Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or just sick of chicken breast, you can still hit your protein targets without having to rely on animal-based proteins.
Typically lumped into the “carb” category, plant-based proteins encompass a huge variety of foods that can help you reach your protein targets while also providing tons of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Beans, legumes, whole grains, and even some vegetables have decent amounts of protein. And, while these often get overshadowed by animal products like meat or dairy, many flexible dieters might choose to get some or all of their protein from plant-based sources.
Protein from plants are often called “incomplete proteins,” which turns many non-vegetarians/vegans away from using them to hit their protein goals. But, while each individual plant protein will lack some essential amino acids—or won’t have as much of one or the other—you can still get “complete proteins” by combining and eating a nice variety of plant-based foods.
And that doesn’t mean just eating beans and rice all day! Close your eyes and imagine a world where you can get plenty of lean protein without endless servings of chicken breast, egg whites, or tilapia. Now open your eyes and keep reading to make it a reality.
Beans are legumes, which is a category of plants that also includes peas (more on them later), peanuts, and lentils. Legumes are the number-one source of plant-based protein, averaging about 15 grams of protein per cup. Beans provide the greatest variety of legumes to choose from: black beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, fava beans, or kidney beans—just to name a few. Not only are they high in protein, beans are also high in fiber, potassium, and iron. Soybeans really top the charts, however, with a whopping 28 grams of protein per cup!
Commonly thought of as a vegetable, peas are actually legumes too. One cup of green peas has 8 grams of protein, and split peas have 16 grams per cup! If childhood memories of being told to “finish your peas” makes you shudder, you can try swapping out your post-workout whey protein shake for a pea protein shake instead. Gram for gram, pea protein isolate is nearly identical to whey protein with its nutritional profile, with around 20 grams of protein per serving (depending on the brand). Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is rich in BCAA’s. However, it’s lower in one amino acid, methionine, relative to other complete proteins. You can correct this deficiency by combining pea protein with rice protein—which is a common practice in most vegan protein powders.
To reach your protein macro targets using legumes, aim for 2-3 servings per day. Try a home-made bean chili for lunch or dinner, hummus and a whole wheat pita for a snack, or cook up a tasty lentil curry.
3. WHOLE GRAINS
What do vegan zombies eat to get jacked? Grraaaiiinnssss.
Just kidding. Anyway—whole grains are next on the list of top plant-based proteins. Whole grains like Kamut, oats, wild rice, millet, and couscous contain anywhere from 4 to 16 grams of protein per serving. Much like legumes, there’s an abundance of grains to choose from, and options like quinoa and amaranth are even complete proteins! Interestingly, while legumes tend to be low in the essential amino acid methionine, whole grains are generally lower in lysine, which is where the idea of food combining comes in (and why rice and beans come to mind when people think of vegetarian diets).
Balancing legumes with grains either within meals or throughout the day assures optimal levels of the essential amino acids, with plenty of protein to boot! Try adding some peanut butter to your morning oatmeal, or wrap a whole wheat tortilla around a bean burrito. Eating five servings of grains throughout your day ensures at least 30 grams of plant-based goodness toward your protein macro target.
Veggies take third place for top plant-based protein sources. Yes, you read that right!
Plenty of vegetables are high in protein, including mushrooms, spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, asparagus, sweet corn, Brussel sprouts, and artichokes. These veggies give us about 4 grams of protein per cup, so we can use them to complement legumes and whole grains to boost the protein profile of the meal. While they’re low in protein relative to meat, vegetables are packed with fiber and phytonutrients, making them an excellent addition to any meal! Add a handful of spinach or kale to your pea protein shake, or enjoy a stir fry with broccoli, mushrooms, brown rice, and edamame for a high-protein plant-based dinner.
5. MEAT SUBSTITUTES
If you’re considering a fully plant-based diet, but think you might miss eating meat, then meat substitutes can come to your rescue. There are lots of meat substitute products on the market now that are high in protein and taste similar to meat. Some examples are veggie ground round (like ground beef, minus the beef), veggie bacon, imitation chicken patties, or veggie meatballs. The most popular meat substitute products are made of tofu, tempeh, seitan, or textured vegetable protein (TVP). Because of their texture and ability to absorb other flavors, these products are the closest to animal products, and they have the most protein of any plant-based protein source!
To sum up: When most people think about vegan or vegetarian diets, they seem to think it’s just piles of vegetables, and seriously lacking in protein. But we can safely put those fears to rest. Plant-based diets, with a little work, can be more than sufficient in protein, high in fiber, flavor, and nutrients, while also lower in calories and fat than a diet based around animal products. Whether you choose plant-based proteins to replace or complement animal ones, just know that they’re abundantly available and great choices for mixing up your diet while still hitting those macro targets.
Stephanie Sands BSc Psychology; BSc Kinesiology, Mind Science