eating more vegan protein can potentially help you lower your risk for cardiovascular 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 B12, 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.