One of the most persistent myths about a vegan diet is the notion that you can’t get enough of the right nutrients if you don’t eat meat, especially protein from plant-based sources.
Protein is important, of course. It’s an essential part of any healthy diet, and you do need to aim for the right amount. According to the National Academy of Medicine, adults should eat at least 7 grams daily of this essential macronutrient for every 20 pounds of body weight. But protein comes from all sorts of foods that aren’t meat or dairy, including many affordable and healthy plant-based protein sources.
Why Do We Need Protein?
Protein-rich foods help you feel satiated for longer but protein — including protein from plant-based foods — also plays a critical role in the human body. Found in cells and tissue, your body uses it to make hair, skin, nails, muscle, bones, organs and even bodily fluids. Not only that, but your body uses protein to make enzymes that help you digest food and regulate hormones, and it’s critical for strengthening immunity to fight infections. Without protein, the human body would completely fail to function.
Best Vegan Protein Sources
The vast majority of eaters get their protein from animals but protein is found in plenty of plant-based food sources. Here are some of the best options.
Seitan is a meat substitute made from wheat gluten that has been rinsed to remove the starch. Seitan is extremely high in protein — comparable to beef — and very low in carbohydrates and fat. It can contain even more protein if made with soy or chickpea flour and is also a good source of iron, though it can be high in sodium. Seitan can be a useful alternative for people with soy allergies, but is not compatible with a gluten-free diet.
There are many types of beans to choose from, all with different nutritional profiles, and all serve as good sources of fiber and protein. A diet rich in beans can help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Made from soybeans, tofu is essentially just soy milk that has been compressed into blocks. Tofu solidifies and is able to keep its form with the help of the ingredient nigari, which is a coagulant from seawater that is rich in minerals. Tofu is nutrient-dense and especially high in protein and calcium. Tofu originated in China, which is one of the leading countries driving demand for tofu.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans that’s sometimes combined with wheat. Dry and firm, tempeh is chewy in texture and has a bit of a nutty taste. Because tempeh is more compact than tofu, it often has an even higher protein content. Tempeh is also high in iron and calcium, as well as low in carbohydrates and sodium. Tempeh also contains prebiotics that can be helpful for digestion. Like tofu, tempeh is not appropriate for anyone with a soy allergy.
5. Protein Powder
Protein powder is a convenience food, and currently one of the most popular supplements on the market. It sometimes has added flavors and comes in many vegan varieties, containing roughly 20 to 30 grams of protein per scoop. Protein powders do provide a good and healthy source of protein but be aware that eating too much of these can cause some people digestive upset.
Spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that can be harvested from both salt and freshwater sources. Extremely popular as a supplement, spirulina is very nutrient-dense, boasting high levels of protein, antioxidants and B vitamins.
7. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds come from the plant Cannabis sativa and are exceptionally nutritious. They are technically a nut and also referred to as hemp hearts. Hemp seeds make an excellent source of protein as more than 25 percent of a hemp seed’s calories are from high-quality protein. These seeds are rich in healthy fats, calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and fiber. They can be consumed raw, cooked or toasted.
Nuts, like beans, come in a huge variety with many different types, flavors and nutritional profiles. All nuts are generally high in healthy fats, fiber and antioxidants, and many have anti-inflammatory properties. All nuts are high in protein, but the nuts with the highest protein content are pistachios, almonds and peanuts (though these are technically legumes). Nuts can be eaten raw and whole, chopped up and incorporated into recipes, or turned into butters, like peanut butter or almond butter.
9. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is produced from a yeast called S. cerevisiae, whose cells grow on a sugar-rich medium (like molasses, for example) over the course of several days. To deactivate the yeast, the cells are heated before harvesting, washing and drying. Because it is inactive, nutritional yeast cannot be used in baking bread or brewing beer. Nutritional yeast is usually sold as a powder, or sometimes as flakes, and can be bought fortified with added nutrients or unfortified. Whether it has these added nutrients or not, nutritional yeast is a great source of plant-based protein.
10. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are tiny seeds from the plant Salvia hispanica, a plant native to Central America. Although they taste bland on their own, chia seeds are easy to incorporate into any recipe and are commonly used in puddings or smoothies. They are packed with vegan protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and antioxidants.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in South America and was considered a sacred food by Inca populations. It comes in red, black and white varieties that are all gluten-free, and has more fiber than most other grains. Aside from fiber, quinoa is extremely nutrient-dense and extremely high in vegan protein, iron, folate and magnesium. Quinoa contains some antinutrients, which can reduce absorption of its available nutrients. Rinsing, soaking and sprouting quinoa before cooking it helps to reduce these antinutrients.
Lentils are in the legume family and are technically edible seeds. They are a food staple in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, but the largest producer of lentils is currently Canada. They come in a variety of colors, including yellow, red, green, brown and black, but brown is the most common variety. Lentils are very high in protein, iron and fiber, and have shown to be beneficial to heart health. Like quinoa, lentils contain some antinutrients, but soaking them can help to offset this.
Spinach is one of the most nutritious leafy vegetables available and its plant-based protein accounts for about 50 percent of the calories in a single serving. Spinach also contains high quantities of vitamin C, potassium and magnesium.
While you might not think of asparagus as a protein source, this plant is also highly nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin K and folate. Protein accounts for about 44 percent of its calories.
15. Brussels Sprouts
The protein content in brussels sprouts accounts for around 30 percent of the calories in a serving. This vegetable contains many nutrients and is especially rich in vitamin C, folate and fiber.
16. Spelt and Teff
Spelt and teff, often grouped together, are both considered ancient grains. Spelt is a type of wheat (that contains gluten) and teff originates from a grass and is naturally gluten-free. Both of these grains are fairly high in protein, more so than other ancient grains, and contain other nutrients, like fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. Flour made from teff is the main ingredient in injera, a flatbread that is commonly eaten throughout East Africa.
17. Soy Milk
Soy milk is made by blending water with soaked soybeans and then straining any solids from the mixture. The result is a milk-like smooth liquid that can be sweetened or left plain. Soy milk is nutrient-dense on its own, but many companies fortify it with additional vitamins and minerals, as is done with dairy milk. Soy milk may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and even reduce inflammation. It is important to check the labels of soy milk as there can be a lot of added sugar when sweetened.
18. Oats and Oatmeal
Oats are some of the healthiest grains available — nutrient-dense and very filling. Oats are a good source of carbohydrates, fiber and protein and are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They can help reduce blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol, and can even help with insulin sensitivity. Oats are most commonly made into oatmeal or incorporated in baking.
19. Wild Rice
Wild rice is not technically a rice and is actually a grass that grows in freshwater marshes, streams and lakes. There are four different species of wild rice, one that is native to Asia and three from the Great Lakes region of North America. Wild rice has a stronger flavor than regular rice and is low in calories, dense in nutrients and high in antioxidants. It is a great source of plant-based protein compared to regular rice, and an excellent source of fiber.
Mycoprotein is a designated meat replacement product that was first developed in the late 1960s. Made from a naturally occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum, mycoprotein has a meat- like texture and is high in plant-based protein and fiber, and also boasts a low carbon and water footprint, and can be made in either vegan or vegetarian varieties.
Are Plant Proteins Complete Proteins?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. The human body needs 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential, meaning they do not occur naturally in the body. A food source is considered a complete protein when it contains all nine of these essential amino acids, yet it’s a myth that you need to get all nine at once or combine or complement proteins in your diet in a particular way.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
The amount of protein an individual needs on a daily basis will vary depending on their body weight. Adult targets are as follows:
Adult males should consume around 56 grams of protein per day.
Adult females should consume around 46 grams of protein per day.
Those pregnant or lactating should consume around 71 grams of protein per day.
Consult with a doctor or registered dietician to decide on the ideal amount of protein for your body and lifestyle.
How Can a Vegan Eat Enough Protein?
Eating a wide variety of healthy, nutrient-dense vegan protein sources is the key, as well as a supplement for B12 to avoid becoming deficient. A diverse diet that includes vegetables and whole grains contains many foods that will contribute to your daily recommended protein.
How Can a Vegan Get 100 Grams of Protein a Day?
Again, the best way to consume the recommended amount of protein in a day is to eat a varied diet. A vegan’s standard three-meal day with a snack and dessert that amounts to 100 grams of protein might look like:
Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries (8 grams of protein)
Snack: Handful of almonds (10 grams)
Lunch: Quinoa, lentil and spinach salad (22 grams)
Dinner: Impossible burger on whole grain toast and a side of broccoli (28 grams)
Dessert: Chia seed pudding with soy milk and added protein powder for flavor (36 grams)
Can You Eat Too Much Protein?
Eating too much protein on a regular basis can put you at a higher risk for developing kidney stones, according to Harvard Medical School. If your high-protein diet is packed with red meats that are high in saturated fat, you might also be at a higher risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
What You Can Do
Protein is just one of the components of a healthy balanced diet. Be mindful of eating a varied diet and consult with a doctor or registered dietician before making any significant changes.