Prefer your protein to be hormone and antibiotic-free, packed with antioxidants and served with a massive sprinkling of good karma? Same.
Vegan protein is clearly good for the health, happiness and longevity of our animal friends. But plant-based proteins also require less energy, less land and less water to produce. All this, and a recent study found that a high-protein vegan diet slashed the risk of early death in women over 50 by almost 50%, while a vegan diet was also associated with a lower risk of heart disease in adults.
Good for animals, good for the planet, good for you, vegan protein is a wellness win-win all-round. But if you’ve got a particular protein goal in mind, could plants possibly compete with meat when it comes to giving you decent amounts of this must-have macronutrient?
We think they can. And to prove it, we’ve tracked down the very best plant-based protein sources Mother Nature has in her larder. So read on because, while you might have 99 problems, getting enough protein in your healthy vegan diet won’t be one.
Vegan protein sources
Thought nothing compared to steak? These super high vegan protein sources will blow your meat-free mind.
Click below to jump straight to your favourite vegan protein, or read on to see them all.
- Beans and Pulses
- Soy, Tofu and Tempeh
- Nuts and Seeds
- Other Vegan Protein Examples
- Complete Plant-based Proteins
Beans and pulses
Not only significantly cheaper per gram than meat, beans are one of nature’s healthiest sources containing no saturated fat, plenty of fibre and a raft of vitamins and minerals. These little health heroes pack in about 21 to 25 per cent protein by weight, and they’re also rich in prebiotics meaning they’re a feast for your gut bacteria.
Edamame beans aren’t only a delicious starter just like (Waga) mama used to make, they’re also real protein powerhouses at 13g per 100g. These immature whole soybeans still in their pod can be steamed or boiled and covered in salt, and they’re also considered a complete protein as they offer all nine of the essential amino acids your body can’t make for itself.
Lentils (9g protein per 100g) also score highly and work well as a substitute for mince in chilli and spaghetti bolognese, while chickpeas (9g protein per 100g) can be blitzed for hummus or made into falafel. Even frozen garden peas contain 5g protein per 100g and offer lots of vitamin C along with their sweet taste.
Virtually all beans and legumes provide decent amounts of protein, but because they all have different micronutrients it’s a great idea to include as many as you can as part of a healthy, varied diet.
Soy, tofu and tempeh
Depending on who you ask, soy is either a total superfood or something to be totally avoided. So what’s really going on? In fact, soy is just a bean. From the same family as edamame, soybeans are left to mature and harden in their shells. In their whole-food form, soy shares exactly the same benefits as its beany cousins, being rich in vitamins, minerals fibre and antioxidants.
But where soy really shines is in the amount of protein it provides. At 12.3g of protein per 100g, soybeans have one of the highest levels of protein and are a great source of iron that’s particularly well-absorbed.
Tempeh, a kind of fermented cake made of whole soybeans, scores even higher providing a massive 20g of protein per 100g. Tofu (8g protein per 100g) is curdled soy milk with a bland taste that acts like a blank canvas for the flavour of whatever you cook it in.
While it’s protein and amino acid-packed, soy isn’t without its problems. Soy is so cheap to produce that it's found its way into a lot of the processed food we like to eat, such as meat replacements, sweets and chocolate. You can eat an awful lot of soy without even realising it.
The type of soy used in processed foods also tends to be a highly refined, isolated soy that has none of the benefits of the whole kind, and may even pose certain health risks.
But there are ways to enjoy soy healthfully:
Buy organic - Soy is grown in massive amounts meaning it’s a major focus for genetic modification and pesticides. Buying organic soy, tofu or tempeh is a great way to avoid this issue.
Stick to wholefood sources - Recent convert to the plant-based lifestyle? It can be tempting to swap like-for-like, for example using processed meat replacements instead of meat, or soy milk instead of dairy. Processed soy is best kept in the same place as any processed food in your diet - fairly minimal.
Vary your diet - If you love soy, tempeh and tofu for cooking, try different forms of plant milks such as oat, and look for soy-free protein powders made from hemp, quinoa or pea, for example.
While high protein diets don’t cause kidney disease in healthy people, eating too much of the macronutrient can be problematic if you already suffer from the condition. People with renal disease often have to limit the amount of protein in their diets as their kidneys may not be able to remove the excess waste efficiently.
Some people with kidney disease are unable to regulate potassium efficiently. All beans, including soybeans, contain high levels of potassium so they’re usually avoided by those who have been told to follow a low-potassium diet.
Grains are mostly made up of carbohydrates, but they’re also a surprisingly good source of easily-digested protein. For example, rolled oats contain 10g protein per 100g, along with a lot of antioxidants, fibre and beta-glucans.
Because grains lack certain amino acids, they’re not considered a complete protein. But what they’re missing can be more than made up by the complementary amino acids found in legumes. That’s why beans and rice or peanut butter on wholegrain toast make the perfect partners in crime.
When it comes to high protein grains, quinoa always gets a special mention because, along with amaranth and buckwheat, it’s one of the only grains that contains a complete amino acid balance. If you wanted to be picky, both quinoa and amaranth are technically seeds rather than a grain, and buckwheat is a fruit.
At 5g of protein per 100g, plus plenty of fibre, magnesium, B-vitamins, iron and antioxidants, quinoa is clearly nutritious. Its sweet, nutty flavour allows you to use it much like you would couscous, as a tasty alternative to rice or pasta. But there’s no need to feel like you have to include quinoa in your diet just because it’s one of the only grains that’s ‘complete’.
The human body maintains a pool of free amino acids that complement the food we eat. So as long as you’re getting a varied plant-based diet over the course of the day (it doesn’t even have to be at every single meal) you won’t be missing out on anything you need.
- Is rice a good source of protein?
All rice has some protein, but different varieties score more highly than others. Top of the protein pops is wild rice (actually the seed of a water grass) with 100mg of the cooked kind giving you 4g of protein. It also contains fewer calories and more lysine (an essential amino acid) than brown rice.
Brown rice contains 2.6g protein per 100g, while white rice brings up the rear, with 100mg providing about 2g.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds pack a powerful protein punch, along with giving you hefty amounts of concentrated micronutrients. But they also come with equally hefty amounts of fat and calories so need to be kept in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Highest in the protein stakes are hemp seeds (31.6g protein per 100g). Chia seeds (17g per 100g) aren’t exactly slackers on the protein front either. But the best thing? Both chia and hemp are a complete protein giving you all nine essential amino acids.
Hemp and chia are extremely easy to use in smoothies or as a salad topping. But remember that, while we’ve included the amount of protein per 100g, that’s purely for comparison purposes. Eating 100g of seeds in one sitting could cause you a bit of digestive distress! Sticking to the recommended amounts should keep you discomfort-free while still providing a great protein boost: that’s three tablespoons of hemp seeds per day (9.47g protein) and two tablespoons of chia (3g protein), ideally spread over the course of the day, not all in one go.
Nut-wise, peanuts (26g per 100g and yes, we know they’re really a legume) and almonds (21g per 100g) are both great sources of plant-based protein that can be eaten as a snack or spread in butter-form on your toast.
Leafy greens are surprisingly high in protein for their calories, and also come with lots of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. Adding them to your diet not only adds a protein boost, but lots of other nutrients that help you glow with good health.
Watercress (2.3g protein per 100g), sprouts (3.6g protein per 100g) and kale (2.7g protein per 100g) are some great examples. But while raw food enthusiasts may say we can meet all of our protein needs just by eating our greens, in reality the volume required would soon be unsustainable, both in terms of costs and in the amount of chomping you’d need to do.
Broccoli (2.8g protein per 100g) does contain all nine of the essential amino acids, it’s true. There’s just one problem. Not only is it lower in some amino acids than it is in others, you’d also have to eat vast quantities to get anywhere near the recommended daily amounts of each one.
It’s particularly low in tryptophan, with 100g of broccoli providing a measly 0.033g of it. The RDA of tryptophan is around 340g for an adult, and that’s an awful lot of broccoli.
Other vegan protein examples
Feel like there’s something missing from your plant-based diet plan? Use these clever vegan protein hacks whenever you need a boost.
Spirulina is a nutritionally dense blue-green alga. Just one tablespoon (7g) gives you 4g of protein with all of the essential amino acids and a whole alphabet of micronutrients, from B-complex vitamins to copper, iron and potassium. The only downside is that it’s not that much fun to eat. Try mixing it into a smoothie, or take the strong flavour down a notch by mixing it with something acidic, like pineapple juice.
Stir-fry lacking something protein-y? An alternative to meat, seitan is made from wheat gluten that’s marinated in spices. It’s chewier than tempeh and tofu, high in iron and selenium and packed with protein at around 25g per 100g, although amounts vary from product to product.
Nutritional yeast flakes
OK, it doesn’t sound that yummy, but this flaky inactive yeast actually tastes a bit like parmesan. Perfect for livening up anything that calls for grated cheese, like pasta and sauce, it has an enormous 46g of complete protein per 100g along with healthy amounts of vitamin B12, and a low sodium and calorie count.
Vegan protein powders
These are made from whole foods such as soy, pea, hemp or quinoa with the carbohydrate and fat removed. While not strictly necessary if your diet is healthy, vegan protein powders can be a really helpful way of managing your macros, particularly if you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle. That’s because they can increase the percentage of total calories coming from protein.
All-in-one blends that combine protein with essential micronutrients can also be super convenient if time is too tight to cook a protein-packed meal. For example Vivo Life’s WHOLE: Plant Based Nutritional Shake blends plant-based protein with essential fats, vitamins and minerals and herbs, making it a nourishing (and quick!) breakfast when you’re rushing out of the door.
Is pea or soy protein a better source for your vegan protein powder? Soy protein is often lauded as it contains a full amino acid profile, while pea protein is only nearly complete. However soy, as we’ve seen above, is potentially problematic due to concerns about GM crops and high levels of pesticides.
To get a full amino acid profile in a vegan protein powder without the use of soy, blends of complementary plant sources are often used. For example, we use a blend of pea and hemp along with plant-based branch chain amino acids for our Perform Vegan Protein Powder with BCAAs, and a blend of pea, hemp and quinoa for our Ritual Vegan Protein Powder. That way you know you’re getting all the essential amino acids you need.
Read more about the differences between pea and soy protein with our guide.
What plant based proteins are complete?
Your body makes all the different proteins it needs for growth, structure and repair out of around 20 amino acids. Eleven of them the body can make itself, while nine have to come from the food we eat. Food is considered a ‘complete’ protein when it contains these nine essential amino acids your body can’t make for itself.
Most complete proteins are animal-based, except for a few. Need a quick reminder of what they are? Here’s our checklist of the complete proteins you’ll find in the plant-based kingdom.
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Nutritional yeast
Which incomplete plant-based protein can be combined?
Unless you’re on some strange rice and Haribo diet, you’ll be getting all the amino acids you need over the course of the day without having to think about it. The theory that you need to pair different sources of plant based protein in a meal to get a complete amino acid profile was debunked as a myth many years ago.
Yes, most plant proteins are strictly speaking an ‘incomplete protein’ as they contain some, but not all, of these nine amino acids. But pairing two together (for example, hummus and pitta, broccoli and tofu, rice and beans) can make ‘incomplete’ proteins complete.
But remember that you don’t even have to do this kind of pairing strictly at every single meal. Over the course of the day is plenty.
So, are vegan protein sources better for your health?
Whether you’re looking to build muscle, burn fat or simply cook healthier meals, vegan sources can provide all the protein your body needs.
Getting your protein from plants means you’ll be eating more vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, something that’s been linked to the health of our hearts, brain and our gut microbiome. And, while fad diets may come and go, chances are you’ll never be warned about the dangers of eating more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids or fibre in your diet!
Liked this article? Then find out more about protein of the plant-based kind with our ultimate guide to vegan protein.