Pre-quarantine, you were probably in a solid routine of a morning workout followed by three healthy meals, and maybe even a midday walk. Now, many of us spend the majority of our time inside, snacking on whatever’s around while trying to balance distance learning with our own work.
And as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a very tough year, we’re taking a closer look at some of our habits and deciding what we want to do differently in 2021. A plant-based diet may look appealing, especially because it isn’t just good for our bodies; it’s also great for the environment. But if you’re considering adopting one, you may be worried that you won’t get enough protein.
Andrea Davidson, C.H.H.C., a plant-based nutrition and weight loss coach and founder of the plant-based nutrition and weight loss coaching company A Happier Health, notes that you shouldn’t just reach for any product labeled plant-based. “The key to experiencing the benefits of a plant-based diet are to add more whole foods into the mix and to enjoy what you eat,” she explains, noting that one of the biggest myths about a plant-based diet is that it’s impossible to get all of the protein you need through plant-based sources (you totally can).
Protein comes in two forms: complete and incomplete. If it’s complete, it contains the nine essential amino acids the body needs; if it is incomplete, it can be combined with other incomplete proteins (containing different amino acids) to form a complete protein. You don’t need to consume animal products to get your daily recommended amount of protein; you simply need to add high-protein plant-based foods to your diet (preferably in their whole food form). Wish you had an easy-to-reference list? We’ve got you.
Getting enough protein the plant-based way
Researchers say that 10 to 35 percent of your energy should come from protein, with the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein listed at 0.8 g per kg of body weight. When eating a plant-based diet, incorporating foods high in protein makes it much easier than you may think to get enough protein; there are many grains and lentils that, when combined, are chock-full of protein.
“The average (non-athlete) person will do just fine with 15-30 grams [of protein] at meal time,” explains Desiree Nielsen, R.D., an integrative dietitian and author of Eat More Plants and Un-Junk Your Diet. “For example, if you’re plant-based, you can layer lentils with a cup of quinoa to get you to 21 grams, and a hearty sprinkle of pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup) will boost you to 30 grams.”
The truth is, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean it’s hard to get enough protein. As in any diet, it’s about balancing and prioritizing whole foods. When it comes to getting protein, it isn’t about prioritizing animal products over plant products; it is about understanding the difference between complete and incomplete protein so you get all of the nutrients your body needs.
“You can get enough protein from plants, you just have to eat more grams of protein a day to account for lower bioavailability of protein in plant based foods,” notes Alicia Galvin, R.D., a resident dietitian for the natural supplement company Sovereign Laboratories. “People need to consume about 20 percent more protein daily from plants over what they would need to eat if getting all their protein from animal foods.”
What about protein powder?
If you are looking for a quick way to add protein to your diet, protein powder makes it easy. However, Jennifer Rodriguez, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., owner of Food is Vida, warns that you shouldn’t be too dependent on them.
“When we think of protein needs, the general public often believes they need a lot and they need it fast,” Rodriguez reveals. “This is why protein powders have become so convenient when looking to meet protein needs, yet they are not necessary to meet dietary protein needs.”
Nicole Goodrich, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.H.W.C., president of the healthy lifestyle and medical nutrition company Anderson’s Nutrition, adds that relying too much on protein powder and other supplements may lead to a decrease in fiber and lack of other nutrients. Because of this, most professionals recommend replacing plant-based protein powder with other foods high in protein; for example, if you’re making a smoothie, adding things like spinach, chia seeds, peanut butter or avocado are a great plant-based alternative.
Best plant-based protein sources
If you’re hoping to prioritize a plant-based diet—and still want to prioritize protein—we asked dietitians and nutritionists for their favorite plant-based protein sources—and they delivered. Here’s the list:
Though a seed, researchers note that quinoa is classified as a whole grain. “This grain is a complete protein and provides 8 grams of protein per cup,” Galvin says.
This whole grain is an affordable way to add protein to any meal, and is also rich in fiber.
If you’ve never heard of a wheat berry before, you aren’t alone and it isn’t a fruit. A wheat berry is the entire kernel of wheat (bran, germ and endosperm) and Nielsen notes they are the perfect addition to soups or stews (but take awhile to cook, so plan accordingly).
If you’re looking for a heart healthy food, barley is a great high-protein option (and it’s one Rodriguez admits isn’t usually immediately thought of when discussing protein).
“Whole grains are definitely a plant-based powerhouse for protein,” exclaims Rodriguez. Bread is an easy way to add whole grains to your diet, which is especially great for those looking to lower risk of diabetes.
If you prefer pasta, Rodriguez recommends you grab the whole-grain variety; it is an easy way to get the digestive benefits of whole grains.
Soy, a part of the legume family, is also widely regarded as a nutrient-dense source of protein. Galvin goes as far to declare that soy is the best plant-based source of protein.
Rodriguez prefers getting soy in this form, and this green soybean has been noted to have a nutritional composition of roughly 38 percent protein.
Researchers note that because they are so rich in protein, lentils are actually sometimes used as a meat alternative. Goodrich notes that they also contain 45 percent of the folate the body needs.
These have been hailed as a near-perfect food, in part because of the high protein content. Goodrich adds that kidney beans also contain a little over 350 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids.
“Cooked black beans contain 7.5 grams of protein,” shares Goodrich. Studies have found that including black beans in the Western diet not only provides a boost of protein, but also dietary fiber and micronutrients.
Rodriguez calls out pinto beans when listing her favorite plant-based proteins, and one study found that consuming pinto beans can markedly decrease cholesterol.
Also referred to as garbanzo beans (confusing, we know), chickpeas aren’t a complete protein, but can be consumed in many forms—including hummus—making them an easy way to get a weekly dose of legumes. Goodrich adds that chickpeas contain 5 grams of fiber, so you’ll get added dietary benefits.
Though it varies by brand, you can usually get over 20 grams of protein per serving. Nielsen’s favorite brand is Banza, in part because the texture closely mimics traditional pasta.
Rice and beans
Though two separate foods, Galvin notes that when you make these as a single dish, they provide all the amino acids needed to form a complete protein.
A hemp seed contains an outer shell and inner seed (known as the heart); the shell is where you’ll get the bulk of its fiber. Davidson reveals hemp seeds are her favorite source of complete protein, in part to their long shelf life and versatility.
If you take the shell off of a hemp seed, you’ll find the hemp heart, which is chewy and soft. This is Nielsen’s preferred method of eating the mineral-rich seed.
Davidson shares this complete protein (and superfood) is easy to add into a smoothie to also get fiber and plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Another favorite addition to any smoothie, dietary flaxseed is a great source of protein and also comes with gut health benefits.
These aren’t just for fall anymore; pumpkin seeds are, in fact, rich in protein. “Just 1 ounce of pumpkin seeds provides 9 grams of protein,” shares Galvin.
This paste is made from sesame seeds, which are high in protein, and is an easy way to add flavor to a variety of dishes.
Sunflower seed butter
Twenty percent of a sunflower seed is protein, and Davidson notes you’ll find a caramel-like flavor when using it as a spread. “[It has] high levels of mono and polyunsaturated fats; heart healthy fats with anti-inflammatory properties,” she adds.
Research states that almonds contain 21.2 percent protein by weight, which is high when compared with other nuts. “One ounce contains 6 grams of protein and [they are] a good source of iron,” shares Goodrich.
Rodriguez names pistachios among her favorite plant-based proteins and the green nut actually delivers heart-health benefits thanks to its fatty-acid profile.
This widely-consumed tree nut not only gets you protein, but also has some research-backed benefits of lowering cholesterol.
Peanuts are high in protein and can be consumed in many forms. Goodrich prefers peanut butter, however, as it can be added to whole grain bread to form a complete protein.
When you think of a plant-based diet, tofu often comes to mind; it just so happens to be rich in protein as it is made from soybeans. “Three ounces provides 7 grams of protein and over 700 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids,” shares Goodrich.
Made from soybeans, this is usually used in place of tofu, when a chewy texture and rich taste is preferred. Davidson particularly likes tempeh as it provides gut-friendly probiotic bacteria.
If you’re gluten-free you will want to steer clear of this high-protein meat alternative. Made from wheat, Goodrich shares that a one ounce serving has over 20 grams of protein.
Research states this is not only high in protein, but also contains many of the basic nutrients the body needs (including B vitamins). Davidson notes that it isn’t always easy to get B12 without eating meat, so this is a great option.
This is actually a microalgae that has been consumed as food—commonly as a powder—for centuries. Davidson shares spirulina also contains a lot of B vitamins, but it should be noted that B12 is excluded.
Popeye’s favorite food is a great way to get some added protein in the form of a salad base (and one of its extracts actually improves athletic performance…who knew?).
This vegetable is part of what is known as the Chinese Mustards, and is a great source of protein along with its other cruciferous counterparts of broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
When consuming broccoli, most choose to eat the leafy florets. No matter how you consume it, you’ll still get its benefit of preventing chronic diseases.
While the flavor of Brussels sprouts isn’t for everyone, this vegetable will also give you a dose of vitamin C.
Goodrich shares that mushrooms are 37 percent protein (and a great low-calorie option). While mushrooms do provide a lot of the same nutrients as other high-protein foods, this fungi is noted to have a “unique” nutrient profile.
Peas are high in protein that is easily digestible and Davidson points out they also contain polyphenol antioxidants that aid in digestion and reduce inflammation.
Most often thought of only as a healthy fat, avocados are a great way to get protein (and improve your heart health).
Next up, try some plant-based dinner recipes the whole family will love.
- Alicia Galvin, R.D., a resident dietitian for Sovereign Laboratories
- Andrea Davidson, C.H.H.C., a plant-based nutrition and weight loss coach and founder of A Happier Health
- Desiree Nielsen, R.D., an integrative dietitian and author of Eat More Plants and Un-Junk Your Diet
- Jennifer Rodriguez, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., owner of Food is Vida
- National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine: “Dietary Reference Intakes.”
- Nicole Goodrich, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.H.W.C., president of Anderson’s Nutrition
- Nutrients: “Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults.“