Studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthier than omnivorous ones. Individuals who stick to plant-based diets often have a lower body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Plus, there are environmental benefits — such as less greenhouse gas emissions — as well. But can you get enough protein without eating meat?
“The challenge is that plant foods have less protein per serving than an animal food,” says Leslie Bonci, MHP, RD, founder of Active Eating Advice. “For example, 3 ounces of chicken has 21 grams of protein, but one following a plant-based diet would have to eat 1½ cups of beans to get a similar amount of protein.”
The key to a plant-based diet is knowing which foods provide the most benefits. “Plant-based foods are typically also great sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, so eating more of them can improve your overall nutrition game,” says Cynthia Sass, MA, RD, New York Times best-selling author, and sports nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
Here are your 10 bests for plant protein.
Lentils can be enjoyed many ways — on a salad, in soup, or even just on their own. These legumes clock in at a whopping 18 grams of protein per cup. “Plus, they also contain a good amount of fiber and minerals, including iron and magnesium,” Sass says, “as well as antioxidants and B vitamins.” Daily consumption of lentils has been connected to weight loss.
If you order it from your local sushi joint as an appetizer, you’re doing yourself a big favor. Within their shells, these soybeans pack 18 grams of protein per cup, Bonci says. You might want to consider adding them to your salad or main course more often. “Soy is a complete plant protein,” says Bonci, “meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs.”
Pronounced keen-wah, this superfood pseudograin is actually a seed, and it is also a complete protein, says Brendan Brazier, Vega formulator and co-founder, and best-selling author of the Thrive book series. Because it has so many nutrients and 8 grams of protein per cooked cup, it’s great in place of other whole grains in recipes. “It takes only 15 to 20 minutes to cook and is a great side dish, the base of a grain salad, or as an addition to a smoothie,” says Brazier.
You probably know the rhyme about how good they are for your heart. But beans are also a great source of protein. Black beans have 14 grams of protein per cup, explains Sass, but you can also opt for white, kidney, mung, or even chickpeas, all of which have a lot of fiber, too (keeping you fuller longer). “For convenience, I buy precooked beans in BPA-free cans,” says Brazier. We like to make our own hummus with whatever beans we have in the pantry.
Brown rice doesn’t give the biggest protein boost (5½ grams per cup) by itself, but combined with beans or seeds, the proteins complement each other, “ensuring you’re getting all of the essential amino acids, also known as the building blocks of protein, that your body needs in one meal,” says Brazier, who recommends soaking brown rice for eight to 10 hours before cooking it to get the benefits of sprouting, thus improving digestibility and increasing nutritional value.
They might not look like much, but these tiny seeds are extremely nutritious. In just 1 tablespoon, you’re getting close to 9½ grams of protein. Plus, they’re a complete protein, explains Brazier. “With a creamy, nutty taste, hemp seeds also have ALA omega-3, which is an essential fatty acid,” he says. “I add them to most salads and smoothies I make.”
You may just think of them as a salad topping, but sunflower seeds can be a great afternoon snack to help tide you over between meals, thanks to the 7 grams of protein in 1/4 cup of unshelled seeds. If you’re an avocado toast fan, sprinkle some of these on top to add a little crunch.
Similar to hemp seeds, chia seeds contain omega-3s, along with a bunch of fiber and protein (about 4½ grams per ounce). Try a chia seed pudding for an afternoon snack, suggests Brazier. It’s simple: “Mix chia seeds in nondairy milk and let sit for 15 minutes,” he says. “Add in any minimally processed sweetener, cinnamon, and fresh berries for a healthier take on tapioca pudding.”
Nuts and Nut Butters
If you’re looking for a snack with a protein punch, grab a handful of nuts. Because there are such a wide variety of options — almonds (6 grams of protein per ounce), walnuts (4 grams of protein per ounce), hazelnuts (4 grams of protein per ounce), Brazil nuts (4 grams of protein per ounce), pecans (2½ grams of protein per ounce), and more — you’re bound to find a type that you enjoy. “They offer unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” says Brazier. “Add whole raw nuts to a salad or smoothie, or scoop in a tablespoon of nut butter.” Bonus: Many varieties aren’t expensive and you don’t need to eat a lot.
Or you can opt for a nut butter — peanut butter and almond butter are popular — on multigrain bread, apple slices, or even a rice cake to get more protein than you would eating an egg. Peanut butter packs about 7 grams per 2 tablespoons, explains Bonci, along with 17 grams of fat, which helps you stay fuller longer. Almond butter has just under 7 grams of protein but 25 percent more monounsaturated fat, which makes it a slightly healthier choice. Many brands of nut butters sell on-the-go packets, which are perfect to throw in your gym bag, purse, or briefcase for when hunger calls.