The Best Foods for Plant-Based Protein
"Where do you get your protein?" is one of the common questions asked when someone says they're going vegetarian, vegan, or just trying to cut down on meat in their diet. But there's no need to worry, since plenty of plants are naturally high in protein. Everything from pantry staples like legumes and nuts to health food favorites like tofu and nutritional yeast pack in the protein. Learn the top 10 meat-free sources of protein and how to start cooking with them.
Seitan is a popular ingredient among vegetarians and vegans because of its meat-like appearance and texture. Made from wheat gluten (the protein from wheat flour), seitan contains 25 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces, making it the highest source of plant-based protein on this list and comparable to ground beef which is 26 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces.
You can make your own seitan from store bought vital wheat gluten — which is found in the baking section of some health food stores — or it can be purchased pre-made in the refrigerated section of many health food stores. With a chewy texture and mild flavor that absorbs other ingredients, seitan can be cooked in stir fries, thrown on the grill, or sliced and put into sandwiches.
Made from soybeans, tofu is created through a process similar to cheesemaking where bean curds are pressed together. Tofu contains 15.8 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces.
Although slightly notorious for its jiggly texture and lack of taste, with the right preparation tofu can make a delicious meal. By giving it a good press to remove excess water, then throwing it your favorite marinade, the tofu will soak up a world of flavor. It can also be breaded and fried, stirred into curries, or scrambled as a vegan egg alternative.
Tempeh is also made of soybeans and could be considered tofu's heartier cousin. In its creation process, soybeans are pressed together and fermented into a firm patty. Tempeh contains 18.5 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces.
Tempeh can be sliced, cubed, or crumbled for cooking and has a distinct nutty taste. Try it put on kebabs, as the base for filling sandwiches, or as a meat alternative for dishes like breakfast sausage and bacon.
A classic source of plant-based protein, the exact amount beans contain varies between different types. Most common varieties range from 14.5 to 15.5 grams of protein per 1 cup of cooked beans, with chickpeas containing 14.5 grams, black beans having 15.2 grams, and kidney beans having 15.3 grams.
One great part about beans is their versatility. Use black beans for soups, tacos, and burgers. Chickpeas often star in hummus, falafel, or chana masala. And kidney beans are unbeatable in salads or chili.
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
Textured vegetable protein, often known by the acronym TVP, is made of defatted soy flour that has had all the oil removed. The result is a shelf stable, dry product — which comes in sizes ranging from "crumbles" to "chunks" — that needs to be reconstituted in some type of liquid before eating. TVP, on average, contains 14 grams of protein per ounce, surpassing chicken breasts which have 6.5 grams of protein per ounce.
The magic of TVP is that it's easy to keep on hand, cooks up quickly, and mimics meat easily. All you need to do to prepare it is reconstitute the TVP in some liquid, whether that's just adding hot broth or simmering in a sauce, then get to eating. It can be used in hearty chilis, saucy stuffed peppers, or spicy tacos.
Part of the legume family, lentils are hearty protein sources that come in colorful varieties like brown, red, green, yellow, and black. The exact protein count varies per type — with black containing the highest while red and yellow are the lowest — the average cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein.
Lentils are as diverse in cooking uses as they are in colors. Heartier varieties like brown and green can be used in taco filling, savory loafs, and comforting shepherd's pie. While softer cooking varieties like yellow or red are best served in simmering soups and spiced dals.
An excellent source of protein and fat, nuts are great for adding to a plant-based diet. The exact amount of protein varies per nut type, but common varieties usually range from 4 to 6 grams of protein per ounce. One ounce of peanuts (which technically are a legume, but often eaten as a nut) contains 6.6 grams of protein, almonds pack in 5.9 grams, pistachios boast 6 grams, and walnuts contain 4.3 grams.
Nuts can easily be packed as an on-the-go snack, but they're also great for cooking. Sprinkle a handful over salads, add into stir fries for extra crunch, or grind them up and use as a breading for other plant-based proteins, like tofu or tempeh.
Nutritional yeast, despite its confusing name, is not a baking component. It's a deactivated yeast strain — meaning it won't help your bread rise — that's sold in a yellow powder or flakes that have a rich umami flavor. Nutritional yeast contains 14 grams of protein per ounce, giving it more than twice as much protein as a medium egg. Many varieties of nutritional yeast are also fortified with B12, an essential nutrient for a plant-based diet.
Nutritional yeast has a naturally "cheesy" taste, which makes it a popular choice for dairy-free cheese sauces or grated varieties. It can easily be eaten by simply sprinkling over popcorn, pasta, or into breading mixes.
Just like nuts, seeds are an excellent source of both protein and fat. Different varieties contain different amounts of protein, but average about 5 to 6 grams per ounce. Hemp seeds are a stand out winner, with 10.3 grams per ounce, followed by sunflower seeds at 5.8 grams, and pumpkin seeds containing 5.2 grams.
Seeds can easily be incorporated into your diet by eating them as a snack or spooning them over dishes like salads and stir fries. You can also enjoy seeds by blending them into smoothies, mixing into baked goods, or processing them into a dip.
Although none of them are technically grains — quinoa and amaranth are classified as "pseudocereals" and wild rice is considered a seed — each of these plant-based foods cooks up like a classic grain and contains a hearty dose of protein. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.1 grams, amaranth has 9.3 grams, and wild rice includes 6.5 grams.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
You may be unsure of how much protein to eat on a daily basis. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides recommendations for protein intake for citizens, their finding are based on research by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Their chart provides information on how many grams of protein you should eat based on your weight (or goal weight, if you're looking to lose pounds). Protein intake needs vary based on factors such as exercise amount, pregnancy, and gender, but these are the general averages you should be aiming for:
- Adolescents (age 4-13) - 0.76 grams of protein per kg of weight
- Teens (age 14-18) - 0.72 grams of protein per kg of weight
- Adults (age 19+) - 0.66 grams of protein per kg of weight