There are many benefits to choosing a plant-based diet, but it can take a little more planning than an omnivorous (plant + animal) diet to make sure you’re getting the full range of essential nutrients.
Protein is often a question mark for those new to plant-based eating. Even if you’ve been going plant-based for a while, you might not be sure how much protein you’re actually getting.
Most people associate this macronutrient with meat, or at least with other animal-based products. But the plant kingdom is also full of protein, although it’s usually a different type than what’s found in meat.
Here’s a brief guide to the plant-based protein world, plus a look at the best plant based proteins out there.
Protein Misconceptions + Meat Protein vs. Plant Protein
One of the biggest misconceptions about choosing a plant-based diet is the belief that non-meat eaters will struggle to consume enough protein.
Much of this is due to the fact that western meals have been centered around a meat protein for many years. Beef, chicken, pork, etc. have been the stars of the show with the rest of the meal being built around them.
Marketing has also played a role in this misconception. Meat products are advertised as being high in protein (which is true) and therefore superior in that respect to plant food.
In fact, the “protein equals meat” myth is so prevalent that one of the most frequent questions vegans and vegetarians get is: “How do you get enough protein?”
The truth of the matter is: There are many excellent sources of plant-based protein.
Research has shown again and again that a meat-free diet can be well-balanced and nutritionally adequate- and lack of protein is rarely a complication. (Other nutrients, like vitamin B-12, can be more of a challenge for certain plant-based eaters.)
That being said, there is a difference between plant protein and animal protein that’s worth going into before moving on to the best plant based proteins list.
Complete vs. Incomplete Protein
We often think of protein as a single thing: a macronutrient needed for building muscle, metabolism, etc.
However, protein can be broken down into building blocks known as amino acids. There are 20 total amino acids needed by the human body, but only 9 of them are considered ‘essential’ because your body can’t manufacture them. You must get these 9 through your diet.
When you eat a food with protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids and uses each one according to its function.
This is where the biggest difference between animal protein and plant protein comes in.
Most animal sources of protein, including meat, are considered ‘complete proteins’ because they contain all nine essential amino acids. It’s much more rare (though possible) to find a plant protein that is complete. Most contain a few different amino acids but not all nine.
So what does that mean for plant eaters?
The biggest takeaway is that you should eat a variety of protein options to make sure your body is getting all nine essential amino acids. You can get technical with it and learn which plant foods contain which amino acids, but the biggest key is diversity in your food choices.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
One last question to address before unveiling the best plant based proteins: What is the recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein?
The answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as it is for vitamin and mineral RDIs. Protein recommendations are based on weight, rather than one standard amount for adults.
The standard minimum protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound). For reference, this means at least 54 grams of protein daily for a 150 lb. person.
Just keep in mind that these guidelines are based on lowest amount needed to maintain health. If you exercise often, for example, you’ll need more protein than the minimum RDI.
Best Plant Based Proteins for a Healthy Diet
Soybeans & Soy Products
Soy-based products are one of the top plant sources for protein.
To start with, soybeans are a complete protein source, which means they contain all nine essential amino acids. They are also at the top for amount of protein, ranging from 8-15 grams per 1/2 cup serving for different types of soy.
Tofu, tempeh, and natto win for the highest proteins choices at 10 grams for tofu and 15 grams for tempeh and natto. Edamame (green, immature soybeans) aren’t far behind with 8.5 grams per 1/2 cup.
Soy products also contain good amounts of iron and calcium. Fermented choices, like tempeh and natto, contain gut-boosting probiotics as well.
One important thing to keep in mind with soy is that soybeans are one of the top GMO crops in the world. Be sure you buy certified non-GMO soy products (and, like all the choices below, certified organic is ideal, too!)
(Regarding other controversies with soy, if you are interested, see this soy blog post over at The Food Revolution Network.)
Lentils are a great source of healthy carbohydrates and also contain a really good amount of protein. They pack in about 9 grams per 1/2 cup serving (cooked).
Like soy, lentils are also rich in iron along with folate, potassium, and manganese. They contain a gut-friendly form of fiber, too, which will get you about 50% the RDI of fiber in one cup (cooked).
On top of this, lentils contain antioxidants that promote overall vitality.
Hemp seeds could well be considered a superfood and are one of the best plant based proteins on the planet.
Not only are they a complete protein with all of the essential amino acids, they also contain just under 10 grams of protein in only three tablespoons.
Even better, the protein in hemp seeds is easily digestible. potentially more so than other common plant protein sources. This means your body can easily access and breakdown the amino acids for efficient use.
On top of that, hemp is an incredibly sustainable crop. It thrives even with little water, doesn’t take up much space, and needs no pesticides. What more could you ask for from an edible plant?
Beans (Including Chickpeas)
Most types of beans are very high in protein. Black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) all contain around 7.5 grams per 1/2 cup serving (cooked).
Though no bean is a complete protein source, black beans are rich in lysine, which is an amino acid commonly missing in a vegan diet.
Beans also contain great amounts of fiber, healthy carbs, iron, folate, potassium, phosphorus, and more. Unfortunately, beans have fallen a bit out of favor because of concerns over the presence of lectins that may cause indigestion.
A closer look at the facts reveals that lectins are not exclusive to beans (they are present in nearly all plants) and are found in the highest amounts in raw legumes (including beans).
Cooking, soaking, and sprouting beans all drastically decrease and often completely eliminate lectin content.
(By the way, research also show that lectins can have positive properties, including antioxidant activity.)
Green peas are often thought of as merely a starchy vegetable, but they also happen to be one of the best plant based proteins. At 4.5 grams per 1/2 cup (cooked), peas aren’t as high in protein as some other plant foods, but they still beat out milk when compared side by side.
Eating a cup of green peas can also get you about 25% of the daily RDI for fiber. They are especially high in vitamins A, C, and K as well as minerals like manganese, magnesium, and iron.
Nuts and Seeds
Many types of nuts and seeds are high in protein. They also frequently contain good amounts of vitamin E, essential minerals, and antioxidants.
Almonds are on top in the nuts category with 14-16 grams per 1/2 cup serving. Pistachios aren’t far behind with about 12.5 grams of protein per 1/2 cup. Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashews are also decent options.
Pumpkin seeds are one of the best choices in the seeds category. They have about 6 grams of protein per 1/2 cup and contain all the essential amino acids along with a good amount of magnesium and zinc.
Peanuts (and Peanut Butter)
Though often called a nut, peanuts are technically legumes. Whatever you call them, a 1/2 cup serving of peanuts can give you about 10 grams of protein. For peanut butter fans, two tablespoons has about 7 grams of protein.
One downside to peanuts is that they are one of the most common foods to trigger an allergic reaction. (One possible reason for this is the pesticides that regularly get sprayed on peanut crops.)
However, if you aren’t allergic to peanuts, they can be an excellent plant-based protein source, though here it is especially important to choose organic.
Nutritional yeast is a favorite of those following a vegan diet because of its cheesy flavor. True to its name, this popular seasoning is packed full of nutrients and contains about 8 grams of protein in just 1/4 cup.
Fortified nutritional yeast also contains vitamin B-12, a nutrient sometimes lacking in certain plant-based diets. And you may be surprised to learn that the same 1/4 cup serving has around 4 grams of fiber as well.
Like hemp seeds, chia seeds may be small, but they are still one of the best plant based proteins. They contain a complete protein source and check in at around 2 grams per tablespoon.
You’ll also get a good boost of omega-3s, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants from eating chia. The seeds are very easy to sprinkle on food, or you can use them to make a vegan pudding.
Oats are mostly thought of as a high fiber, high carbohydrate food, but they are also a surprisingly good source of protein. A 1/2 cup serving of oats (dry) provides about 6 grams of protein.
Though they aren’t a complete protein, oats are considered a higher quality plant protein than other grains due to their composition and the inclusion of the amino acid lysine.
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that’s something of a superfood in its own right. Just two tablespoons of powdered spirulina contains about 8 grams of protein along with several essential minerals, including iron.
There are also many more documented benefits of spirulina. It contains a powerful antioxidant called phycocyanin that may have anti-cancer properties. It can also help your body detox, especially from heavy metals, and may boost immune function as well.
Whole grains, including wheat, are frequently good sources of protein. To give you an idea, a slice of standard whole grain bread contains around 5-6 grams of protein, plus a healthy amount of fiber.
Grains are rarely complete proteins, but there is some evidence that sprouting grains can increase their amino acid content, particularly lysine. Sprouting also has the added bonus of improving digestibility. Pairing grains with legumes (like peanuts) is a good way to round out their amino acid profile.
If you are allergic or sensitive to gluten, you’ll be happy to know that gluten-free grains are some of the best plant based proteins, too.
Amaranth and quinoa, two ancient grains, both have around 4-4.5 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving (cooked). Buckwheat (which is actually wheat- and gluten-free) and millet have around 3 grams per 1/2 cup. Teff, a little known gluten-free grain, is even higher with 5.5 grams per 1/2 cup (cooked).
Rice (Especially Wild Rice)
Standard white and brown rice varieties have moderate amounts of protein, but wild rice is by far the best choice as far as protein is concerned. A 1/2 cup serving of wild rice has around 3.5 grams as well as a good amount of fiber.
One very valid concern with consuming rice regularly is arsenic content. Rice crops take up more arsenic than other food crops, in part because they are grown in (sometimes contaminated) water.
Washing rice before cooking and using large amounts of cooking water has been found to significantly cut arsenic content.
(Here is a worthwhile video to watch on “Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic” for more info on this topic.)
Often thought of as a vegetable, corn is a grain with a fairly decent amount of protein: about 2.7 grams per 1/2 cup (cooked).
Sweet corn has been very controversial as a “healthy” food because of its high starch content (and of course, the corn syrup controversy). However, it is a gluten-free grain with good amounts of fiber and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.
The biggest problem with corn is that upwards of 90% of corn crops grown in the U.S. are GMO. It’s therefore very important to buy non-GMO and preferably organic corn to avoid the dangers of pesticides and genetic modification.
Certain Fruits and Veggies
Protein is actually present in all fruits and vegetables but usually in small amounts. However, if you’re consuming lots of produce regularly, those amounts can add up.
Vegetables are more likely to be higher in protein than fruits. A few options with about 2-2.5 grams of protein per 1/2 cup include potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, artichokes, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.
Fruits with 1-2 grams of protein per 1/2 cup include bananas, blackberries, nectarines, guava, and mulberries.
Getting Your Fill of Plant Based Proteins
As you can see from this list of best plant based proteins, there’s no shortage of this essential nutrient in the plant world. You can easily get enough without consuming any meat or animal products at all, if you choose.
It is a good idea to eat a variety of plant proteins so that you’re getting a wide range of different nutrients.
And while it is particularly important to choose USDA Certified Organic versions of certain of these plant-based proteins, such as soy, in general if you are able, choosing organic on all of these is best.
Next Up: Benefits of Vitamin B-12 & The BEST Plant-Based Sources
Getting enough vitamin B-12 is crucial to your health and longevity for many reasons.
Unfortunately, the number of people with borderline low to deficient levels of B-12 is surprisingly high.
And many people who eat a largely or entirely plant-based diet are often particularly concerned about B-12.
Therefore, next up, be sure to click here to see the article, Crucial Benefits of Vitamin B-12 and the Best Plant-Based Sources.