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19 Plant-Based Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians
Feb 11, 2021
Vegetarian Health Tips
Quick Health Scoop
Biologically, we need amino acids — not protein — and all plant proteins contain some amount of every essential amino acid.2, 3
Plant-based protein sources often offer many essential nutrients without the fats or cholesterol often found in animal-based products
Soybeans, quinoa, and spinach are all considered to be high-quality proteins1
One small banana combined with other plant-based proteins, like nut butters, offer a reliable and affordable source of protein for vegetarians and vegans alike10
One large or medium potato with the skin provides 7.5 g of protein34
The key to any healthy diet, plant-based or otherwise, is to consume a wide variety of foods, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fruits
You may have heard it’s hard for vegans and vegetarians to eat enough plant-based proteins. Many people think the best protein sources come from animal origin—making it difficult to find high protein vegan and vegetarian foods. But this isn’t true. Biologically, we need amino acids, not protein. That said, consuming protein is how we get these essential amino acids.1 There are many amino acids the body can make on its own, but there are nine “essential” ones we have to get from food, and all plant proteins contain some amount of every essential amino acid.2, 3
Thankfully, high protein vegan or vegetarian foods are deliciously easy to find. For example, cow’s milk, meat, and fish are all considered to be high quality protein.1 Meaning that they provide all nine essential amino acids in large amounts.1 But soybeans, quinoa, and spinach are all considered to be high quality proteins as well.1 Not to mention, plant-based protein sources often offer many other essential nutrients without the fats or cholesterol often found in animal-based products.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Whether you’re eating plant-based proteins or not, the daily protein recommendation is the same for every healthy person: 3-4 servings per day of high-protein foods.4 You can get a more specific amount, if you’re in the mood to do a little math. The general rule is to eat .4 grams of protein per one pound of body weight.2 So, let’s say you weigh 150 pounds. You’d need approximately 60 grams of protein per day. Here’s what the math looks like:
150 x .4 = 60g of protein / day
Luckily, there are plenty of plant-based protein foods to eat. So, you can pick and choose your favorites for a healthy and diverse diet!
Plant-Based Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians
If you’re looking to add more plant-based proteins into your life, here are 19 vegan- and vegetarian-friendly protein sources to get you started:
1. Artichokes & Asparagus
Believe it or not, vegetables can be a great protein sources for vegans and vegetarians—although some do offer more than others. For example, one artichoke contains 3.5 g of protein, and you can get a nice 2.2 g of protein from only ½ cup of asparagus.5, 6
That may not seem like a lot, but combined with some whole grains, beans, and other protein rich foods for vegetarians—you can build yourself a hearty meal still chalked full of plant proteins. Not to mention, these veggies offer a lot of other nutrients as well. One artichoke provides a decent amount of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Folate, Magnesium, Choline, and even Potassium.5 And asparagus is jam-packed with all kinds of essential vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Folate, some Omega-3 fatty acids, Choline, and sprinkled with a bit of fiber!6
2. Blackberries & Other Fruits
While fresh fruits tend to contain a lower protein content than vegetables, you can still squeeze a 4.2 g of protein per one cup of guava, blackberries bring 2 g of protein / cup, and even nectarines have a little bit of protein in them, coming in at about 1.5 g / cup.7, 8, 9 One small banana only offers 1.1 g of protein, but combine that with some other plant-based proteins, like nut butters (peanut butter banana smoothie, anyone?), and they offer a reliable and affordable source of this nutrient for vegetarians and vegans alike.10
3. Breads with Sprouted Grains
Breads are usually one of the first things to go when you sign up for a new diet, plant-based or otherwise. Breads are often lumped together as “simple carbs,” but this isn’t all true. Whole grain (and especially sprouted whole grain) breads are considered to be complex carbs and can offer up a variety of nutrients, including being a good source of protein.11,12
Studies show that sprouting grains and legumes increases amino acid content, which can help increase overall protein content too.13 Sprouting also increases the amount of nutrients found in bread and may even increase the bread’s soluble fiber content.14, 15
4. Broccoli And Brussels Sprouts
Asparagus and artichokes aren’t the only veggies that deserve their own spot on this list. Turns out quite a few vegetables offer protein as well, in addition to the asparagus and artichokes we already listed. One large stalk of broccoli (11–12” long) offers up a healthy chunk of protein coming in at 4 g / stalk.16
Brussels sprouts are small but mighty protein sources. Each little sprout serves up .5 g of protein, which can add up if you pile on these hearty veggies.17 Which you’ll want to do, because Brussels sprouts also contain Vitamin C, Vitamin K, fiber, and Omega-3 fatty acids.17
5. Chia Seeds
These tiny seeds pack a protein punch, offering a whopping 4.4 g protein in only 1 ounce. Soak them in water for a few minutes, and they make an easy base for veggie burgers, smoothies, and even puddings. Not to mention, chia seeds provide Omega-3 fatty acids, Calcium, and 1 ounce provides 10.g of dietary fiber.18
6. Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)
Roast ‘em, toast ‘em, mash ‘em—chickpeas are about as versatile of a bean as they come. These flavorful little guys are a delicious, protein-packed bean offering up 14.5 g / 1 cup.19 They’re also packed with all kinds of nutrients, such as Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper, plus dietary fiber and a range of the B Vitamins (1 cup of chickpeas provides 71% of the Daily Value for Folate).19
Beans in general are a great vegan or vegetarian source of protein. Whether it’s kidney, pinto, black, or most other varieties—they also offer up complex carbohydrates as well as many nutrients including Iron, Folate, Fiber, and Potassium.20,21
Speaking of beans, edamame deserves its own spot on the list here as well. This soybean seed pod tastes delicious when steamed or boiled and can be sprinkled with any range of seasonings including something as simple as little bit of salt or garlic. Just 1 cup of edamame provides 12.1 g of protein.22 Not to mention it’s rich in dietary fiber, Vitamin K, and Folate—while also containing a decent amount of Iron and Calcium.22
Hempseed may not be as famous as its chia or flaxseed cousins, but don’t let that fool you. Just 1 ounce of hempseed contains 9.2 g of protein—more than double what you’ll find in chia seeds. Hempseed also provides 77% of the Daily Value for Vitamin E, which is a critical shortfall nutrient missing from most American diets.23,24
9. Green Peas
Believe it or not, 1 cup of cooked or boiled green peas provides almost as much protein as 1 cup of low-fat milk.25 While many of us as kids likely tried to avoid eating vegetables like green peas, these little green guys have a lot more roles to play than simply that of a dismissed side dish. They offer a lot of healthy nutrients, including Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, and many B vitamins.25 You don’t have to eat them whole. Green peas are easily tucked into pesto raviolis or mashed into a guacamole mix for added protein.
Lentils may be one of the more common plant-based protein sources for vegans or vegetarians, but they’ve more than earned their way onto this list. Coming in at 17.9 g of protein per cup, lentils are a protein force to be reckoned with. That’s 36% of the Daily Value for protein, plus they’re a great source of Folate, Thiamin, Iron, Potassium, Choline, and dietary fiber. You even get some Omega-3 fatty acids in 1 cup of lentils, making it one well-rounded nutritional source for vegans and vegetarians.26
11. Nutritional Yeast
You wouldn’t think something like yeast would be a good source of protein, but nutritional yeast has a lot to offer, and you don’t even have to bake it to reap its benefits. With its almost cheese-like, umami flavor, nutritional yeast makes a savory addition to all kinds of foods like baked potatoes, scrambled tofu, pasta, popcorn, and even salad. Just 2 tablespoons provide 8 g of protein and 4 g of dietary fiber.27 Fortified nutritional yeast can offer even more nutrients like Zinc, Magnesium, and even most of the B vitamins—although fortification isn’t universal, so always check the nutritional facts to see which extra nutrients your nutritional yeast has to offer.27
12. Nuts, Nut Butters, & Seeds
We could break out each of these nuts and seeds into their own sections, because they’re great sources of protein, fiber, healthy fats, plus all kinds of nutrients such as Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, some B vitamins, and even Vitamin E.28, 29 Many nuts and seeds also contain antioxidants.30
Here are some links so you can see the protein quantities of some of your favorite seeds, nuts (or nut butters), and the nutrients they have to offer
Nuts and their butters do tend to be high in calories, so keep an eye on your portions. Look into how your nuts and their relative products are made too. Things like blanching and roasting can negatively impact the amount of nutrients found in nuts.31 It can help to get natural nut butters too, as some of the branded versions contain extra salts, oils, and even sugars.
13. Oats & Oatmilk
Oats are a beloved source of protein plus a host of other nutrients including Choline, Folate, Magnesium, Iron, and dietary fiber. Just one cup of these nutty flavored flakes offers a whopping 10.6 g of protein.32 Oats make for a great hot breakfast, but they can also be used in burgers and even ground into some flour for baking.
Oatmilk is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Not only does this plant-based milk taste delicious in everything from coffee to cereal, but it also packs a lot of other perks as well. Oatmilk typically has a few grams of fiber, is low in saturated fats, and is often enriched with Calcium (sometimes more Calcium than a cup of milk!).33 Just keep an eye on the amount of added sugars when choosing this milk alternative off the shelf.
Fun fact: Oatmilk can still be frothed for coffee! Talk about a delicious start to the day.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes are another pair of vegetables that deserve their own call-out when it comes to protein. Both of these potatoes (with the skin) provide all kinds of nutrients such as Vitamin C, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, and many of the B vitamins as well as almost 7 grams of fiber in one large potato.34,35
One large or medium potato with the skin provides 7.5 g of protein and 7 g of fiber.34 One large sweet potato with the skin serves up 3.6 g of protein and 6 g of fiber.35 One large sweet potato with the skin also offers 692% of the Daily Value for Vitamin A.35 All of which makes these deliciously starchy options worthy contenders in the plant-based protein source world.
Quinoa is a naturally gluten-free grain that’s also considered to be a “complete” source of protein, because it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own.36 That’s pretty rare for a grain, making quinoa even more special. 1 cup of quinoa contains 8.1 g of protein, plus 5.2 g of dietary fiber, and other nutrients such as Magnesium, Iron, and a few of the B vitamins.36 This versatile little grain can be cooked and served as a side dish, tossed in the oven with Brussels sprouts and onions, or even sprinkled into an arugula salad with a lemon and garlic dressing.
Soybeans are also considered a complete protein, meaning they provide the body with all nine essential amino acids. They’re also an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber.37 But this doesn’t mean you have to eat whole raw soybeans to get in your protein! This little seed comes in all kinds of delicious shapes, including:
Edamame (which we mentioned earlier)
Roasted soy nuts
How you prepare these is up to your taste. Tofu offers just under 20 g of protein in only ½ cup, takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, and is easily added to a variety of meals.38 Sauté some on the stovetop first (after pressing it between paper towels to get the water out), and then bake it in the oven it for a crispier texture—if you have an air fryer you probably already know almost everything tastes good after a few minutes in one of those! Tempeh has a nuttier flavor and holds its own when made with soups or even used as a burger patty substitute—only ½ cup of this meal alternative packs in 16 g of protein.39
Tofu and tempeh both also contain and excellent source of calcium as well as other nutrients such as Iron, B vitamins, and a vast amount of minerals.38,39 Tempeh also contains Magnesium, plus plenty of B vitamins and even some probiotics (because it’s made from fermented soybeans).38,39 Just 1 cup of soymilk serves up about 7 g of protein, making it an easy addition to your morning breakfast cereal, coffee, or tea.40
These blue green micro algae may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to a good source of nutrients, let alone protein—but spirulina checks off both of those boxes. Just two tablespoons of spirulina serve up 8 grams of complete protein.41 Not only that, but this blue-green algae brings with it an impressive amount of Thiamin, Riboflavin, Iron, and Copper, with a bit of Magnesium, Potassium, and even Omega-3 fatty acids on the side. All of which make spirulina a seriously nutritional source for anyone on a plant-based diet (and even those of us who aren’t).
This ancient grain is a type of wheat (and therefore does contain gluten). That said, spelt packs 10.7 g of protein in 1 cup and is also an excellent source of many nutrients including Iron, Magnesium, dietary fiber, and some B vitamins.42 Spelt is a great alternative to more common, less nutritious grains and can be used in lots of recipes from hearty risottos to baked goods like breads, biscuits, and brownies!
19. Sweet Corn
This looks like-a-vegetable-but-is-really-a-grain protein source, is worth a shout out because it provides 5.4 g of protein per 1 cup.43 This is music to our ears because sweet corn is also a delicious source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C, Choline, Folate, and even a bit of Magnesium.
There are plenty of vegan and veggie-friendly meals you can make with this delicious grain too. Try adding sweet corn to a salad for some extra protein, nutrients, and delicious textures, or enjoy it right off the cob. Plus, with plenty of vegan cornbread, cornbread muffin, cornbread casserole recipes online—you can take some comfort knowing this comfort food isn’t all bad, and in fact provides a lot of good!43
Protein comes in plants of all sizes
The key to any healthy diet, plant-based or otherwise, is to consume a wide variety of foods, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fruits. Luckily for the plant-based eater, all of those foods offer protein to some degree or another. So, if you’re looking to go plant-based, don’t let protein stand in your way.
Parameswaran KP, et al. Changes in the carbohydrates and nitrogenous components during germination of proso millet, Panicum miliaceum. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1994; 45(2): 97–102. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8153070/
Corrie became a nutritional nerd the second she learned about trans fats in college. Ever since then, she’s been trying to figure out easy life hacks for staying healthy without making her entire world about workouts and kale. She’s dedicated the last few years of her career to writing fun, educational content to help make good nutrition a little less boring and a little more accessible to non-scientists like herself. When she’s not scrolling through new research on gut health, you can find her playing Magic the Gathering or tending to her many (somehow still living) plants.
Melissa is a registered dietitian (RD) and works in our Medical and Scientific Communications department as a Science and Health Educator. She has worked for Pharmavite for over 20 years educating consumers, healthcare practitioners, retailers and employees about nutrition, dietary supplements and overall wellness. Prior to joining the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Melissa launched and managed Pharmavite’s Consumer Relations department. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, and completed her dietetic internship at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in East Orange New Jersey.
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