Nutrition

10 Vegan-Friendly Protein Sources We Can All Get Behind

8 min read
Searching for plant-based sources of protein? Look no further.
Searching for plant-based sources of protein? Look no further.

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Whether you’re a vegan, an omnivore, or somewhere in between, one thing we all have in common is that our bodies need protein. One popular misconception, though, is that those who follow a vegan diet aren’t getting enough protein because they don’t consume animal products. The truth? There are many nutrient-rich vegan protein sources available (hi, Essential Protein), so consider that myth debunked. Below, find ten vegan protein sources meat-eaters and vegans alike will love.*

Protein 101

But first, a quick refresher on why dietary protein matters in the first place. To put it simply, our bodies need a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) in order to function. Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD explains: “The protein we consume and synthesize has a lot of different roles, including regulating muscle protein metabolism, muscle mass, and muscle strength. Our muscle tissue is dynamic and in a constant state of turnover, with muscle proteins being synthesized and broken down simultaneously throughout the day. The turnover of muscle protein is regulated largely by what you eat (which is where protein-rich recipes come into play) and also how you move (which is why keeping active is also so important).”*

The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. That said, the RDA simply represents a sufficient daily intake for a nutrient—not necessarily the optimal amount. (Take the most recent scientific evidence, for example, which suggests that athletes require a daily protein intake of 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 9-18 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight—higher than the current RDI.)*

While most adults in the United States eat enough protein each day, many are not meeting the recommendations for subgroups within the protein food group, with many U.S. adults over-consuming red meats and processed meats and under-consuming plant-based proteins, such as beans and peas. The good news? There are plenty of plant foods (and plant-based foods) that double as great sources of protein—and many of them are packed with antioxidants, to boot. We share some top picks below.*

Lentils

In general, legumes (black beans, lentils, peanuts, and more) are excellent sources of protein—but lentils really shine for a few reasons. For one, a cup of cooked lentils delivers a whopping 17.9 grams of protein. Two, the tiny legumes also provide other essential nutrients such as folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. And third, thanks to high amounts of fiber, they’ll keep you full and energized throughout the day.* (11)

The best part? Lentils have a short cook time (20 minutes max), and they don’t require soaking in advance, which makes them a go-to when you need to put together a meal quickly. They also store well in the refrigerator. So you can make a big batch and have lunches ready to go for the entire week.

Chickpeas

Staying on the legume train, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are another nutrient powerhouse that fits right into any diet. Chickpeas contain fiber, iron, folate, potassium, and—you guessed it—protein: One cup of cooked chickpeas boasts 14.5 grams. And there are so many ways to incorporate chickpeas into your meals. You can toss them in salads for extra protein, make tacos with them, or roast them and eat them as a crunchy—and seriously addicting—snack. And we also feel compelled to remind you that you can whip up some homemade hummus with nutritional yeast, garlic, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice for dipping crackers or veggies.* (2)

Hemp seeds

Like beans, seeds are also a great vegan protein source. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds, for example, contain an impressive 9 grams of protein. Their subtle, nutty taste makes them a great addition to homemade protein bars or smoothies. Sprinkling some hemp seeds over a slice of avocado toast is another way to sneak in more protein and healthy fats into your meal. As you do, you’ll also reap the benefits of other essential minerals such as magnesium, iron, calcium, and zinc.* (3)

Quinoa

Unlike other plant protein sources, quinoa is a complete protein, meaning not only does it have a high protein content, but it also contains all nine of the essential amino acids. So nutritionally, the ancient grain doesn’t disappoint. One cup of fluffy, cooked quinoa provides 8.14 grams of protein, along with magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc—all things our bodies need. Serve it as a side dish, swap it for brown rice, or even eat it cold as a salad. Pro-tip: rinse quinoa before cooking it to remove the bitter coating.* (4)

Edamame

Great for adding to stir-fries or eating as an appetizer, edamame is a vegan food that really delivers in the protein department: One cup of cooked and shelled edamame has 18.4 grams of protein. Edamame is also a good source of fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and folate. * (5)

Chia seeds

Small but mighty, two tablespoons of chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein, as well as fiber, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. What makes chia seeds superstars, though, is their versatility: You can add them to smoothies, homemade strawberry lemonade, overnight oats, or even popsicles. You can also mix them with your favorite nut milk to make a delicious pudding.* (6)

Oats

If you want to step up your protein intake, enjoying a bowl of oatmeal is an excellent way to go. One cup of dry oats contains 13.2 grams of protein. Oats are also full of magnesium, folate, and soluble fiber—the latter of which can help reduce cholesterol. That said, if you eat oatmeal regularly, it can quickly become a bit boring. The solution: Dress up your oat bowl with different toppings such as granola or fresh fruit. And if you want to add additional sources of protein and some crunch, top your oatmeal with peanuts, almonds, pistachios, or cashews. A spoonful of creamy nut butter will also do the trick. Craving something savory? Try these warm breakfast oats, infused with nutritional yeast for a vitamin B12 boost. (Speaking of grains and healthy carbs, amaranth, millet, spelt, and quinoa are other delicious vegan protein sources to consider.)* (7, 9, 10)

Seitan

For a meat substitute that mimics the real texture, try seitan, also known as wheat meat or wheat gluten. It’s made from gluten, a protein in wheat, and provides a good source of selenium. Seitan also contains small amounts of iron and calcium, two nutrients that support energy-yielding metabolism and bone health, respectively. With about 75 grams of protein per 100 grams, it’s an excellent source of protein—and can be prepared in a variety of ways, from pan frying, sautéeing, and grilling to the classic stir-fry.* (8, 12)

Tofu

Derived from soybeans—a complete source of protein—tofu is another versatile vegan choice. Made by pressing bean curds together (a process similar to cheesemaking), the final product delivers all nine essential amino acids the body needs. Since tofu doesn’t have much flavor on its own, it’s able to seamlessly integrate into the taste of whatever dish you’re making, absorbing the flavor of the accompanying spices and ingredients. (Tempeh is another popular soybean-derived option that boasts a nutty flavor.) Bonus: Tofu contains iron and calcium, too.

Protein powder

In general, we recommend following a food-first approach when it comes to nutrition. Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, Ritual’s VP of Scientific Affairs (and a registered dietitian), advises “aiming for a balanced diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, then using supplementation to help fill the gaps.” The truth is, while meeting nutritional needs via food is ideal, it’s not always realistic. Life happens, and even with a so-called “perfect” approach to eating, shortfalls can still occur—thanks to factors like genetics, dietary preferences, and more. This is where a high-quality protein supplement can be helpful. (Here’s some questions to ask to ensure you’re finding the best option out there.)

As for what to look for in a plant-based protein powder, start with assessing the quality of the protein. A high-quality protein powder doesn’t just factor in the amount of protein present—it also takes the essential amino acid profile into consideration. “Most plant-based protein sources are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids, so they are considered ‘incomplete,’” says Arianne Vance, MPH, Ritual’s Senior Scientist. We created Essential Protein with this in mind: Made with vegan-friendly pea protein and sustainably-harvested Madagascar vanilla—and enriched with L-Methionine to provide a complete amino acid profile—it’s an excellent (and delicious) source of protein. It’s also gluten-free, heavy metal-tested, and free of major allergens. (Curious how pea protein compares to, say, whey protein? We got you.)*

In the end, the best vegan protein sources are the ones you actually like, and therefore, eat—another reason a high-quality protein powder can be a helpful habit to introduce, especially if consuming protein-rich food sources is a struggle. Plus, it’s versatile: Shake it up with water or a favorite plant-based milk (soy milk and oat milk are great options), make protein balls or overnight oats, and of course, whip up some nutritionally-balanced smoothies (if you’re jonesing for more protein, try sprinkling in some sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or flax seeds). Nutritious and delicious—what’s not to love?

References:

  1. Polak, Rani et al. “Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake.” Clinical diabetes : a publication of the American Diabetes Association vol. 33,4 (2015): 198-205. doi:10.2337/diaclin.33.4.198
  2. “Chickpea Nutrition.” FoodData Central, USDA.
  3. “Hemp Seed Nutrition.” FoodData Central, USDA.
  4. “Quinoa Nutrition.” FoodData Central, USDA.
  5. “Edamame Nutrition.” FoodData Central, USDA.
  6. Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica): health promoting properties and therapeutic applications – a review. Retrieved from the National Institutes of Health
  7. “Oat Nutrition.” FoodData Central, USDA.
  8. National Institutes of Health. (2021, March 26). Selenium. Office of Dietary Supplements.
  9. USDA. (2019, 4 1). Cereals, oats, regular and quick, not fortified, dry. FoodData Central.
  10. Harvard Medical School. (2019, February 6). 11 foods that lower cholesterol. Harvard Health Publishing.
  11. USDA. (2019, 4 1). Lentils, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt. FoodData Central.
  12. USDA. (2020, 10 30). Meat substitute, cereal- and vegetable protein-based, fried. FoodData Central.

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Meet Our Experts

This article features advice and has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, VP of Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, VP of Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

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