Oct. 10. 2014
Protein
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

Learn about the top 10 plant-based proteins and how to incorporate them into your diet from dietitian nutritionist McKel Hill.

Curious about plant protein, how to use it, what are the best plant-based protein foods, and why you should be eating plant protein foods? So are a ton of other people! I get asked all the time, “How can I get enough protein without eating meat?” I guarantee you, it’s easier than you think if you incorporate these 10 sources of plant-based protein. Bookmark this page for a comprehensive guide to the top 10 plant-based protein sources and how to use them daily.

Regardless of what lifestyle you practice, we all can benefit from a diet rich in plants, along with the fiber, minerals, phytonutrients, and health benefits that they provide.

Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein

1. Plant Protein: Lentils

Lentils are a great source of carbohydrates and fiber as well as protein. In fact, they offer nearly 20 grams of muscle-building protein in a single serving. Lentils are considered to be a starchy protein, and split green peas can be also added to the same category as lentils.

Lentils contain a mix of both essential and non-essential amino acids, including globulin, which makes up almost half of the lentils’ amino acid profile. Besides these amino acids, lentils promote health through their content of starch, insoluble dietary fiber, prebiotics, and potassium (1). To top it off, lentils are very inexpensive, easy to prepare, and super filling. 

Lentils Nutrition:

  • 1 cup cooked lentils = 18 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of green peas = 8 grams of protein

How to Use Lentils:

2. Plant Protein: Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds not only contain protein but also supply plenty of heart-healthy fats, mainly omega-3 fatty acids. Though they don’t contain all amino acids (they’re missing lysine), they are still considered an excellent source of protein for vegans. It’s interesting to note, too, that hempseed oil contains all the essential amino acids, along with one called arginine, which helps with the production of nitric oxide, a vital molecule for a strong cardiovascular system (2). 

Hemp seeds have a delicious, subtly sweet and nutty flavor and are so small in size that they can easily be used and added to any recipe to boost the plant protein content.

Hemp Seeds Nutrition:

  • 3 tablespoons hemp = about 10 grams of protein

How to Use Hemp Seeds:

  • Sprinkle on top of salads (like the Kale Hemp Tabbouleh)
  • Stir or blend into soups or stews to slightly thicken
  • Add to smoothies for a creamy texture
  • Make Hemp Seed Milk
  • Whip up Crunchy Chocolate Seed Bark or Hemp Seed Crumble
  • Blend in to hummus, dips, or dressings
  • Sprinkle on top of porridge, oatmeals, or other cereals
  • Add into baked goods and desserts for added protein
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of hemp seeds, click here

3. Plant Protein: Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are an ancient seed that has been used for centuries for their amazing ability to absorb water and turn into a gel-like substance, which is thanks to the soluble fiber content in the seeds. Because of this unique characteristic, chia seeds are great to add to meals and foods to help thicken them naturally while also boosting the content of fiber, protein, and healthy fats (mainly omega-3’s).

As for protein, in particular, chia seeds are made up of about 20% protein and 25% fiber. While the protein level can vary from batch to batch of these seeds depending on where they’re grown, they do contain both essential and non-essential amino acids, with most of them being globulin (3). Chia seeds are also a naturally gluten-free protein, which is helpful for those with sensitivities.

Chia Seed Nutrition:

2 tablespoons = 4 grams of protein

How to Use Chia Seeds:

  • Sprinkle on top of porridges, oatmeal, and cold cereals for an added crunch
  • Soak for at least 30 minutes in almond milk to make a basic chia seed pudding
  • Add to water for a refreshing and hydrating Chia Fresca/Bubble Water
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of chia seeds, click here

4. Plant Protein: Quinoa

Quinoa is a gluten-free grain (technically a seed) that is used as a carbohydrate and considered one of the top plant-based protein foods. It’s often classified as a starchy protein because it contains carbohydrates, as well as ample amounts of plant protein and fiber. Use it in place of rice for more diversity in your carbohydrate intake, and a little added protein with those carbs.

Compared to other grains, quinoa has a better amino acid profile and higher protein to fat and carb ratio (4). It’s also higher in the amino acid lysine compared to wheat, corn, or rice.

Quinoa Nutrition:

1/2 cup cooked quinoa = 7-9 grams of protein

How To Use Quinoa:

5. Plant Protein: Spirulina

Spirulina is incredibly protein-rich and one of the few sources of high-protein plant foods that is mostly made of the macronutrient by dry weight. In fact, spirulian is comprised of about 6o% to 70% protein by weight, whereas most other plant proteins are made up of only about 35% (5). Plus, spirulina provides all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Research also shows that your body can use the protein from spirulina more efficiently, making it one of the best plant protein sources available (5). 

It’s deep blue-green in color and will change anything you mix with it into that vibrant color. It tastes subtly sweet and nutty, with hints of vanilla and chocolate, but with a subtle seaweed flavor.

Spirulina Nutrition:

  • 2 tablespoons spirulina = 8 grams of protein

How to Use Spirulina:

6. Plant Protein: Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is one of the top high-protein plant-based foods thanks to its cheesy flavor, versatility, and impressive nutrient content. Nutritional yeast contains no dairy or active yeast, and it’s found in a powder/flake form that creates a paste when mixed with liquid. It’s great for making dairy-free sauces, dressings, and more.

Another complete protein, you’ll get all amino acids in a serving of nutritional yeast. It’s an easy way to bump up the macronutrient in your meals when you just sprinkle it on top of a dish, just as you would regular cheese.

Nutritional Yeast Nutrition:

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast = about 12 grams of protein

How to Use Nutritional Yeast:

  • Add flaked nutritional yeast to almond milk or water to create a cheesy dressing or sauce
  • Sprinkle on top of salads, quinoa, lentils, beans, and more for a cheesy flavor
  • Incorporate into dips such as hummus, Baba Ghanoush or Classic Cashew Cheese
  • Use it for a cheesy flavor in Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce
  • Sprinkle it on popcorn for an added flavor boost
  • Try it in homemade Cauliflower Pizza Crust
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of nutritional yeast, click here
  • For recipes using nutritional yeast, click here

7. Plant Protein: Seeds

Seeds such as sunflower, sesame, chia, hemp, flax, and pumpkin seeds are all rich in both protein and minerals, earning them a slot on the list of best vegan protein foods. Seeds vary by type, and some are nuttier in flavor whereas others are more sweet and neutral tasting. Pumpkin seeds have an earthy flavor, sesame seeds are very nutty tasting, sunflower seeds are slightly sweet and nutty, and flax and chia seeds taste mildly nutty.

Like most plant proteins, these seeds lack lysine, the amino acid most need to make a complete protein. That doesn’t mean they’re not great sources of the macronutrient, though. For instance, pumpkin seeds are made up of nearly 60% protein (6), so you’ll be getting a good bang for your buck with a 1/4 cup serving.

Seeds Nutrition:

1/4 cup seeds = around 7-9 grams of protein

How To Use Seeds:

  • Sprinkle seeds on top of salads or any meal to increase the healthy fat and protein content
  • Use in granola, Nourishing Muesli, or other baked goods
  • Grind and use as a “flour” in gluten-free baking
  • Pulse coarsely and use in desserts such as the Raw Peach Tart
  • Use in desserts, snacks, truffles, and raw bars for a nutrient-dense boost
  • Blend into homemade seed butter 
  • Sprinkle on top of oatmeal, porridges, or cold cereals for crunch and protein
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of seeds, click here

8. Plant Protein: Nuts

Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, Brazil nuts, and more are not only rich in minerals, vitamin E, and healthy fats but they’re also high in protein. Nuts vary by type, and some are nuttier in flavor whereas others are more sweet and neutral tasting. Cashews are one of my favorite nuts as they’re incredibly versatile to use in sweet and savory dishes. Brazil nuts are my close second favorite because they’re rich in selenium. In fact, eating just one serving a day makes up 100% of your DV for selenium.

People often add nuts to meals or as snacks for the strong mix of protein and fat—two nutrients that help to fill you up and keep you full. While nuts do provide a great source of plant protein, they don’t contain all the full line-up of amino acids. Most lack lysine, while others (like almonds) don’t have sulfur amino acids, methionine and cysteine, or tryptophan (namely, macadamia and pecans), and threonine (an amino acid that peanut is missing) (7).

Nuts Nutrition:

 1/4 cup nuts = around 7-9 grams of protein

How to Use Nuts:

  • Sprinkle nuts on top of salads or any meal to increase the healthy fat and protein content
  • Use in granola, Nourishing Muesli, or other baked goods
  • Grind and use as a “flour” in gluten-free baking
  • Add them to a dessert like Pistachio Ice Cream
  • Grind or pulse coarsely and use in desserts such as the Raw Peach Tart
  • Use in desserts, snacks, truffles, and raw bars for a nutritious boost
  • Blend into your own nut butter 
  • Sprinkle on top of oatmeal, porridges, or cold cereals for added crunch and protein
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of nuts, click here

9. Plant Protein: Beans

Beans and legumes like chickpeas are an amazing source of plant protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. Beans are considered to be a starchy protein, just like lentils. Magnesium is another key player in beans, which is an important mineral in our body that plays a key role in 300 cellular functions, including muscle function, protein synthesis, blood sugar control, and blood pressure regulation. It’s also been shown to help decrease PMS symptoms, headaches, and constipation.

Beans contain many amino acids such as isoleucine, but they still lack others like valine and lysine. One study also found that you’ll digest anywhere from 33% to 86% of the amino acids available in beans, a percentage that varies across types of beans, including black, red, and white (8).

Beans Nutrition:

  • 1 cup cooked beans = around 15 grams of protein

How to Use Beans:

  • Cooked with your favorite spices and seasonings and eaten plain
  • Top on salads, Nourish Bowls, or One Bowl Skillet Meals
  • Combine with rice or quinoa for a hearty meal
  • Use to make vegetarian meatballs, loaves, or burgers
  • Use as a taco filling or meat sauce for spaghetti
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of beans, click here
  • For recipes using beans, click here

10. Plant Protein: Organic Tempeh, Tofu, and Edamame

Soy-containing foods such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame all offer a complete plant protein containing all amino acids. They are one of the strongest, most animal-like protein in terms of chemical makeup. Some research also says that soy has a high concentration of BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids, which are beneficial to athletic performance (9). 

Oftentimes, these soy-based sources of plant protein also contain fiber and healthy fats in addition to protein. Tempeh is the most nutritious out of this bunch, as it contains naturally-occurring healthy bacteria from the fermentation process. However, be sure to read up about what you should know about soy before adding a ton of tempeh, tofu, or edamame to your diet.

Tempeh Nutrition:

1 serving of tempeh/tofu/edamame = around 20 grams of protein

How to Use Tempeh, Tofu, and Edamame:

NS Recommends

Living a plant-based lifestyle, as we often recommend at Nutrition Stripped, is all about choosing fruits, veggies, whole grains, and the above-mentioned plant-based protein sources. Finding the foods that make you feel best and keep you full, energized, and satisfied is the key to following a healthy eating plan and still enjoying the foods you love.

Some research points out that vegetarians and vegans have a lower intake of protein than meat eaters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get enough (10). It’s easy to consume the macronutrient when incorporating plant proteins into most meals. A sprinkle of spirulina in your smoothie, a dusting of nutritional yeast or a scoop of beans in your salad are all easy ways to get enough protein straight from plants. Choose the plant-based proteins you like best and start adding them into more meals.

If you’re looking for more support and ways to integrate more plant-based protein into your life, then check out our best-selling Online Education Programs. We offer programs to give you the tools you need for meal planning, learning how to stock your kitchen, give your body a reset with whole foods, and more. Click here to explore what programs are right for you. Or if you’re ready to get started now with making Healthy Eating Simple, then taking our free 4-part series, click here to join!