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Ask a nutritionist: What are the best sources of plant-based protein?

Here's a step-by-step guide to eating more (good quality) plant proteins.
Image: A bowl of quinoa with avocado, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, orange peppers, chickpeas and cilantro.
What's an easy swap for a meat in a salad? Add canned chickpeas, which have 5 grams of protein per half cup. John Brecher

Maybe you’ve heard of the EAT-Lancet Commission Report that outlines a healthy-people, healthy-planet eating pattern. This report, which was developed by 37 scientists and released earlier this year, found that the best diet for both people and the planet includes a variety of plant-based foods, is low in animal proteins, favors unsaturated over saturated fats, and limits refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.

Evidence suggests this pattern of eating is linked with a longer life expectancy, and just as importantly, a quality of life that includes a healthier body and mind.

Eating more plant-based foods can do your body (and the planet) a world of good. Past studies show this eating pattern may reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes; promote a slimmer waistline and healthier body weight; provide higher levels of important nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, iron, folate, and fiber; reduce inflammation and oxidative stress that can promote cell damage (which accelerates aging and can lead to chronic diseases), and promotes a sharper mind with fewer memory problems over time.

If the idea of cutting back on meat and dairy sounds difficult, this beginner’s guide to plant protein can help you inch toward a more plant-based diet that’s better for you and the world you live in.

And regardless of whether you want to jump in with both feet or just dip one toe into plant-based eating, you’ll benefit from the protein, fiber and other protective vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant compounds these foods offer.

Is it possible to get enough protein if you don’t eat meat?

“It's absolutely possible to meet protein and other nutrient needs without meat,” says Cynthia Sass, RD, a dietitian who specializes in plant-based nutrition. “From a young age we're taught that our bodies need meat. In reality, our bodies need key nutrients that are found in meat, but we can obtain adequate amounts from plant-based foods,” she explains.

Is there anything to combining plant proteins?

All proteins, whether plant or animal, are made up of a chain of amino acids. Animal proteins are considered complete proteins because they have all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs to support protein tissues in the body. Most plant proteins are lacking in one or more of these nine building blocks.

“An older theory was that in order to utilize plant protein efficiently, you must eat complimentary proteins simultaneously. For example, rice and beans are complimentary because the key amino acids missing from beans are found in rice, and vice versa,” says Sass. She explains that it's no longer necessary to worry about combining plant proteins if you eat enough total calories and a wide range of plant foods. “An adequate supply of essential amino acids can be obtained within a 24-hour period. The liver helps by storing various essential amino acids over the course of a day for later use,” she says.

However, she stresses the importance of a nutritious, diverse diet (not one filled with vegan junk food!). “To best provide your body with a broad spectrum of amino acids, as well as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, mix up your meals and snacks. Include veggies and fruits, along with whole grains, pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas), nuts, and seeds,” she says.

What are some easy ways to incorporate plant-based proteins into your menu?

According to Sass, when you're eating healthfully, the bulk of your meals should be plant-based anyway: veggies, a plant-based fat, like extra virgin olive oil, avocado, or tahini and a whole grain or starchy veggie, like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potato or spaghetti squash.

“That means the only switch you need to make is to trade your meat for a plant alternative, which is easier than you think,” she says. “For many people, when they think about what to make for dinner they focus on meat first. Change that pattern by adding pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas) and pea protein-based meat substitutes to your protein list,” she suggests.

To get more comfortable with plant proteins, Jackie Newgent, RDN and author of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook", recommends starting off with plant protein-rich ingredients, like peanut butter or hummus, which you’re already acquainted with and then taking it from there. “For instance, if you’re already enjoying hummus (which is based on chickpeas) as a dip, use it as a sandwich spread or a toast topper,” she says.

High-Protein Smoothie with Vanilla Bean
High-Protein Smoothie with Vanilla BeanAmy Gorin Nutrition

Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, suggests a similar approach — in this case, for smoothie lovers: “Blend plant proteins, like edamame, tofu, or canned chickpeas in for a protein punch. These mix-ins pick up the flavors of the other ingredients, and so they won’t taste as strong as if you were to eat them alone.”

Try this recipe: High Protein Vanilla Bean Smoothie

Another entry-level idea is a protein-based swap. “Consider using hummus in place of cheese in a quesadilla, try tempeh or tofu instead of meat in a stir-fry, and enjoy beans or lentils instead of meat in a chili or taco filling,” says Newgent. Angie Asche, RD and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition, LLC says a plant-based favorite among her athletes is a tofu scramble. “When crumbled up and cooked with nutritional yeast, chili powder, paprika, and a few other spices, it takes on a scrambled egg-like texture that tastes delicious with hash browns, peppers, and onions,” says Asche.

Try this recipe: Vegan Breakfast Tacos

Vegan Breakfast Tacos
Vegan Breakfast TacosEleat Sports Nutrition

How to cook with plant-based proteins

“When using a plant-based protein, take into consideration that its cooking properties can differ from that of an animal-based protein. For instance, if using canned beans in a chili in place of raw ground beef, you won’t need to sauté the beans. Flavor will differ, too. You may get less umami — that savory sense of taste. So, in addition to the plant-based protein, consider punching up taste other ways, like including mushrooms, soy sauce, or other umami-rich ingredients,” says Newgent.

Asche shares similar advice. “Plant-based proteins, such as tofu and tempeh are incredibly easy to make, but they need to be seasoned or marinated. If you try to just cut up some tofu and grill it in a pan, chances are you’re not going to enjoy it,” she says.

Just how much protein you can get from plant-based sources can vary. Below is a look at the protein in common sources, along with some low-fuss recipes to help you ease your way into eating more protein from plants.

1. Pulses

These foods pack a nutritional punch, with meaningful levels of important minerals, like potassium, magnesium, folate and iron that are often in short supply in our diets. Though you can buy them dried (and speed up cooking in your Instant Pot), canned beans make eating these foods really easy. “One of the beauties of plant proteins, like canned beans, is that you don’t have to do much prep. Making a plant-based lunch or dinner can often be much faster than waiting for takeout to arrive,” says Gorin.

Grilled Hummus "Quesadilla"
Grilled Hummus "Quesadilla"Jackie Newgent, RDN

One cup of canned chickpeas has about 11 grams of protein, while a cup of lentils has closer to 18 grams; a cup of black beans clocks in at 14 grams of protein. There are so many ways to enjoy these foods, but some of the easiest are:

  • Atop salads or veggie-grain bowls
  • Folded into tacos or quesadillas (see below)
  • As the base of vegetarian burgers
  • Blended into snack-size energy balls or roasted into munchable snacks (as shown below)

Try these recipes:

Sweet-n-Salty Sesame Roasted Chickpea Snacks
Sweet-n-Salty Sesame Roasted Chickpea SnacksJackie Newgent, RDN

2. Nuts

Nuts range in protein from about 4 grams (walnuts) to about 7 grams (pistachios) per quarter-cup. The amount may not sound like much, but it’s pretty close to a boiled egg, which has about 6 grams. Plus, when you factor in the fact that nuts are often combined with other plant-protein sources, it’s easy to see that they can give you a nice boost. There are endless ways to enjoy nuts and their butters (as you likely know!), but here a few more:

  • Chopped and served over warm fruit
  • Added to stir-fries
  • Pulsed into dips and spreads (see below)
  • As the “flour” base for baked goods

Try this recipe: Cashew Ranch Dressing

Cashew Ranch Dressing
Cashew Ranch DressingAmy Katz, Veggies Save the Day

3. Seeds

A 3-tablespoon serving of hemp seeds has 10 grams of plant-based protein. The same amount of chia seeds has over 5 grams. A 2-tablespoon serving of tahini — a ground butter made from sesame seeds — supplies 5 grams of this nutrient.

For ingredients like nuts and seeds, Newgent suggests sprinkling them into meals you already enjoy. “That can be as easy as adding chia or hemp seeds to your favorite smoothie,” she says. On top of supplying protein, chia seeds absorb up to 10 times their weight in liquid so when using them in smoothies and puddings, you’ll get a thicker, creamy-like consistency.

Seeds are very versatile. Among the ways you can use them are:

  • As a topping over avocado toast
  • Sprinkled over sautéed veggies
  • As the headline ingredient in chia pudding (as in the recipe below)

Try this recipe: Green Chia Pudding

Green Chia Pudding
Green Chia PuddingAmy Katz, Veggies Save the Day

4. Grains

Quinoa is probably the most notable protein-rich grain (which is ironic, since it’s actually a seed), but other whole grains supply protein as well. You’ll find about 6 grams of protein in a cup of cooked millet or bulgur, and about 7 grams in the same amount of wild rice; for reference, quinoa has 8 grams per cup. Again, these numbers might not wow you, but when paired with other sources of plant protein, they can add up to meaningful amounts. Some protein-rich ways to incorporate whole grains include:

  • As a hot cereal stirred with chopped nuts and fruit
  • In a pilaf or casserole made with pulses and other colorful veggies (see below)
  • Tossed with pulses into salads and veggie-grain bowls

Try this recipe: Black Bean Quinoa Casserole

Black Bean Quinoa Casserole
Black Bean Quinoa CasseroleAmy Katz, Veggies Save the Day

5. Soy

Like animal sources of protein, whole soy is a complete source of the nine essential amino acids your body needs. Whole soy foods include tofu, edamame, soy nuts, soy milk and tempeh. A 3-ounce portion of tofu has nearly 9 grams of protein—the same amount as a half cup of shelled edamame.

There used to be concerns about whether soy foods, which contain plant-based estrogens that mimic the hormone’s effect, might raise the risk of hormone-dependent cancers (such as breast and prostate cancer). However, looking at all of the existing evidence, the American Institute of Cancer Research says this is not the case, and that in some populations, whole soy foods may even be protective against cancer. That said, the safety of soy protein isolate — a commonly consumed processed form of soy found in meatless burgers, imitation meats, shakes and bars — is still unknown, which is why the advice is to consume whole forms of soy.

Southwestern Vegan Bowl
Southwestern Vegan BowlEleat Sports Nutrition

When choosing tofu, Gorin recommends taking note of the form you’re using. “If you’re wanting to blend it into a smoothie or use it as a base for making chocolate mousse, I’d recommend soft tofu. I prefer firm tofu for stir-frying or baking — this type is best for if you want a more meaty texture. Many people aren't fans of tofu simply because they don't realize how versatile the ingredient is!” Here are some easy ways to enjoy whole these foods:

  • Use shelled edamame instead of peas in casseroles and pasta dishes (including mac and cheese)
  • Try swapping extra-firm tofu for chicken (see the tofu parmesan recipe, below)
  • Make tofu crumbles to use in place of ground beef or turkey in taco dishes and grain bowls (as in the recipe below)
Tofu Parmesan
Tofu Parmesan

Try these recipes:


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