12 Plant-Based Proteins To Keep You Healthy & Strong
Protein is an essential macronutrient to include in your diet. And if you’re trying to consume less meat or you’re already vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to find plant-based alternatives to animal-derived protein that will still meet your daily nutrition needs.
There are many reasons you might want to cut down on your meat intake – whether it’s for environmental reasons, availability, ethics, or for your physical health. It’s also entirely possible to meet your dietary needs while following a vegan or vegetarian diet.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated in 2016 that well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are not only adequate for meeting your nutritional needs, but may help prevent certain diseases. Part of this planning is ensuring you are eating enough protein on a daily basis.
How much protein do you need?
The National Health and Medical Research Council (for Australia and New Zealand) recommends that men consume 64 grams of protein per day, while women consume 46 grams of protein per day. In the USA, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated in 2015 that the recommended daily intake of protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight per day for adults.
Protein is essential for building and repairing your bones and muscles, heart health and energy levels. It is made up of 20 amino acids: nine of which are ‘essential’ in your diet for as your body doesn’t naturally produce them. In other words, you need to get them from the food you’re eating.
Foods that contain all nine amino acids are referred to as ‘complete’ proteins, and are predominantly animal-based like meat and eggs. Plant based proteins also contain the essential amino acids, but a single source of plant protein won’t generally contain all nine essential amino acids.
Can you get enough protein from plant-based foods?
According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, you can get all of the essential nine amino acids through plant-based protein sources.
However, this does not mean that you cannot obtain all nine amino acids through plant-based proteins alone. According to researchers from a 2018 study, published by Point Loma Nazarene University in Nutrients, there is sufficient research to show that you can still obtain the necessary amino acids from plant-based sources, so long as you eat a well-planned diet that includes a variety of high protein foods.
The benefits of plant-based sources of protein
There are many benefits of following a vegetarian diet or reducing your meat consumption with a flexitarian diet, from added health advantages to environmental impact.
According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index. One study from 2016 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine analysed two groups weight loss over 18 weeks, and found that the group that followed a vegetarian diet lost significantly more weight than the non-vegetarian group. This suggests that eating a vegetarian diet can help with weight loss over time.
The American Dietetic Association position statement in 2009 suggests that vegetarian diets can help reduce the risk of death from ischemic heart disease. They also suggest that the lower amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and greater consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy, fiber, and phytochemicals are associated with a reduced risk of chronic illness in vegetarians.
Reducing harmful environment impact
According to a 2018 research article, submitted by the University of Oxford to journal Nature, one key part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the global population moving toward a more plant-based diet. A key part of moving toward a plant-based diet is identifying and consuming plant-based protein alternatives to animal products.
Reduced blood pressure
Following a vegetarian diet is associated with lower blood pressure, according to a 2014 meta-analysis from the Journal of American Medical Association Internal Medicine. This means swapping your meat and animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins has the potential to reduce your blood pressure, and thus improving your overall health.
12 sources of plant-based protein
With all of the benefits of reducing your meat intake and swapping meat proteins for plant-based, it’s vital to know which foods you can eat that will allow you to get your vital amino acids and help support a balanced diet.
Tofu is a ‘complete’ protein in that it contains all nine essential amino acids. Firm tofu contains about 12g of protein per 100g serving For comparison, 100g serving of beef, which contains 15.3g of protein. Tofu also contains iron, calcium, magnesium and healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Tofu is made from pressed bean curd from soybeans, and when uncooked and unseasoned it is relatively bland. But because of this tofu is great at absorbing the flavours of the food it’s cooked with, meaning it’s great for marinating and adding to curries and stir fries.
Tempeh is another soy product similar to tofu, except the soybeans are fermented and pressed while whole. Tempeh, like tofu, is also a complete protein in that it contains all nine essential amino acids.
Tempeh has a nuttier flavour than tofu, and it also makes a great addition to stir fries, curries and salads. Tempeh contains 18.5g of protein per 100g serving.
Not only are chickpeas high in protein – with a serving of 100g of dried chickpeas containing 7.2g of protein, but they’re high in fibre too with this same serving containing 7.6 g of dietary fibre.
According to a 2009 review on the health benefits of dietary fibre in Nutrition Reviews, people who have a high daily fibre intake have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and certain gastrointestinal diseases.
Lentils are in the legume food group and contain 7.3g of protein per 100g serving. Lentils also contain fibre, folic acid, potassium and 11.9g of carbohydrates.
Lentils are a versatile food that can be added to many cuisines – including soups, dahl, curries, and even as a replacement for mince in pasta sauces.
Black beans (along with many other types of beans) are a great source of protein and complex carbohydrates – containing 8.9g of protein per 100g serving, and 23.7g of carbohydrates.
A 2014 study published by the University of Oxford in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, found that consuming a half cup of beans (and other pulses) every day can increase your intake of key vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium.
Black beans are a versatile food that is common in Mexican cooking – a great meat replacement in chilli con carne, added to tacos, and in black bean soup.
Nuts are an excellent source of protein for plant-based eaters, with nuts such as unsalted almonds containing 19.7g of protein per 100g serving. Nuts are also a great source of healthy fats and fibre.
Nuts are a good healthy snack on-the-go, or a pre-workout snack with a piece of fruit. You can add nuts or nut butter to oatmeal or desserts for an extra protein kick and flavour.
A 100g serving of baked potato contains 3.5g of protein. Potatoes are also very low in fat, with high amounts of potassium, vitamin C and B6.
Potatoes are an incredibly versatile vegetable, you can bake it, mash it, boil it, and add it to salads or a roast dinner for an added nutrient boost.
Quinoa has long been a staple in South American diets, and for good reason. Quinoa is a seed (closely resembling a grain) that contains 3.6g of protein per 100g serving.
Equally high in fibre, with 3.4g per 100g serving, quinoa is also a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is gluten-free for those who can’t eat wheat, and can be used interchangeably with other grains like rice and pasta.
Chia seeds contain 14g of protein per 100g serving, with 34.4g of dietary fibre. They also contain high levels of antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids, making them a great addition to your diet.
Chia seeds expand when combined with water and can be used as an egg substitute in vegan baking, or to create chia porridge. There are plenty of chia seed recipes available that utilise this protein source.
Nutritional yeast is often used as a vegan alternative to parmesan cheese, as it has a nutty cheese-like flavour. Nutritional yeast is made from inactive yeast, and is sold as yellow flakes. It can be purchased fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, or unfortified.
Fortified nutritional yeast contains around 50g of protein per 100g serving. Add this as a garnish on pasta, soups, or even pizza.
Green peas contain 4.8g of protein per 100g serving. They’re also high in magnesium, potassium and calcium, with 5.2g of dietary fibre per 100g serving.
Green peas are easy to cook, tasty, and can be added to so many recipes, including curries, soups, and as a side of greens to any meal.
Spirulina is a powdered supplement made from algae, a seaweed-like substance that grows in rivers and lakes. When made into a powder it is very high in protein and other nutrients, with about 50g of protein per 100g. It also contains 54mg of iron, and is high in antioxidants.
Should you track how much protein you’re eating?
Protein is just one of the essential macronutrients you should be eating on a day-to-day basis. But tracking your macros or the exact amount of you’re eating is not essential for developing healthy eating habits.
However if you’re following a specific strength training routine or are eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, keeping an eye on the amount of protein you are eating is a smart move. And luckily there are so many plant-based proteins you can eat that are great for you and will help you reach your fitness goals.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.