The Best Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans

Whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, eating more plant-based meals is an excellent way to improve your overall health while introducing a wider variety of unique and flavorful foods into your diet. A common misconception about plant-based meals is that they’re lacking in high-quality protein, especially when compared to animal protein sources such as poultry, fish and meat. Thankfully, this simply isn’t true. As part of a balanced diet, a mix of plant protein can easily provide rich amounts of all 9 essential amino acids that your body needs for tissue growth and repair, and is often a lot more beneficial than animal products on a variety of fronts. For example, plant-based proteins are low or free of saturated fats and cholesterol, yet high in heart-protecting fiber, vitamins and minerals like potassium. Whether you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, or simply trying to add more meatless meals into your week, we’ve put together a list of some of the best plant-based proteins to incorporate into your diet.

1. Beans

Grilled Portobellos with Chopped Salad

About: Beans are some of the richest sources of plant protein on the planet. A member of the pulse family, beans are versatile, affordable, easy to cook and come in tons of colorful varieties including black beans, red kidney beans, Adzuki beans, navy and pinto.

Protein: One cup of cooked beans can contain up to a whopping 16 grams of protein. Pair with some brown rice and roasted veggies, and you have just about as much protein as a 3-ounce serving of chicken breast.

Tip: If you purchase beans canned, it’s best to choose a low-sodium variety and rinse before using them. If purchasing dry, it’s best to soak them overnight to hydrate them effectively before boiling. If you plan to keep beans beyond two days, freeze them after cooking for best quality.

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2. Quinoa

Broccoli, radish and feta salad with quinoa

About: Quinoa is queen when it comes to plant proteins. Unlike other ancient grains, quinoa is one of the few plant-based proteins that contains all nine essential amino acids needed to build muscle. Research suggests that quinoa even matches milk casein in terms of its protein quality. In addition, quinoa is a rich vegan source of protective minerals potassium, iron and calcium, essential for maintaining muscle and circulatory health.  

Protein: One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of complete protein, which is more than the amount in a large egg!

Tip: Quinoa comes in a rainbow of colors and textures. For a fluffy texture, go for the more common white quinoa. For a more crunchy consistency and nuttier flavor profile, choose red and black quinoa. You can also cook different varieties and blend them for a protein-packed grain medley!

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3. Ancient Grains

About: We are all familiar with queen quinoa, but many other varieties of whole grains and pseudograins are also fantastic sources of protein, including amaranth, buckwheat, farro and sorghum.  

Protein: About a cup of cooked grains can contain between 5 and 7 grams of plant protein.  One thing to keep in mind is that on their own, grains do not contain all of the essential amino acids, so make sure you are eating a variety of plant protein sources in addition to grains such as beans, legumes, nuts and seeds to make sure your overall diet is well balanced.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to step outside the box when it comes to grains. Instead of only sticking to whole wheat pasta and quinoa, expand your grain horizons by experimenting with different ancient grains in your favorite recipes. Next time you make a stir-fry, try making it with farro instead of rice, and swap your next morning oatmeal with amaranth. The possibilities are endless! 

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4. Nuts & Seeds


About: Nuts and seeds are one of the most versatile and powerful plant protein categories of all, and are a staple for anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet. This category includes favorites such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and many more. Besides being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are generally excellent sources of unsaturated fats including omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols, which studies have shown play a heart-protective role in the body over time.  

Protein: One serving of nuts or seeds — approximately ¼ cup of roasted nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter — can range between 5 and 8 grams of protein. Not bad for a few bites!

Tip: Nuts and seeds make excellent snacks, so pack them with you when you’re on the run for a satisfying, filling and protein-powered pick-me-up. Try to choose raw or roasted, unsalted nuts and seeds to avoid unnecessary sugar and sodium.  

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5. Edamame

Edamame in a bowl

About: Thanks to the popularity of Japanese cuisine, you may be familiar with edamame, the young bean fresh from the green soybean pod. Edamame is a true protein powerhouse, a rare plant-based product containing all nine essential amino acids. Edamame is also a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as bioactive compounds that are studied for their effect on improving total blood lipids in the body.

Protein: One cup of cooked edamame has over 18 grams of protein. Some experts even suggest a total soy recommendation per day of 25 grams to help improve lipid profiles.

Tip: Purchase edamame fresh or frozen, shelled or unshelled.  You can easily throw in a handful of edamame into soups, salads and grain dishes for a protein boost, or enjoy on its own as a savory snack.  

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For more high-protein meal ideas, check out Zipongo’s High Protein recipe category

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