What is Plant-Based Protein?
If you’re considering adopting a plant-based lifestyle, you may be concerned about getting enough protein in your diet. Protein plays an important role in the body’s everyday functioning, helping to build muscle, repair tissue, and transport nutrients. Typical Western diets include protein sources like meat and dairy, and it’s common to think of meat as the main course of a given meal, with vegetables and grains relegated to the status of side dishes. Despite their popularity, however, animal-based proteins can be expensive, harmful to the environment, and even bad for your health when consumed in excess.
Luckily, there are a wide variety of plant-based protein sources available, including common vegan and vegetarian-friendly ingredients like tofu and lentils, as well as less well-known sources of protein like spirulina, amaranth, and more. Since you won’t be consuming common protein sources like meat, dairy, or eggs while on a plant-based diet, you’ll need to find other ways to get enough protein. While getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is a common concern, it’s easy to incorporate protein-rich plant-based foods. Great sources of protein include:
- Soy-based products
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains
- Other specialty products
While there are a variety of high-quality protein powders and supplements when it comes to plant-based protein, that’s far from the only way to consume enough protein on a plant-based diet. Any plant that contains a high amount of protein qualifies as a plant-based protein. You can make salads, curries, soups, and more with these healthful, protein-rich ingredients as a base. If you’re not sure how to incorporate plant-based protein into your lifestyle, feel free to experiment with different recipes and types of protein. Every body is different, so it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor if you’re concerned about getting enough protein in your diet. Here are our recommendations for tasty plant-based protein sources:
1. Tofu and Tempeh
Tofu and tempeh are both products made from soybeans. Tofu is made from soy milk pressed into blocks, while tempeh is made from fermented soybeans shaped into a cake-like form. Both tempeh and tofu are high in protein, and can be used as a substitute for meat in soups, stir-fries, and curries. Tofu has a mild flavor, and soaks up any other spices or flavors that are added to a dish. Tempeh has a more pronounced nutty, earthy flavor and a firmer texture, and is great grilled or fried.
Lentils are also extremely high in protein, and are a staple in a variety of plant-based recipes. There are several different types of lentils, including brown lentils, green lentils, red lentils, black lentils, yellow lentils, and puy lentils. All lentils contain a hearty serving of protein, so they type of lentil you use is up to you - brown lentils are the most common and can generally be found in any grocery store, but other types of lentil have subtly different textures and flavor profiles. Try your hand at savory, spicy lentil curries, hearty lentil soups, or top bowls and salads with lentils for an extra dose of protein.
Beans are high in protein, fiber, and have a variety of health benefits. Like lentils, tofu, and tempeh, beans are a great replacement for meat in a wide variety of dishes. Try your hand at making bean stews, soups, and salads, or add beans to your favorite recipes in place of meat. Beans come in wide varieties, so feel free to experiment with chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, and more! Really into beans? You can even join a bean club - Rancho Gordo ships beans and grains four times a year to members, and also includes a variety of recipes and cooking tips with each order.
4. Ancient Grains
Unlike contemporary processed grains, ancient grains tend to be high in protein. This includes grains like spelt, bulgur, farro, kamut, einkorn, emmer, millet, barley, teff, oats, and more. In many cases, these grains have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years, and have been consumed in ancient civilizations and up to the present day. Today, you can enjoy many of the same grains that people enjoyed thousands of years ago. Some people have even tried to recreate recipes from Ancient Egypt using ancient grains and 4,500-year-old yeast! But you don’t need to be an Egyptologist to enjoy ancient grains - you can use them in bread or in grain bowls, make oatmeal, granola, and more.
5. Sachi Inchi
Sacha inchi (plukenetia volubilis), also sometimes known as sacha peanut, Inca nut, or mountain peanut, is a protein-rich seed often hailed as a “superfood.” Sacha inchi is native to South America, and has been cultivated by indigenous peoples for centuries. In addition to being high in protein, sacha inchi is also rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Sacha inchi seeds can be consumed roasted or ground into a fine powder. While studies concerning sacha inchi are still ongoing, research suggests that this seed can help lower cholesterol.
While spirulina might sound a little like a fancy sort of Italian pasta, it’s actually a nutritious, protein-rich food made from blue-green algae. Dried spirulina contains about 60% protein, making it an excellent plant-based source of protein. Spirulina is often ground into a fine powder, which can be added to smoothies, salads, soups, and more.
Amaranth is a type of pseudocereal that has been cultivated for thousands of years, and has recently been hailed as a “superfood” with a variety of nutritional benefits. Amaranth was a staple food of the Aztec civilization, before being banned by Spanish settlers during colonization. Amaranth is high in protein, and can be consumed whole or ground into flour.
Quinoa is a pseudocereal native to South America and has been cultivated for human consumption for thousands of years. It is extremely high in protein, fiber, and a variety of minerals, and can be consumed on its own or ground into flour for use in baked goods. For a hearty, protein-rich dish, try using quinoa in a Mediterranean-inspired bowl along with cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives. You can also add quinoa to soups and stews, make oatmeal with it, or even add it to smoothies for an extra protein boost.
Oats are a nutrient-rich food that has been cultivated by humans for hundreds of years. Oats are a common and versatile ingredient in plant-based cooking: they can be made into oatmeal, ground into flour, added to granola, and used to make cookies, oatcakes, and oat bread. Oat milk can also be derived from oats, which can be used in the place of regular milk in recipes. Oats are high in protein, and since they’re used in many sweet dishes, they can be a great way to get an extra serving of protein with your dessert!
10. Wild Rice
Wild rice is a type of grain that grows in North America and Asia, often in shallow water or streams. This type of rice is extremely high in protein, and has a pleasantly nutty taste and a firm, chewy texture. Wild rice can be consumed on its own, added to soups, as a base for grain bowls, and more. Try wild rice in a native-inspired salad with dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, and scallions, or add it to a big batch of vegetable soup!
11. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are not only a great source of protein, but they also make a filling, nutritious plant-based snack. Peanuts, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more are all healthy sources of protein and fats. You can enjoy nuts and seeds on their own, sprinkled with salt, or made into spreadable nut butters like peanut butter or almond butter. Nuts and seeds are also a great addition to other plant-based meals. Try spreading nut butter on top of a slice of bread made with ancient grains, adding nuts to a salad or bowl, or adding nut butter to savory curries.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Experts recommend that you need a little over 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. For example, someone who weighs 140 pounds would need about 50 grams of protein per day. You may want to consume more protein if you exercise frequently or are trying to build muscle.
You should also make sure that you’re getting protein from a variety of different plant-based sources. This is because many plant-based proteins are “incomplete” sources of protein. While “complete” sources of animal-based protein like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs contain all nine essential amino acids, plant-based proteins may not contain all nine. This means that you should make sure to consume a diverse array of plant-based proteins to make sure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
Plant-Based Protein and Your Wallet
Starting a plant-based diet can seem like an expensive endeavor, especially if you plan on stocking your fridge and cabinets with healthy whole grains, plant-based snacks, and lots of fruits and vegetables. However, a plant-based diet can actually save you money in the long run. In general, plant-based proteins are often significantly cheaper than animal-based proteins. Grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and other sources of plant-based protein tend to be more affordable than meat or dairy. This means that trying to get your protein from plants isn’t only a healthy way to enact a plant-based lifestyle, but it’s also easier on your wallet!
Plant-Based Protein and the Environment
In addition to being cheaper, plant-based proteins are also better for the environment. Animal-based proteins tend to emit more greenhouse gases than plant-based proteins, which contributes to climate change on a global scale. In particular, beef and goat produce an outsized share of carbon emissions, while plant-based proteins are much more environmentally friendly, with proteins like fish, pork, and poultry somewhere in the middle. By consuming plant-based proteins rather than animal-based proteins, your actions can help to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing demand for meat and dairy products.
Switching to a Plant-Based Diet
Attempting a plant-based lifestyle can seem intimidating, especially if you’re familiar and comfortable with a more typical American diet with a heavy emphasis on meat and dairy. Once you get the swing of it, however, a plant-based diet can be just as easy and accessible as more traditional fare. Everything you need for a plant-based diet can be found in the grocery store, and you don’t need any fancy supplements or kitchen tools to get you started.
Protein is an important source of nutrition, helping to build muscle, repair tissue, and much more. While you might be more familiar with animal-based sources of protein like milk and dairy, plant-based proteins have a lot to offer. In many cases, plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, lentils, and beans can be used in place of meat in traditional recipes like tacos, stir-fries, curries, soups, and more. Other sources of plant-based protein, like nuts and seeds or ancient grains, can be used as a base for bowls and salads, added to other dishes, or enjoyed as snacks.
Some plants contain more protein than others - for example, specialty ingredients like spirulina can have an especially high protein content. But getting enough protein on a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be complicated - a plant-based lifestyle is as simple as focusing on tasty, nutritious meals with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and healthy whole grains. You can adapt favorite recipes to include plant-based protein instead of meat, or explore new recipes designed to be vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Plant-based meals are tasty, healthy, affordable, and good for the planet!
Protein-Rich Plant-Based Dishes
Not sure where to get started? Here are a few of our favorite plant-based dishes that are high in protein: