19 Best Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Sources

These meat- and dairy-free foods are chock-full of the powerhouse nutrient.

Proteins are the building blocks of life. In the body, proteins break down into small molecules, called amino acids, which aid cell growth and repair. Proteins also take longer to digest than carbohydrates, helping you feel full longer with fewer calories. So, proteins are an essential component of healthily managing your weight.

Women should get a minimum of about 46 grams of protein daily, and men need about 56 grams. Although, depending on your weight and activity level, you may need more.

Animal products—meat, eggs, and dairy—are hallmark protein sources. But those products can also be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. And those protein sources may not be helpful if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. Luckily, you don't need to eat meat or cheese to get enough of the essential nutrient.

Here are 19 vegetarian and vegan protein sources and tips on adding them to your diet today.

Benefits of Plant-Based Protein

Eating more plant-based and less animal protein may benefit your health and the environment. Benefits of plant-based protein include:

  • More fiber and nutrient content
  • Little or no saturated fat, which is implicated in heart disease
  • Low or no sodium
  • Less risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Less risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Beans and Legumes

Some plant-based foods with the highest protein content include beans and legumes, which you can mix into salads or blend into salad dressings, dips, or sauces.

Peas

Legumes are a great source of plant-based protein, and peas are no exception. One cup of peas contains 7.9 grams of protein, compared to 8.23 grams in reduced-fat milk.

And if you don't like peas as a side dish, try blending them into a pesto, Elle Penner, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, told Health.

"I blend frozen peas, toasted pine nuts, fresh mint, and olive oil and serve over linguine," said Penner. "It's one of my all-time favorite meat-free meals."

Beans

There are many varieties of beans: black, white, pinto, heirloom, and more. But one thing all beans have in common is their high amounts of protein. For example, two cups of red kidney beans contain about 28 grams of protein, which is more than three cups of cow's milk (24.7 grams).

And you don't have to make beans from scratch to reap their nutritional benefits, said Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RDN, author of Doctor's Detox Diet.

"If you want to buy them dried and soak them overnight before you cook them, that's fine," said Dr. Gerbstadt. "But it's also perfectly okay, and much easier, to buy them canned, rinse them, and heat them up over the stove."

Chickpeas

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a legume and versatile plant-based protein. Chickpeas contain about 7.3 grams of protein in just one-half of a cup and are also high-fiber and low-calorie.

You can toss chickpeas into salads, eat them oven-roasted and salted as a crispy snack, or puree them into hummus.

"You can make a really great meal with some whole-wheat flatbread, some veggies, and some homemade hummus," said Dr. Gerbstadt. "Just toss a can of chickpeas in the blender with some herbs and some tahini or walnut oil, and you're good to go."

Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas are a hearty member of the pulse family, including beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. Traditionally, some people eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to bring good luck. But the plant-based protein may deserve a year-round place in your pantry.

A one-cup portion provides about 12 grams of protein. In addition to protein, one cup of black-eyed peas provides the following nutrients:

  • Six grams of fiber
  • Generous amounts of B vitamins
  • Immune-supporting vitamin A
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Iron
  • Zinc

Add black-eyed peas to salads, soups, stews, stir fry, or nearly any dish that calls for beans.

Soy Products

The following soy products are great sources of plant-based protein that you can use as a substitute for red meat, chicken, or fish.

Tempeh and Tofu

Foods made from soybeans are some of the best sources of plant-based protein. Tempeh and tofu, for example, contain about 16.9 and 21.8 grams per one-half-cup serving.

"They're highly nutritious, and they can really take on the taste and texture of whatever type of food you're looking for," said Dr. Gerbstadt. "I love that you can get a really soft tofu and mash it with a fork, or you can get a firm one and have a really substantial product that can stand in for meat."

Edamame

If you're not crazy about meat substitutes, get your servings of soy the way it appears in nature: straight from the soybean, still in the pod. Boiled edamame, which contains nine grams of protein per two-thirds of one cup, can be served hot or cold and sprinkled with salt.

Try edamame as a snack, an appetizer before dinner, or added to salads or pasta (minus the shell, of course).

Non-Dairy Milk and Yogurt

If you enjoy a splash of milk in your coffee or cereal, or want to eat some yogurt for a quick snack, there are some non-dairy alternative. What's more, the following products pack a significant amount of protein. Some brands are even fortified with similar calcium and vitamin D levels as their dairy counterparts.

Non-Dairy Milks

Milk alternatives aren't only for people who are lactose intolerant. Soy, almonds, oat, and other milk alternatives can be great plant-based protein sources. Plain soy milk has one of the highest protein contents, with about six grams per eight-ounce serving. But watch out for lots of added sugar and flavors, warned Penner. 

Pea Milk

Pea milk offers unique properties that set it apart from other milk alternatives. For instance, pea milk, made from yellow split peas, is not a common allergen, unlike nuts, soy, and traditional dairy.

Pea milk packs eight grams of protein per one-cup serving. Most brands fortify their pea milk with critical nutrients found in cow's milk, including calcium and vitamin D. 

You can add pea milk to coffee, cereal, creamy soups, sauces, or other recipes that call for milk.

Dairy-Free Yogurt

The popularity of plant-based eating has spurred the growth of dairy-free alternatives beyond milk. You can find yogurts made with nuts, like almonds and cashews, pea protein, soy, and coconut. And those alternatives offer the same probiotic benefits as their traditional counterparts.

And some non-dairy yogurts pack a powerful punch. Some brands of plain Greek-style, almond-based yogurt has about 10 grams of protein per serving.

Use non-dairy yogurt just as you would in parfaits, overnight oats, smoothies, or mixed with fruit and nuts as a healthy breakfast or snack option.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of plant-based protein and make a quick, easy snack. You can also use nut butters on sandwiches or as dips to pack some extra protein into your diet.

Nuts and Nut Butters

All nuts contain healthy fats and protein, making them a valuable part of a plant-based diet. For example, whole, raw almonds contain five grams of protein per ounce, unsalted cashews have 4.2 grams, and unsalted pistachios without shells have 5.78 grams.

"Look for brands with as few ingredients as possible—just nuts and maybe salt," said Penner. "Skip the ones with hydrogenated oils or lots of added sugar."

Hemp Seeds

You can find hemp in some cereals and trail mixes, or you can buy hemp seeds and add them to smoothies, pesto, or baked goods. Hemp seeds provide about 9.5 grams of protein per three tablespoons.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are another high-protein, plant-based food, with 3.5 grams of protein per ounce.

You can sprinkle chia seeds over salads, stir them into yogurt or oatmeal, or blend them into smoothies. Also, chia seeds plump up and take on a gelatinous texture when soaked in a liquid, forming a rich and creamy pudding-like treat.

Sesame and Sunflower Seeds

Don't discount the other seeds in your pantry. The more familiar varieties are also high in protein and healthy fats, said Dr. Gerbstadt. For example, sunflower seed kernels contain five grams of protein per one-quarter cup. Also, sesame seeds contain about 6.4 grams.

Try thinking of outside-the-box ways to add more seeds to your diet. "Instead of saving poppy seeds for once a year for your holiday bread, try adding them to a vinaigrette," suggested Dr. Gerbstadt.

Other Plant-Based Proteins

There's other plant-based foods that also pack significant amounts of protein that you may consider working into your diet. Some of the following products can be the main ingredient of your next meal, while others can be a protein-packed garnish to add-in.

Quinoa

Most grains contain small amounts of protein. But uncooked quinoa—technically a type of seed—is unique because it contains more than 24 grams of protein per one-cup serving.

Quinoa also contains all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and repair but cannot produce, making it a complete protein.

Plus, quinoa is amazingly versatile. You can add the seed to soup or vegetarian chili. You can also serve quinoa with brown sugar and fruit as a hot breakfast cereal or toss the seeds with vegetables and a vinaigrette to make a nourishing salad.

Leafy Greens

Vegetables don't have as much protein as legumes and nuts, said Dr. Gerbstadt. But some vegetables contain significant amounts of protein, antioxidants, and heart-healthy fiber. For example, two cups of raw spinach contain two grams of protein. And one cup of chopped, cooked broccoli contains about 5.7 grams.

"If someone is eating a lot of vegetables—and a wide variety of different types of vegetables—it will certainly add up to a good amount of amino acids," added Dr. Gerbstadt. 

Seitan

Another meat substitute popular with plant-based diets, seitan is made from wheat gluten, seasoned with salt and savory flavors. Seitan, also called vital wheat gluten, packs a lot of protein: nearly 46 grams per one-half-cup serving.

Seitan looks like duck meat and tastes like chicken. So, you can try using it in any recipe that calls for poultry.

Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

As it turns out, you can get protein from chocolate. Unsweetened raw cocoa powder, used in baking or making hot chocolate from scratch, contains about one gram of protein per tablespoon.

Raw cocoa powder is bitter, so most traditional recipes use lots of sugar to offset the flavor. For a healthy hot cocoa, use unsweetened plant-based milk and a small amount of an all-natural sweetener, like pure maple syrup or date sugar. Or add cocoa powder to air-popped popcorn (along with a bit of sugar, allspice, and cayenne pepper) for a sweet and spicy whole-grain treat.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

There are numerous options to replace whey protein powder with a plant-based alternative. You'll find powders made from peas and almonds, among other plant-based proteins. Also, some blends combine protein from whole grains (like brown rice, buckwheat, millet, and seeds) and legumes.

For example, some brands of almonds protein powder contain 20 grams of protein per one-third of a cup. But remember that protein content varies from product to product, so it's important to check the label.

Protein powders are an easy way to boost the protein content of smoothies, pancakes, savory soups, and treats like puddings or frozen pops. 

Look for plain, unsweetened versions. You can sweeten protein powders with an all-natural option like maple syrup and control the amount you add.

Nutritional Yeast

Vitamin B12 helps produce energy, forms red blood cells, and syntheses DNA. Fortified nutritional yeast is a staple in plant-based diets as a reliable source of vitamin B12. Checking the label to ensure your nutritional yeast is fortified with vitamin B12 is important since many vegetarians and vegans are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.

Additionally, some brands of nutritional yeast provide eight grams of protein per 16-gram serving. You can sprinkle nutritional yeast, typically sold in a shaker resembling parmesan cheese, onto popcorn, cooked veggies, or potatoes. Or you can use nutritional yeast in plant-based soups or homemade nut "cheese" recipes, like cashew queso.

A Quick Review

Swapping animal protein for plant-based protein can do a lot for your health. The benefits of a plant-based diet include lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers and helping you maintain a healthy weight.

You can choose from various high-protein sources, such as non-dairy milk alternatives and yogurt and plant-based protein powders. Whole foods, like beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, and seeds, are also great sources of plant-based protein. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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