Posed to a vegetarian, there are few questions more maddening than “Where do you get your protein?”
Invariably the person who has sworn off meat will roll their eyes before launching into an impassioned sermon about the multitudinous plant protein sources available to them.
In this article, we’ll cover the primary plant-based protein foods so that you can be in no doubt that vegetarians are getting all the protein they need, thank you very much.
Clearly the switch to a meat-free diet can be motivated by a number of factors, not least the perceived health benefits or ethical concerns.
And though care must to be taken to avoid nutritional deficiencies – specifically omega-3, calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12 – there is absolutely no reason why a vegetarian diet cannot be both healthy and sustainable.
As far as protein is concerned, nature has generously endowed us with an abundance of protein-rich whole foods, comprising veggies, legumes and nuts.
Modern manufacturing has also given us the option of meat substitutes: they look and taste like meat but were conceived in a laboratory (see: Quorn).
As we all know, protein is an essential component of a healthy, balanced diet and in truth, most people could benefit from getting more than the 0.75g per kilogram of body weight specified by the UK Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI).
Particularly if you’re accustomed to strength training and wish to maintain or gain lean muscle tissue.
Is it just as easy for a vegetarian or vegan to hit their daily protein targets, when compared to a carnivore? Well, that depends on the target.
0.75g per kg of body weight should be a breeze, but 1.5g may be trickier – though not impossible.
To make the process easier, we’ve listed the best plant-based protein foods below. Make sure that no meal is lacking in this important muscle-building macronutrient.
Natto is a highly nutritious fermented food popular throughout Japan, where it is served with cooked rice and topped with chives and various seasonings.
Boasting 31g of protein in a single cup, it’s a plant protein powerhouse!
Seitan, also known as wheat meat, is one of the planet’s richest sources of protein.
Made from gluten (one to avoid if you’re celiac or gluten-sensitive!), it has the look and texture of meat and absorbs flavours well. One 3.5 ounce serving yields 25g of protein.
Tempeh, like natto, belongs to the soybean family, meaning it’s classed as a ‘complete protein’.
Essentially fermented cooked soybeans pressed into a thick patty, the dense, nutty food can be used as a meat substitute in virtually any dish. Protein-wise, you’re looking at 19g per 100 grams.
A blue-green sea algae most commonly known for its detoxifying properties, spirulina is so bursting with protein that it’s regularly described as the the most nutrient-dense food on the planet.
Indeed, one tablespoon provides about 16g of the good stuff. For this reason, spirulina is commonly found in plant protein supplements.
Chickpeas – known by our American friends as garbanzo beans – are protein-packed legumes famed for their excellent nutritional profile.
Containing about 15g of protein per cooked cup, they taste great in wraps, in vegan curries and burgers, and in both soups and salads.
6. Nutritional Yeast
While it’s true that nutritional yeast is more of a condiment than a food, it’s one of the very best sources of vitamin B-12 you’ll find in the natural world.
The cheesy-tasting flakes boast 14g of protein per ounce and are best sprinkled over pasta dishes or stirred into soups.
7. Pumpkin Seeds
Another great source of complete protein are pumpkin seeds – which also happen to be repositories of healthy fats and minerals like zinc and magnesium.
One cup of pumpkin seeds yields 12g of protein, making them great for scattering over salads or mixing into your morning porridge/pancake mix.
8. Hemp Seeds
They might not be as protein-rich as pumpkin seeds, but hemp seeds are nonetheless an excellent source, yielding 9 crunchy grams per serving.
They’re also notable for their high fibre content, healthy fats (omega-3 and omega-6) and complete amino acid profile. Sprinkle a few tablespoons’ worth in a salad, add to yogurt or soup, or chuck in a smoothie.
Like natto, tempeh and seitan, tofu is a great meat-free base. Made from curdled soy milk, it’s super easy to toss in a wok and fry with vegetables and rice.
However, since it’s soy-based and unfermented it’s best to buy organic to avoid nasty GMOs. A 100g serving contains just over 8g of protein, including all essential amino acids.
Quinoa is often dubbed a superfood, and for good reason: not only is it an excellent plant-based protein food due to its complete spread of amino acids but it’s absolutely brimming with fibre (5g per serving).
In addition to supplying at least 25% of your daily phosphorus, magnesium and manganese, a cup of quinoa yields 8g of protein. Given that quinoa is more of a side dish, it makes the perfect accompaniment for one of the top three foods in this rundown.
“What about plant-based protein powders?” you may be wondering. Yes, as with meat-eaters, these supplements can be highly useful in helping you reach your daily quota.
However, real food should always be the focus.
Plant protein powders come in several different forms, though most rely on hemp, pea or brown rice. Some, like Vibrant Health’s Maximum Vibrance, derive their protein from several sources: yellow pea, sprouted brown rice, spirulina and chlorella.
Because it’s made from whole food ingredients, it’s a bit of a disservice to label Maximum Vibrance a ‘supplement’. One serving supplies 20g protein, in addition to over 100% of your daily vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D3 and vitamin E.
Perhaps of most interest to vegetarians, Maximum Vibrance supplies appreciable amounts of calcium (10%), zinc (30%) and iron (50%) per serving. The multi-supplement’s blend of vegetables, fruit, cereal grasses and botanicals make it a fantastic option.
If you’re worried about missing out on omega-3s, meanwhile, consider using cold-pressed organic flaxseed oil.
A good-quality flax oil should be made entirely from flax seeds, nature’s richest fish-free source of essential fatty acids. We can vouch for the Omega Nutrition brand, having stocked their products in the past.
By incorporating more of the foods listed above, you’ll be sure to hit your daily protein targets. If you’re struggling for inspiration, there are many good cookbooks for those following a plant-based diet. Mindbodygreen.com have written about a selection of them.
Remember, a plant protein supplement like Maximum Vibrance can help you meet your goals, particularly as it is made from concentrated fruit and vegetables. But the focus should always be on preparing and cooking your own food, from scratch.
Want to know about more high-protein veggies? This article by Prevention.com delves a little deeper.
A good-quality flax oil should be made entirely from flax seeds, nature’s richest fish-free source of essential fatty acids.