Following a plant-based diet sounds great in theory, but can you really get all the protein your body needs from plant sources alone?
Short answer: yes.
While there’s no strict definition, “plant-based” is generally understood to mean that you’re eating primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes ― no meat, seafood, dairy or eggs. We spoke to three registered dietitians about why you shouldn’t worry about getting enough protein from those foods, and they shared some of their favorite sources of plant protein to look for the next time you head to the supermarket.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Protein
Beef, poultry and, you know, meat are America’s go-to foods to give us our protein fix. Advertising money has surely influenced those choices, as industry groups have long promoted animal-derived protein (think “The Other White Meat” and “Got Milk?”).
These days, the importance of getting enough protein is also stressed by food manufacturers of everything from ice cream to frozen pizza, many of which tout their products’ high protein content. And processed fake meat (Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat) is having a moment.
“There’s nothing that’s encouraging you to restrict your protein intake ― it’s never demonized like fat and carbs,” noted Angie Asche, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics who owns Eleat Sports Nutrition in Lincoln, Nebraska.
And yet, she said, “While I think the recommended daily allowance is underestimating protein needs, it’s rare that I see a client with a protein deficiency.”
How much protein a person needs per day depends on a number of factors. “Activity level, fitness, metabolic burn or if you’re ill” all come into play, according to Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and owner of Real Nutrition in New York City. But on average, the RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For instance, a 150-pound adult would need approximately 54 grams of protein a day.
Unfortunately, in getting their RDA, too many Americans are ignoring less expensive plant-based proteins like chickpeas, black beans and soy products.
“The industry has millions of dollars to spend, whereas the promotion of chickpeas and lentils don’t have the funds to compete,” said Nanci Guest, a registered dietitian, board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and nutrition science expert based in Canada.
The experts agree that we need to change our way of thinking. “People often think that without meat, you’re cutting out all forms of protein,” Asche said, “but it’s because we don’t talk about those foods like legumes, tempeh and tofu very often.”
Plant-Based Protein That Packs A Punch
No matter how much protein you need to consume, these plant-based sources recommended by registered dietitians will ensure you satisfy your body’s needs.
Head to the refrigerated section of the supermarket and you’ll often find packaged tempeh right next to the tofu. It offers 16 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving and is a favorite of the nutritionists we spoke to.
“It’s a fermented soy product that does good stuff for your gut,” Shapiro said. “You can eat it cold or cooked.”
Asche seconded its health benefits. “It has a higher probiotic content than tofu,” she said. “I usually eat three-quarters of a cup and pair with it some type of grain with high protein, like quinoa, or brown rice, farro or any whole grain.”
“Lentils are a good source of protein, but I love the overall fiber content, too,” Asche said. “A lot of Americans don’t get enough of it in their diet.”
This legume offers 9 grams of protein per half-cup and 7.9 grams of dietary fiber. It’s also rich in micronutrients like iron and manganese.
Flavor is important, too. “They’re versatile ― you can throw them in anything! I make tacos and use lentils as a high-fiber plant-based alternative to taco meat,” Asche said.
Every Kind Of Bean
A half-cup of black beans offers 7 grams of protein, and like lentils, they’re useful no matter what type of meal you’re preparing.
“If you eat a black bean burger instead of a Beyond Meat burger, then you’re consuming more fiber, calcium and iron,” Asche said. “The benefit of eating a plant-based diet is that you’re actually eating more plants ― not just highly processed vegan foods.”
During the colder months, bean soups are a great go-to. “I make bean soups all the time with a mix of pinto and white beans,” Guest said. “It’s easy to make one from scratch.”
She’s not exaggerating. With a can of white beans as the base, you can make everything from soup to a slew of other delicious dishes.
Nuts And Seeds
There’s nothing simpler than working these plant-based proteins into your diet ― either as snacks or as additions to just about anything else you eat.
“Hemp seeds are a complete protein [that can be] sprinkled into your smoothie, on top of oatmeal or a salad, or even made into milk or a nut butter is superb,” Shapiro said.
She loves that many nut and seed butters are portable and don’t require refrigeration. Plus, they’re high in healthy fats, fiber and, of course, protein.
“Nut butters could be an essential part of your snack plate because it’s nutrient-dense: two tablespoons of the average nut butter has 200 calories, 16 grams of fat and 6 grams of protein,” Shapiro said. If you select peanut butter, there are 8 grams of protein per two tablespoons.
If you’ve ever enjoyed edamame in a Japanese restaurant, it might be worth adding it to your shopping list, too. “You can buy it frozen, where it’s already steamed and shelled,” Guest said. “It’s very tasty!”
Besides the nearly 12 grams of protein in a half-cup, nutrient-packed edamame is another ingredient that can be added to many dishes. “I like it in a cold salad, whether it’s a green salad or a pasta salad,” Guest said, “or you can heat it up and add it to something cooked.”
Here are 15 fun ideas to get you started, from edamame hummus to quinoa salads.
This story has been updated to reflect more precise figures for the RDA of protein.