Protein is a big deal. Long associated with red meat and other animal products, this nutrient is an essential building block of our bodies’ most crucial components, from bones, to blood, to tissue.
But animal products are far from being the only source of protein in the world. Increasingly, awareness of plant-based protein is growing in places like North America and Europe, as people come to realize that it isn’t necessary to eat meat at every meal – or any of them, for that matter. Plant-based proteins are not only here to stay – they’ve been here all along.
How Do Vegans Get Enough Protein?
At the top of any vegan’s Frequently Asked Questions list will be this one: how do vegans get enough protein? The truth is that it’s easy to get enough protein from exclusively plant-based sources. Studies have even shown that many Americans actually over-consume protein, leading the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) to recommend decreasing the intake of meats, eggs, and poultry while increasing the number of vegetables.
Whole-foods, such as leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains offer complete proteins. It’s no wonder that millions of people around the world can live, and live well, off a vegan diet.
Is Plant-Based Protein Better?
Plant-based proteins can even be more efficient and nutritious protein-delivery systems than animal products, especially within diets that prioritize whole foods.
Variety is the spice of life, and it turns out it’s also the key to nutrition. The DGA guidelines stress the importance of eating from all five of the vegetable subgroups, including leafy greens, legumes, starches, and fruits. Minimally-processed plant-based proteins can also contribute towards lowering blood cholesterol levels and provide boosted intake of vitamins and minerals.
Better for the Environment and Animals
The production of plant-based proteins does not require anywhere near the same degree of environmental destruction that animal protein products do, and they do not necessitate animal suffering.
Today’s industrial animal agricultural system goes to great pains to obscure impacts on the environment, workers, and the animals themselves. Industrial producers wield significant financial and political resources to enact legislation such as ag-gag laws which are designed to punish whistleblowers and help conceal their operations from plain view. However, the impacts of this industry are very real and present significant dangers to human health.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, which are characteristic of industrial animal agriculture, are factory-like farms that raise animals in extreme confinement. In hog farms, mother pigs can be forced into gestation crates where they are unable even to turn around. Battery cages continue to be popular for confining chickens within spaces barely large enough to spread their wings.
CAFOs are extremely damaging to the natural environment. Animal excrement is collected into vast waste lagoons, threatening contamination to groundwater or nearby rivers or streams. This waste is often aerosolized and sprayed onto fields as fertilizers, causing air pollution that has been linked with cancer in neighboring communities. Because some CAFOs have the same waste footprint as a small city, the magnitude of waste is a serious concern.
20 Best Plant-Based Proteins
While there is a dizzying variety of plant-based protein sources, they are not all considered equal. Below is a selection of 20 of the best sources for bioavailable protein – and as you will see, many of these foods pack other nutrient benefits as well. All protein calculations are based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the U.S. is the biggest producer of almonds in the world, these nuts are a plentiful source of protein in North America. As with many nuts, it’s a good idea to soak almonds before consuming them in order to reduce phytic acid, which can block the uptake of nutrients in the human body.
2. Beans with rice
It’s almost as though rice and beans were made for one another. To maximize health benefits, eat brown rice instead of white, and ensure the ratio of beans to rice is equal or favoring the beans since they are considered a superfood and are more packed with nutrients than any type of rice. One cup of this delicious combo will get you 12 grams of protein.
Broccoli is one of the most protein-rich veggies out there. Like other cruciferous vegetables including cauliflower and brussel sprouts, broccoli is high in compounds known as glucosinolates, which may reduce the risk of cancer. Lightly steaming this vegetable maximizes nutrient absorption.
4. Chia seeds
Chia seeds might be small, but they’re mighty when it comes to protein and other nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids. When soaked in water, these tiny seeds form a gel-like coating similar to an egg-white consistency, making them ideal for use as porridge when combined with coconut milk, or as an egg replacer in baked goods. 100 grams will get you 18.3 grams of protein – a serving easily accomplished with nice chia pudding for breakfast.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, a mere 14% of people in the United States consume dried legumes on a semi-regular basis. However, these foods possess a robust nutrient profile. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzos, are a popular legume particularly in India, which is the world’s largest producer of the beans. Chickpeas are perhaps most commonly consumed in hummus in North America. Chickpeas contain dietary bioactives like phytic acid, tannins, and other nutrients that go beyond just a protein infusion.
6. Ezekiel Bread
This bread is a far cry from your garden-variety white bread. A mix of legumes (lentils and soybeans) along with whole grains (spelt, millet, barley, and wheat) are first sprouted, then combined to make these nutrient-dense loaves. Sprouting is a process of kick-starting the growth of grains and legumes that renders their macro- and micro-nutrients more bioavailable for digestion. Sprouting has been known to significantly increase protein levels of legumes in particular.
7. Hemp seeds
Hemp seeds come from a variety of cannabis plants, but these won’t get anything high except for your protein levels. Hemp hearts, which are the de-hulled seed, contain a whopping 35.9 percent protein. Sprinkle these into protein shakes, use them in pesto sauces or enjoy a glass of hemp milk.
Occasionally lauded as “the new beef,” kale is a great way to amp up your protein intake while eating more leafy greens – which tend to be lacking from many North American diets.
Lentils come in a rainbow of colors, can last for months or even years in pantries, and are extremely versatile no matter your cooking style. They’re also an excellent source of folate, which supports nerve functioning and red blood cell formation.
Move over meat: fungi have been found to contain higher percentages of protein than many types of meat products, including that of cows, chicken, and shrimp, as well as animal products such as eggs and milk from cows and sheep.
Mycoprotein is a naturally-occurring soil fungus that is first fermented, then put through a process of steaming, chilling, and freezing which ultimately produces a high-protein product resembling the texture of a chicken breast. Manufactured by the company Quorn, the final product is considered plant-based, except in cases where a small amount of egg is used as a binding agent.
12. Nutritional Yeast
Good for sprinkling onto pasta or salads or anywhere that could use an infusion of cheesy flavor, nutritional yeast is very high in protein. Fortified versions which tend to be widely available in stores also include vitamin B12, making this a great supplement for those following a vegan diet.
Oats have higher percentages of good-quality protein than most other grains, thanks in part to avenalin, a protein that is similar to legume proteins and isn’t found in other grains. Try making fermented overnight oats, which makes nutrients more bioavailable.
For those who aren’t allergic, peanuts are an excellent way to get your daily dose of protein. Peanut butter is a great way to get your daily dose of protein, fats, and other nutrients. Be sure to check the label to avoid additives such as sugar.
The humble potato tends to be misunderstood, given their high carb content and their frequent appearances in North American diets as chips and deep-fried french fries. Yet these tubers contain protein, with russets topping the list.
Quinoa has higher fiber levels than most grains, and contain compounds shown to be anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antidepressants. One cup of cooked quinoa yields about 8 grams of protein.
Seitan is created by removing all the dough particles from wheat, leaving behind the gluten. The end result is a substance that is remarkably meat-like, making it a delicious replacement for the real thing – which is handy particularly for those who are transitioning towards plant-based proteins. The only reason to avoid seitan is for those who have a gluten intolerance.
18. Soy Milk
Coming in at around 8 grams of protein per cup, soy milk is the mightiest of all the alternative milk – at least when compared with rice, almond, or coconut.
In recent years, spirulina has become the darling of health gurus, and for good reason. This superfood is actually a type of cyanobacteria, or blue-green microalgae, that grows on the surface of lakes and ponds. After being dried and powdered, spirulina can be added to juices or smoothies. Weighing in at 70% protein, and loaded with other nutrients such as magnesium, it is an excellent way to get an extra boost of energy especially if you are active.
Made from protein-rich soybeans, tofu has long been a mainstay of meat substitutes. Originating in China about 2000 years ago, tofu is created made by curdling soy milk in a similar process to animal-based cheese, resulting in curds of varying degrees of softness. Tofu is low in calories and high in essential nutrients including iron.
Plant vs. Animal Protein
Plant proteins hold up just as well to animal proteins and can deliver extra nutrition along the way. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids the body needs.
Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?
Generally, plant-based meat is healthier than conventional meat, as it contains fiber (which animal flesh has none of whatsoever), and no harmful ingredients such as trans fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, heavy metals, or hormones.
Another benefit of plant-based proteins is that they are cleaner – literally. Because the slaughtering of animals brings flesh into contact with feces, the end products appearing on grocery store shelves are frequently contaminated with fecal pathogenic bacteria. Each year, 48 million people are sickened by foodborne pathogens; one report found 97% of chicken breasts were contaminated.
Antibiotic resistance is considered a global pandemic – and the solution is to eliminate raising animals for consumption. In order to keep animals alive in the cramped, filthy conditions of CAFOs, antibiotics are used often throughout an animals’ lifetime and used liberally. Antibiotics are therefore passed along to humans when this meat is consumed. In 2019 the World Health Organization sounded the alarm with a report that around 700,000 people die from drug-resistant diseases each year. Plant-based meat eliminates the need for antibiotic use on farm animals and does not bring humans into contact with these drugs through meat consumption.
Benefits of Trading Meat Protein for Plant Protein
Ditching meat in favor of veggies, legumes, and grains can provide numerous benefits for the body, the animals, and the environment. Below are a few things to keep in mind when considering the switch.
Many whole-food plant-based sources of protein naturally promote weight loss, such as seeds and nuts which tend to be high in protein and low in carbohydrates and promote feelings of satiety. By avoiding refined foods such as package cereal bars or white bread, it is also possible to avoid the added fat and sodium that can contribute to weight gain.
Helping the Environment
Protein derived from plants has a significantly smaller footprint when it comes to carbon emissions, land and water use, and air pollution. Much of it comes down to what’s called the feed conversion ratio, which measures the efficiency of turning input resources – like water and feed – into animal products, such as beef, milk, or eggs. It takes roughly 1,799 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef, and a single cow can consume thousands of pounds of corn and soybeans during their lifetime.
Even the thirstiest of plant crops, for example, almonds, pale in comparison to the resources required for animal products.
Boosting your Health
Sourcing protein from plants delivers additional health benefits, such as increased consumption of fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins. Opting for plant-based proteins can also decrease the intake of saturated fats, which in turn lower associated risks of heart disease.
In virtually every way, plant-based proteins can be superior to those derived from animals. Going plant-based can improve health outcomes, reduce animal suffering, and help eliminate pollution caused by industrial animal agriculture. With a rainbow of options to choose from, plant-based proteins can fill up your pantry and your stomach in ways you can feel good about.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.