Best Plant-Based Protein Sources

A common concern many people have when switching from animal protein to a plant-based diet is how they will get an adequate amount of protein to maintain their body’s health and functioning. This is especially true for athletes and exercise enthusiasts, who need a far more significant protein requirement to sustain their activity. And while research has found that those following a plant-based diet are able to get the protein they need from non-animal sources, doing so requires more planning and preparation on their part. Fortunately, many plant based foods are high in protein and make great options for a vegan diet or vegetarian lifestyle. Check out the guide below to learn more about what plants have protein and our favorite protein-packed plants and their health benefits. 

 Understanding Protein 

Protein is one of the essential macronutrients needed by the body to maintain optimal health and functionality. As a primary component of nearly every cell in your body, protein is important to your body as it helps to build muscle, repair tissues, and produce critical biochemicals used throughout the body like enzymes and hormones. While other macronutrients, like carbohydrates and fat, have reserves stored in the body, protein does not in quite the same way. This means that you must regularly consume protein via the foods you eat to supply your body with the proper protein intake it needs. 

However, consuming protein alone is not enough! You must also ensure that you supply your body with adequate levels of the nine essential amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body itself but play many critical roles in the body, including protein synthesis and processing. Proteins from animal sources naturally supply the body with what is commonly referred to as the nine essential amino acids, at optimal levels. The term “complete protein” is often used to describe this type of protein.

However, for the vast majority of plant-based proteins, while they contain ALL of the amino acids, some of them are at low levels.  These are sometimes referred to as “incomplete” proteins. In a way, the terms “complete or incomplete protein” are a little inaccurate, since all the amino acids are present, it is just the levels and amounts that vary.  But certainly herbivores might need to be more conscious of the foods they are eating regularly and switch up their protein sources to ensure balanced supply of all the amino acids. 

How much Protein is Needed? 

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the average adult should consume approximately 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight, or 0.35 grams per pound. For example, an individual weighing 153 pounds would need to consume at least 53.5 grams of protein per day. However, this is just a minimum recommendation. Other lifestyle factors should be considered, such as activity level, health goals like weight loss or muscle gain, whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding, and other medical conditions in order to modify one’s protein needs. 

Make it meatless, not rubbery!

Best Plant-Based Protein Sources 

Armed with an understanding of what protein is, why it’s necessary for your health, and how much you need to consume each day, we can now discuss the best plant-based protein sources for you to incorporate into your plant-based diet. However, it is also essential to look beyond their protein content and consider other health benefits as well. These factors should include their content of amino acids, other macronutrients they provide, and the presence of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Below we’re breaking down everything you need to know about some of the best high protein plant based meals

Soy 

Soybeans are probably the most widely recognized plant-based source of protein. For years, this plant has been used as a meat alternative for those seeking plant-based options. It is commonly found and utilized in one of three forms: tofu, tempeh, and edamame. In addition to protein, all three forms of soy contain significant amounts of iron and calcium, providing added nutrition and health benefits. While soy is among the richest plant-based proteins, the way it is prepared impacts its protein content. So, let’s break each of these down further. 

  • Tofu: This popular meat substitute is made from pressing bean curds together, similar to the process of making cheese. Beyond replacing meat, tofu can also be used as the base of creamy desserts like chocolate mousse and some puddings, making it a versatile choice for many plant-based eaters. A 3.5 ounce serving of tofu contains about 10 grams of protein, though you will want to look for non-GMO and organic options to get the most bang for your buck. 
  • Tempeh: Alternatively, tempeh is made from soybeans that are fermented and then pressed into blocks. As a result of this process, tempeh is more compact and therefore even higher in protein than tofu containing about 15 to 16 grams per 3.5 ounces. Tempeh is also a great source of B vitamins, and minerals, including magnesium and phosphorus. As a fermented food it is good for your microbiome too! However, tempeh is firmer and chewier with a distinct nutty flavor. 
  • Edamame: These immature soybeans are the least processed option and must simply be boiled or steamed before eating, after which they can be added to other recipes or eaten on their own. Due to their more natural state, this is the most nutrient-dense soybean option, packing in 18 grams of protein per cup of shelled edamame. Plus, edamame is rich in fiber, vitamin K, and folate. 

 Beans

Most varieties of beans, including black, pinto, chickpeas, and kidney beans, are great sources of protein too. These legumes are excellent sources of fiber, iron, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, complex carbohydrates, and other plant compounds that can be beneficial to your health. In addition to being a tasty addition to various dishes (like chili, stews, and pasta), research has shown that a diet rich in beans and legume may help decrease cholesterol, reduce belly fat, and lower blood pressure. While most beans contain all of the nine essential amino acids, they are a little lower than optimal on methionine. 

While beans are a great choice to include in your diet, when you eat a portion of beans or lentils, you might not be eating as much protein as you think you are due to the large amount you would need to consume. A cup of cooked beans is going to contain around 15 grams of protein, which sounds good in terms of protein, but that is an awful lot of beans to eat in one meal! Most people would probably eat around half of that in a meal and be full. That’s where Meatless Farm comes in. Our products include a variety of plant-based proteins, making it easy to reach your daily protein goal. 

 Peas 

Most people think of green peas as a simple side dish, but the truth is these little vegetables are protein-packed bites with about nine grams per cooked cup, just slightly more than a cup of milk! Plus, peas can provide around 25% of your daily requirements for fiber, thiamine, folate, manganese, and vitamins A, C, and K while also being a good source of zinc, copper, several B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus. That’s a lot of nutrition for one little veggie! And while peas do contain all nine amino acids, it is (like beans) too low in methionine and cysteine to be considered a “complete” protein. As a result, pea protein is commonly paired with rice protein, which is high in methionine and cysteine, to create a more balanced plant-based protein source. 

Lentils 

Regardless of their color, lentils are an excellent source of protein as they contain about 18 grams per cooked cup! But again, that is a very large amount of lentils to eat for a single potion.  They are also rich in iron, folate, and manganese while offering a good amount of antioxidants and other helpful plant compounds. However, the most significant benefit of lentils outside of their protein content is the fiber they provide. A slowly digested carbohydrate, lentils contain about 50% of your daily fiber intake per cup! Plus, they have been linked to promoting healthy gut bacteria, reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering body weight, and minimizing the risk of developing diabetes. 

While these four plant-based protein sources are not the only options available, they are some of our favorites due to their broader nutritional content! Incorporating all of these protein sources into your diet regularly will ensure that you are getting well-rounded nutrition and many health benefits. 

Meatless Farm Plant-Based Proteins

At Meatless Farm, our products utilize a mixture of pea and rice protein to create a complete and balanced source of nutrition for our customers. In addition to these proteins, we are proud to say our products contain a variety of other vegetables and plant-based foods, including coconut oil, shea oil, inulin, carrot fiber, caramelized carrot concentrate, fruit and vegetable extracts (such as beetroot, radish, and tomato), and plenty of vitamins and minerals. All of these ingredients were thoughtfully selected to create the most nutritious and delicious product imaginable – you won’t even miss the meat!

Ready to make the switch to a more plant-based lifestyle? Check out our helpful resources on how to start a plant based diet and the environmental impact of meat production.

About the Author

Angela Walker is a BANT and CNHC registered nutritional therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience, including 8 years with the award-winning, Optimum Health Clinic. Angela is a Nutrition Consultant for Meatless Farm, where she develops nutrition research and communicates the personal health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Angela is also a nutritionist and performance coach of Food for Thought, a program designed to change the way people think about food, diet and nutrition, based on the principles and practices of personalized nutrition and functional medicine. Angela is a published author of many well-known articles including ‘Case Studies in Personalized Nutrition’, a core text at many of the training providers for nutritional therapy and personalized nutrition in the UK and US.