Oct. 10. 2014
Health Articles
McKel Hill, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder

Learn about the top 10 plant proteins and how to incorporate them into your diet.

Curious about plant protein, how to use them, what are some popular plant-based proteins, and why you should be eating plant protein? Bookmark this page as it’s 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, fiber, minerals, phytonutrients, and all the health benefits that result from these foods.

What is a Good Source of a Plant Protein?

1. Plant Protein: Lentils

Lentils are a great source of carbohydrates and fiber, along with protein, considering they offer nearly 20 grams of the muscle-building macronutrient in one 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 both essential and non-essential amino acids, including globulin (which makes up almost half of the lentils’ amino acid profile). Besides offering protein, lentils promote health via their starch content, insoluble dietary fiber, prebiotics, and potassium (1). To top it off, lentils are very inexpensive and super filling. 

Nutrition Of Lentils:

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

How to Use Lentils:

  • 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 lentils, click here

2. Plant Protein: Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds not only contain protein but also contain heart-healthy fats, mainly omega-3 fatty acids. Though they don’t contain all amino acids (they’re missing lysein), they are still an excellent source of plant protein. 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 10g 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
  • Make Hemp Seed Crumble
  • Add to hummus, dips, or dressings by blending in hemp seeds
  • 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 properties to absorb water and turn into a gel-like substance 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 thicken naturally while also boosting the 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 = 4g protein

How to Use Chia Seeds:

  • Sprinkle on top of porridges, oatmeal, and cold cereals for a crunch
  • Soak for at least 30 minutes in almond milk for a basic chia seed pudding
  • Soak in water for a Chia Fresca/Bubble Water for a refreshing and hydrating beverage
  • 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. It’s considered a starchy protein because it contains carbohydrates, as well as the plant protein and fiber. Use it instead 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 = 7-9g protein

How To Use Quinoa:

  • Cook and top on raw or cooked greens
  • Use in a Nourish Bowl or One Bowl Skillet Meal
  • Use as a hot or cold cereal by adding homemade nut milk and fresh fruit
  • Use a bed of quinoa instead of a bed of rice for stir-fry dishes or as a side dish
  • Quinoa can also be used as a pilaf, such as the Citrus Quinoa Pilaf
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of chia seeds, click here

5. Plant Protein: Spirulina

Spirulina is incredibly protein-rich and one of the few sources of plant protein that is mostly made of the macronutrient by dry weight—about 6o% to 70%—while most other plant proteins are only about 35% (5). One of the few on the list, 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 sources of protein out there (5). 

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

Spirulina Nutrition:

  • 2 tablespoons spirulina = 8g protein

How to Use Spirulina:

6. Plant Protein: Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is a staple food in plant-based diets due to its cheesy flavor, versatility, high amounts of B vitamins, and protein 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 cheese.

Nutritional Yeast Nutrition:

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast = about 12g 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
  • 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 both protein- and mineral-rich. 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.

Nutrition Of Seeds:

1/4 cup seeds = around 7-9g 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
  • Grind or 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
  • Make your own seed butter by blending
  • 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 from 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. Just eating 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, methoionine and cysteine, or tryptophan (namely, macadamia and pecans), and threonine (an amino acid that peanut is missing) (7).

Nutrition Of Nuts:

 1/4 cup nuts = around 7-9g 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
  • Grind or 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
  • Make your own nut butter by blending
  • Sprinkle on top of oatmeal, porridges, or cold cereals for crunch and protein
  • For more information on the nutrition and health benefits of nuts, click here

9. Plant Protein: Beans

Beans 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 and plays a key role in 300 cellular functions in the body including muscle function, protein synthesis, blood sugar control, and blood pressure regulation. It’s also been shown to help decrease PMS, headaches (such as migraines), and can be used to help relax digestive muscles which can reduce constipation.

Beans contain many amino acids, in fact, they’re high in the essential one known 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).

Nutrition Of Beans

  • 1 cup cooked beans = around 15g 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, loafs, 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. It’s one of the strongest, most animal-like protein in terms of chemical makeup. Some research says that soy has a high concentration of BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids, which are beneficial to athletic performance (9). 

Often these soy-based sources of plant protein also carry fiber and healthy fats as well as the protein. Tempeh is the most nutritious out of this bunch, as it contains naturally-occurring healthy bacteria from the fermentation process.

Nutrition of Tempeh:

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

How to Use Tempeh, Tofu, and Edamame:

  • Use as you would beans or lentils; tofu and tempeh both can be marinated
  • Use tempeh and tofu as toppings to salads
  • Add to stir-fry meals
  • Add to sauces, for example, create a “meat” spaghetti sauce
  • Use as filling for tacos, burgers, or even shaped into “hot dogs”
  • Shopping tip: always purchase organic and sprouted tofu if available, non-GMO if available

Vegetarians, Vegans, and Plant Protein

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 protein sources. Finding the foods that make you feel best—that keep you full, energized, and satisfied—is the key to following a healthy eating plan and still enjoying the foods you eat.

Some research (10) 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. 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, a bowl of lentils at dinner—those are all easy ways to get enough protein straight from plants. Choose the plant proteins you like best and start adding them into more meals.

Share Your Favorites!

Have you tried any of all of these plant-based proteins? If so, what’s your favorite recipe? Share in the comment section below so we call can hear — maybe there’s a recipe we need to explore making. Or share on social media using #nutritionstripped.

References:

  1. Kumar Ganesan and Baojun Xu. (2017, November). Polyphenol-Rich Lentils and Their Health Promoting Effects.
  2. Delfin Rodriguez-Leyva and Grant N Pierce. (2010, April). The cardiac and haemostatic effects of dietary hempseed.
  3. Rahman Ullah, M. Nadeem, A. Khalique, M. Imran, S. Mehmood, A. Javid, and J. Hussain. (2016, April.) Nutritional and therapeutic perspectives of Chia (Salvia hispanica L.): a review.
  4. Changsong Zou, Aojun Chen, Lihong Xiao, Heike M Muller, Peter Ache, Georg Haberer, Meiling Zhang, Wei Jia, Ping Deng, Ru Huang, Daniel Lang, Feng Li, Dongliang Zhan, Xiangyun Wu, Hui Zhang, Jennifer Bohm, Renyi Liu, Sergey Shabala, Rainer Hedrich, Jian-Kang Zhu, Heng Zhang. (2017, October.) A high-quality genome assembly of quinoa provides insights into the molecular basis of salt bladder-based salinity tolerance and the exceptional nutritional value
  5.  Gabriela Gutiérrez-Salmeán, Luis Fabila-Castillo and Germán Chamorro-Cevallos. (2015.) Nutritional and toxicological aspects of Spirulina (Arthrospira)
  6. Glew RH, Glew RS, Chuang LT, Huang YS, Millson M, Constans D, Vanderjagt DJ. (2006, June.) Amino acid, mineral and fatty acid content of pumpkin seeds (Cucurbita spp) and Cyperus esculentus nuts in the Republic of Niger.
  7. Mahesh Venkatachala, and Shridhar K. Sath. (2006, May.) Chemical Composition of Selected Edible Nut Seeds
  8. Blanco A, Bressani R. (1991, March.) [Bioavailability of amino acids in beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)].
  9. Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo. (2004, September.) Protein — Which is Best?
  10. Peter Clarys, Tom Deliens, Inge Huybrechts, Peter Deriemaeker, Barbara Vanaelst, Willem De Keyzer, Marcel Hebbelinck, and Patrick Mullie. (2014, March.) Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet