Vegan Protein: Plant Based Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians

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Vegan Protein: Plant Based Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians
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Vegan protein in a healthy diet should include all the essential amino acids to be truly nutritious. One of the challenges of finding good plant-based protein is that it doesn’t always contain all the nine essential amino acids that your body needs. Complete protein foods need to have the nine essential amino acids required for energy, a strong immune system, and healthy skin.

Finding vegan protein sources that are complete protein foods is not just for vegans and vegetarians. Many people are reducing the amount of animal-based protein in their diet. Combining many vegetarian protein sources is one of the best ways to ensure you get enough protein in a meat-free diet.

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In this article, you will learn about some of the best plant-based protein sources. Many of these high protein vegan foods contain all of the amino acids your body needs for healthy metabolism.

Why We Need Protein

Protein is a nutrient that is essential for the healthy development and growth of every person.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that protein is made up of smaller particles called amino acids. There are in total 20 different amino acids that you need from your diet to enjoy good health. (1)

Essential Amino Acids vs. Nonessential Amino Acids

Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health say that amino acids can be broken into 2 categories – essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids. (2)

Essential amino acids are the type that your body can’t produce by itself and need to be obtained through dietary sources.

The challenge for vegan and vegetarians looking for plant-based protein is that few plants have high enough levels of all the 9 essential amino acids.

The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine reports that protein from vegan sources usually lacks at least one of the essential amino acids. However, the researchers point out that “with a proper combination of sources, vegetable proteins may provide similar benefits as protein from animal sources.” (3)

Therefore, it is necessary to consume a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables to ensure that you get all 9 of the essential amino acids.

The nine essential amino acids are: (2)

  • leucine
  • lysine
  • histidine
  • methionine
  • phenylalanine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • isoleucine
  • valine

Plant-Based Protein vs. Animal-Based Protein

The FDA says that a healthy diet should contain 50 g of protein per day. However, it is good to remember that not all dietary proteins are the same. (1)

The difference between animal protein sources and vegetarian protein sources is that animal proteins are complete proteins. That means that dairy products, meat, poultry, and seafood contain all the essential amino acids your body requires.

However, the journal Advances in Nutrition explains that animal-based protein sources often contain saturated fats that can negatively impact your health. Therefore, scientists recommend that people who enjoy meat consume less meat and increase plant-based protein sources that are low in fat. (4)

In order to ensure that vegans and vegetarians consume enough high-quality plant protein, the FDA recommends combining vegan proteins.

For example, eating a meal containing brown rice (low in lysine but high in methionine) and beans (low in methionine and high in lysine) will make up the amino acid profile to create a complete protein food. (1)

You don’t even have to eat the complementary proteins at the same meal. The most important thing is to eat a combination of protein-rich plant foods throughout the day to satisfy your protein needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Vegan Protein: The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources

Let’s look in more detail at some of the best vegan protein sources you can add to your diet.

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Some of these plant-based sources of protein are complete protein foods, whereas some lack one or 2 essential amino acids and should be consumed with other vegetarian proteins.

Spirulina is a Great Non-Meat Protein Source

Spirulina is a type of algae that is one of the best vegan protein sources you can consume.

One tablespoon (7g) of spirulina contains 4 grams of protein. (5)

Researchers have also found that spirulina contains all of the 9 essential amino acids in good concentrations. (6) Spirulina contains high amounts of leucine, lysine, isoleucine, and valine.

Spirulina is a good protein source in a vegan diet because it also contains iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin A. Spirulina is also a good source of antioxidants to help bolster your body’s defenses. (7)

Spirulina is also a good supplement for the menopause.

Soy Products are Vegan Protein Source

Foods made from soy products are popular with vegetarians and vegans because they contain all the essential amino acids.

Researchers say that soy vegan protein is fat-free and is also a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, and B-group vitamins. (8)

However, some evidence points to the fact that the estrogen-like effect of soy may not make it suitable to consume in large quantities. You can find extensive information about this subject in my article “Soy or Soy Milk: Is it Really Bad or Good for You (Science Based)“.

After learning about the pros and cons of soy in the aforementioned article, you might decide to increase the amount of soy in your diet, or you may feel that the potential risks of increasing soy-based food outweigh the possible health benefits.

In any case, if you decide to eat more soy, how much soy is safe to eat a day? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not to consume more than 25 g of soy protein daily. (60)

The journal Nutrients says that vegans can get plenty of high-quality protein from soy foods as they have a good amino acid profile. (9)

Let’s look at some of the best soy-based protein sources you can use as part of a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Tofu vegan protein

Tofu is a popular plant-based protein choice because of its versatility and the fact that it is protein packed.

100 g of tofu contains just over 8 grams of protein and contains essential amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine. (10)

Tofu is often fortified with calcium to give it a mineral profile similar to dairy products. (11)

Edamame protein for vegans

Edamame is becoming a popular plant-based source of protein because it also contains fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin C.

Edamame is immature soybeans that are soft and edible and still in their green pods. Edamame is packed full of soy-based protein and is a great non-meat protein source for vegans and vegetarians.

One cup of edamame contains a massive 18 grams of protein and is particularly high in lysine, leucine, and threonine. (12)

Edamame seeds can be boiled, steamed, or seared in a pan. You can also eat edamame seeds raw as a snack or part of a vegetarian, protein-rich salad.

Tempeh plant-based protein

Tempeh is a great choice for a complete protein food because of its high protein content and good amino acid profile.

Tempeh is a fermented soy product that is naturally high in fiber. Because tempeh is a fermented product, it can help to improve your digestion because it helps increase the number of healthy bacteria in your gut.

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100 g of tempeh contains nearly 20 grams of protein and contains good amounts of essential amino acids such as leucine, threonine, and valine. (13)

Some studies show that tempeh helps to improve bowel health, increase bone mineral density in the menopause, and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. (14)

Soy milk

Soy milk is a good alternative to cow’s milk and is a versatile source of plant protein. The best kind of soy milk to buy is the type that is fortified with calcium as then the protein and mineral content is similar to dairy milk.

One glass of soy milk contains 7 grams of protein which is just about the same as dairy milk. (15, 16)

Soy milk is a good dairy alternative if you are lactose-intolerant or want to cut back on the amount of saturated fat you consume in your diet.

Lentils are Good Non-Meat Protein Sources

One of the most versatile sources of plant proteins are lentils. Lentils contain easily digestible protein as well as a lot of fiber, iron, and vitamins.

A cup of lentils contains nearly 18 grams of plant-based protein. (17) Researchers say that lentils are a rich source of essential and nonessential amino acids. (18)

To turn lentils into a complete protein food with adequate amounts of all the amino acids, researchers suggest combining lentils with a grain. You can also enhance the vitamin content of your meal by adding fresh vegetables. (19)

Chickpeas for Good Vegan Protein

Chickpeas are a protein-rich food for vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike.

Chickpeas are often consumed as hummus. Researchers say that the combination of chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, and lemon juice means that hummus is a healthy nutrient-dense food. Chickpea hummus contains fiber, vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and iron.

One cup of cooked chickpeas contains 14.5 grams of protein and varying amounts of all the nine essential amino acids. (20)

Research by scientists has found that chickpeas contain significant amounts of all the essential amino acids except sulphur-containing amino acids, which can be complemented by adding cereals to the daily diet. (21)

Consuming more chickpeas can help to resolve digestive issues, manage diabetes symptoms, and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Black Beans are High Protein Vegan Foods

Many types of beans, including black beans, are a great choice for vegans looking for plant-based protein sources.

100 grams of black beans contains nearly 9 grams of protein. (22)

Researchers say that the main essential amino acids in beans are lysine, tyrosine, and phenylalanine. 100 g of dry beans can contain up to 20% of the recommended daily intake of protein. (23)

Beans are also an extremely versatile plant protein as they can be added to many vegetarian and meat-based dishes to increase the amount of healthy protein.

Green Peas Contain Vegetarian Protein

Green peas are a great addition to any type of meal to provide protein, fiber, and vitamins.

Green peas are usually served as a side dish, and one cup of green peas (160 g) contains 8.5 grams of healthy plant protein. (24)

Green peas are good sources of lysine, leucine, phenylalanine, and threonine.

Protein-Rich Vegetables for Vegan Diet

Many vegetables contain high amounts of protein and should form the basis of a vegan or vegetarian diet.

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Jerusalem artichokes contain high amounts of protein and good proportions of the essential amino acids. (25)

Spinach is a good vegetable to increase the protein content of a vegan or vegetarian dish. A bunch of spinach leaves (340 g) contains just under 10 grams of protein. A cup of cooked spinach contains good amounts of leucine, thyronine, and phenylalanine. (26)

Broccoli is a popular high protein vegetable choice because it also contains powerful antioxidants and vitamins. One cup of chopped, cooked broccoli has just under 2 grams of protein and ranks high on the amino acid score as a complete protein food. (27)

Sweet potato can make a delicious protein-rich addition to any meal and will also give you plenty of vitamins and minerals. A cup of cooked mashed sweet potato contains 5.5 grams of protein. (28)

When consuming sweet potato, it is good to combine it with a protein source rich in lysine as this amino acid in sweet potato is destroyed by heat. (29)

Kale is rightly classed as a superfood because of its great nutritional profile. Researchers have found that kale retains most of its essential amino acids even after processing. (30)

Avocados are a Complete Protein Source

Avocados and avocado dips such as guacamole are good protein choices for vegans and vegetarians.

One avocado contains just over 4 grams of protein as well as healthy fats that have antioxidant properties. (31)

Some of the nonessential amino acids in avocado have also been linked to cancer prevention. (32)

Sun-Dried Tomatoes are Tasty Protein Source for Vegetarians

Another good source of non-meat protein for vegetarians and vegans is sun-dried tomatoes.

Adding sun-dried tomatoes to a vegan or vegetarian dish is not only a delicious accompaniment, but it also increases the vegan protein content of the meal. For example, 6 sun-dried tomatoes contain nearly a gram of plant-based protein. (33)

Researchers also say that the tomato peels are a rich source of essential amino acids. (34)

Brown Rice or Wild Rice are Plant-Based Protein Sources

Brown rice is a great choice to help consume complete protein foods as its amino acid profile complements that of many beans and legumes.

Brown rice is much healthier for you than white rice because it retains many of its nutrients and amino acids. One cup of cooked brown rice contains 4.5 grams of protein. (35)

Spelt is Vegan Protein

Spelt is an ancient wheat grain that is a great source of amino acids to improve the diet of vegans and vegetarians.

One cup of cooked spelt contains a massive 10 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. Spelt is one of the best grain-sources of protein that you can add to your diet. (36)

One of the reasons for using spelt in place of other grains in your diet is that the high amount of dietary fiber helps control blood glucose levels and control insulin sensitivity. (37)

Also, research has shown that bread made from spelt flower contains more protein and amino acids than wheat flour bread. (38)

Quinoa is a Complete Protein Source for Vegans

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a high protein vegan food that is also gluten-free and contains all of the nine essential amino acids.

Quinoa is a superfood that is becoming a popular plant-based protein choice. One cup of cooked quinoa has just over 8 grams of great protein for vegans. (39)

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However, some varieties of quinoa are packed with even more protein (13 g of protein in 100 g). This is nearly 7 grams more protein than rice. Quinoa contains high amounts of the amino acid leucine and is classed as a complete protein. (40)

Oats are a Non-Meat Protein Source

Starting your day with a bowl of oatmeal is a great way to get plenty of protein that keeps you feeling full until lunchtime.

For example, a 40-gram serving of quick cook rolled oats will give you 5 grams of protein. (41)

Oats are very good sources of lysine, leucine, isoleucine, and threonine.

Hempseeds are a High-Protein Vegan Food

Hempseeds are an extremely rich source of protein containing all of the essential amino acids.

Hempseeds are not to be confused with marijuana as they contain very low amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC. However, when it comes to protein content, hempseeds certainly pack a punch.

One tablespoon (30 g) of hempseeds contains 10 grams of protein which is 20% of your recommended daily intake. (42)

Chia Seeds are a Protein Rich Food

Chia seeds are another great source of vegan protein on a vegetarian diet because they are rich in essential and non essential amino acids.

Chia seeds are classed as high-quality plant protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs. A 1-oz. serving (28 g) of chia seeds contains just over 4.5 grams of protein. (43)

You can easily add chia seeds to your healthy yogurts, smoothies, or sprinkle over a salad. In fact, studies have shown that consuming 7 grams of chia seeds in yogurt in the morning increases satiety and can help tackle obesity problems. (44)

Flaxseeds for Protein

Adding flaxseeds is another way to get vegetarian protein in your diet without compromising on other nutrients.

One tablespoon of flaxseeds gives you nearly 2 grams of protein as well as plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. (45)

Researchers have found that flaxseeds have many health benefits and are also a very versatile protein source. (46)

Pumpkin Seeds are a High-Protein Food

Another protein-rich food for vegetarians and vegans is pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin seeds contain good amounts of healthy fatty acids that have antioxidant properties. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of protein if you don’t eat meat. For example, a 1-oz. serving (28 g) of pumpkin seeds packs in 5 grams of protein. (47)

Pumpkin seeds also contain varying amounts of all of the essential amino acids with leucine and lysine being the highest.

Nuts are Good Protein for Vegetarians

Most nuts are high in protein and can be a great, protein-rich snack if you are on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Almonds are a high-protein source because one ounce (28 g) contains 6 grams of protein. (48)

Walnuts contain less protein than almonds, but still pack a lot of protein because 14 walnut halves contain just over 4 grams of protein. (49)

Cashews are a protein-packed nut with just over 5 grams of protein in a 1-oz. serving (28 g). (50)

Peanuts and Peanut Butter Help Give Vegans Protein

If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can include peanuts in your diet as they are a high-protein food.

Peanuts contain more protein than most other nuts and legumes because a relatively small 28 g serving (1 ounce) contains over 7 grams of protein! (51)

Peanut butter also contains easily digestible vegan protein with a 1-tablespoon serving containing 3.5 grams of protein. (52)

Research into the protein content of peanuts has shown that they help add healthy protein to the diet. Peanuts also contain all of the 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids. (53)

You can spread peanut butter on wholemeal bread. This way you get a complete protein food by combining legumes and whole grains.

Seitan is a Whole Source of Protein

Seitan is produced from wheat gluten that is high in protein and amino acids and low in carbs.

Many vegans and vegetarians choose seitan products because the texture resembles that of meat. When it comes to adding protein to a vegan diet, seitan is a great choice.

100 g of seitan contains 22 grams of protein which is almost half of your daily protein needs. (54)

Because seitan contains low amounts of lysine, it is good to add a bean dish to the meal to make seitan a complete protein food.

Amaranth is a Complete Protein Source for Vegans

Amaranth is a great source of protein and it has the benefits that it is also completely gluten-free.

Amaranth is a seed that is used as a grain in cooking. This tiny protein-rich grain can be used to thicken soups and stews or boiled along with rice to improve its protein content.

A cup of cooked amaranth contains just over 9 grams of protein and also has calcium, iron, magnesium, and other minerals. (55)

Teff is Protein-Packed

Teff is a type of grain that is gluten free and is a rich source of protein for a vegan or vegetarian diet.

100 grams of teff contains 14 grams of protein. (56)

Researchers say that teff grain is good for people with celiac disease and has high levels of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine. Teff is also a good source of iron and calcium. (57)

Sprouted Whole Grain Bread Has Lots of Protein

Ezekiel bread is bread that is made from sprouted grains such as wheat, barley, and spelt. You can also make sprouted grain bread from soybeans and lentils.

The benefits of switching to sprouted whole grain bread on a vegan or vegetarian diet are that it contains high amounts of protein.

Two slices of sprouted grain bread contain 20% of your recommended protein intake, or, 10 grams of protein. (58)

Nutritional Yeast is a Rich Plant Protein Source

Another great source of protein that contains all the amino acids is nutritional yeast.

Nutritional yeast is created from a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and looks like yellow flakes or powder.

Nutritional yeast and nutritional yeast products are popular with vegans and vegetarians as it is high in protein and fiber. One cup of nutritional yeast flakes contains 8 grams of protein. (59)

Nutritional yeast is usually the main component in vegan cheese and you can use it to add flavor to mashed potatoes or vegetarian pasta dishes.

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