The 5 best sources of plant-based protein
If you’ve been vegan for more than 4 minutes, you’ve been asked the age-old question, “But where do you get your protein?” It’s as if animal products were the only protein-containing substances available. But where did those animals get their protein to get big and strong? You guessed it: plants.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are commonly referred to as their building blocks. A common misconception is that plant foods are entirely devoid of some of the essential amino acids, leading to the inaccurate term “incomplete proteins”, and the outdated concept of combining foods to create “complete” proteins. In fact, all plant foods contain all 20 amino acids — both essential (required in our diets) and nonessential (produced in our bodies) — just in varying ratios depending on the food. As long as you’re eating a variety of foods throughout the day and throughout each week, you’re covered.
How much protein do I need?
Once you know how much protein to aim for, you can include appropriate sources in your diet. There are no one-size-fits-all protein guidelines like there are for micronutrients like iron, B12, or zinc. Your protein needs depend on many factors like your body weight, overall activity level, health and physique goals, and the type of training you do.
Government health organizations recommend that most people get between 10% and 35% of their total calories from protein. On the low end (which includes sedentary people), that’s about 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. This is extremely simple to achieve. Did you know 100 grams of rolled oats contains 16 grams of protein? Or that one cup of tempeh has between 30 and 40 grams of protein?
Highly active people, especially those who strength train, require higher protein intakes than sedentary people. To support regular strength training, between 1.3 and 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a good place to start. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, that’s between 87 and 123 grams of protein per day. On 2,000 calories per day, that’s between 17.4% and 24.6% of calories coming from protein, which is straightforward to achieve on a plant-based diet.
Dr. Anastasia Zinchenko (PhD in biochemistry, competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter) has conducted her own research into vegan athletes’ protein needs. She found that slightly higher protein intakes may be optimal: between 1.8 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. That’s between 123 and 170 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound strength trainee. Her research focused on advanced strength athletes who train most days of the week, so if you're just getting into strength training or are at an intermediate level, you likely won’t need as much protein. (Check out my podcast episodes with her: part 1 and part 2).
Tired of reading about grams and percentages and don’t want to do any calculations yourself? Use our vegan protein calculator to quickly determine your daily protein requirement.
5 plant-based protein powerhouses
Now that you know how much protein to aim for each day, these five foods will help you nail your protein goal:
Seitan has been used as a meat substitute for hundreds of years in East Asia. Developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks, it’s easy (and economical) to make your own. Seventy-five percent of the calories in this seitan recipe come from protein. That's more protein per calorie than most animal-based foods! All you need is wheat gluten flour, seasonings of your choice, and a liquid base (such as vegetable broth).
Seitan’s meat-like texture makes it extremely versatile. It can be grilled, fried (or air fried), baked, steamed, or boiled, and can be used as the protein feature in dishes like stir-fries, curries, tacos, and sandwiches.
100 grams of cooked seitan contains 25 grams of protein. 100 grams of vital wheat gluten flour (the main ingredient in seitan) contains about 75 grams of protein.
2. Legume-based pastas
If you haven’t yet tried pasta made from red lentils, chickpeas, or edamame, you’re in for a treat. These single-ingredient protein powerhouses cook up just like regular pasta, but pack a serious protein punch. Add tomato sauce, some vegan meatballs, and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, and you’re looking at almost 50 grams of protein in a single meal.
If you have an air fryer, here’s a top-secret tip: cook high-protein pasta as you normally would. Then add some (optional) seasonings like salt, black pepper, liquid smoke, and/or garlic powder. Air fry until crispy, and you now have high-protein snack chips!
In 100 grams of (uncooked) edamame pasta, you get 48 grams of protein.
3. Soy curls
Soy curls are minimally processed and contain a single ingredient: soy beans. Whole soy beans are cooked, pressed, and dried into a stringy meat-like texture. Much like seitan, soy curls can be used in countless ways. Try them sautéed, baked, or air fried. They’re delicious in curries, fresh spring rolls, and as a pot pie ingredient.
Since soy curls are dried, they’ll last forever in your pantry. Soak them for 10 minutes before using them in a recipe. Try using a flavorful liquid for soaking, like vegetable broth, or a sauce made of water, tamari, rice vinegar, and garlic.
100 grams of dry soy curls contains 35 grams of protein. Bonus: they’re also high in fiber!
A classic protein source for vegans around the world, tofu (a.k.a. soy bean curd) comes in many different textures, from silken to extra firm. It’s a “blank slate” that takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked in. Try marinating tofu cubes overnight in your sauce of choice, and then pan-frying them. For next-level crispy texture, air fry medium or firm tofu cubes until golden brown. No extra ingredients required!
You can use crumbled tofu in scrambles or a veggie hash, blend silken tofu into smoothies, or roast it with root vegetables in the oven. In addition to protein, tofu is an excellent source of calcium and iron.
100 grams of firm tofu contains about 17 grams of protein.
5. Nutritional yeast
The weirdest-named food item around also happens to be one of the most concentrated sources of protein, and has been a plant-based staple for decades. “Nooch”, as it’s called by many vegans, is an inactive form of the yeast strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s the same strain of yeast used to leaven baked goods and to make beer, but it’s been pasteurized.
Its cheesy, nutty, umami flavor lends itself well to many dishes. Use it as a popcorn, pasta, steamed veggie, or pizza topping; or a secret flavor ingredient in dressings and homemade crackers.
Nutritional yeast is typically fortified with vitamins, including high levels of B12. It’ll last up to two years in an airtight container.
100 grams of nutritional yeast contains 45 grams of protein.
These are just some of the plant-based protein sources for you to explore. There are many more, so go forth and protein on!
Download your copy of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan ebook, for free!
Celebrating 5 years of my podcast, the ebook includes advice from yours truly on fuelling strength training with plants, as well as insight from four experts featured on the show, including Robert Cheeke -- one of the founders of vegan bodybuilding.