How Vegetarians & Vegans Can Get High Plant-Based Protein Foods

How Vegetarians & Vegans Can Get High Plant-Based Protein Foods

Protein is an important nutrient for physical performance. Many protein foods tend to be animal-based leaving vegetarians and vegans at risk for deficiency if they do not get enough of this nutrient. Learn what high plant-based protein foods should be incorporated into the diet to satisfy their protein needs.

What Is Protein

Protein is a nutrient needed by every cell in the body. It facilitates growth, repair, and performance [R, R].

Protein is made up of amino acids. Some can be made by the body while others need to be supplied by diet and are considered essential. There are a total of nine essential amino acids that we need to get from food. They include the following:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Protein Needs Vary by Person

Protein needs vary by person and activity level. Those who are sedentary need less protein than someone who wants to gain and sustain muscle mass.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound.

On average sedentary men should consume 56 grams. Sedentary women should consume 46 grams per day.

Those who are interested in building and keeping muscle should consume more than the sedentary person [R]:

  • Between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight OR
  • Between 0.7 and 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight

This also goes for vegetarians and vegans.

Protein For Building Muscle and Performance

Muscle mass is crucial for health, survival, and also plays a large role in athletic and physical performance. High protein intake is necessary to build muscle.

The combination of resistance training and amino acid intake from proteins generates an increase in muscle protein synthesis [R]. This increase in dietary protein helps to improve muscle and strength [R].

Just like building muscle, adequate protein intake is also needed for helping to prevent muscle loss. This is also true for weight loss efforts. Adequate protein intake will prevent muscle loss when dieting [R, R].

High Plant-Based Protein Foods for Vegetarian & Vegan Diets

Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are said to be a complete protein. This is because you are getting all your needed protein from one food.

While most protein sources are mainly animal-based (meats, eggs, fish, dairy, and poultry), there actually are a lot of high plant-based protein foods that will give you the amino acids you need.

If you have a vegetarian or vegan diet you can still get quality protein intake by incorporating the following plant proteins in the diet.

Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame, & Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)

Soy is a plant food that is a complete protein. So it provides all nine essential amino acids. It can be prepared in a number of ways. It comes usually in the form of tofu, tempeh, and edamame.


Tofu is made in a process similar to cheesemaking. Soybeans are pressed into curds and then shaped into a block. Tofu contains about 10 grams of protein in a half-cup [R].


Tempeh is fermented soybeans formed into a patty. A half-cup of tempeh contains about 19.9 grams of protein [R].


Edamame is an immature soybean and comes in a pod. Edamame should be steamed or boiled prior to eating. They can be eaten out of the shell or added to a meal. One-half cup provides 18 grams of protein [R].

Edamame has a sweet flavor while tofu and tempeh have no taste and will take the flavor of what is being cooked with.

Soybeans are also processed into a powder and put into supplements for those who need protein on the go.

Soy protein will provide the needed essential acids to help build muscle [R,R]

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) is made from soybeans and also known as textured soy protein. It is a deflated soy flour product leftover from the extraction of soybean oil [R].

TVP is often used as a meat replacement in vegan/vegetarian food products. It is also labeled as soya chunks and/or soy meat.

TVP is similar to soy in its nutritive properties and taste. It cooks quickly and takes the flavor of the seasonings added to

Textured vegetable protein provides the same nutrition as soy making it a good source of protein. It provides about 12 grams per quarter cup [R].


Seitan is a vegan meat substitute that is high in protein with about 15 to 21 grams per 3-ounce serving [R]. It is made from hydrated gluten, the main protein found in wheat.

It contains no starch, half a gram of fat, and just 4 grams of carbs per serving.

Seitan is not a complete protein and is missing the amino acid lysine. Pairing seitan with foods rich in lysine will give vegetarians and vegans all their essential amino acids. These include beets, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, lentils, and legumes [R].

It has a savory flavor similar to plain chicken and will take on the taste of what it is cooked with.

Not all seitan is created equal. Some products will have additives so be sure to check the label before you buy it.

Anyone with Celiac or gluten sensitivity should stay away from seitan. The wheat found in this product is not tolerated in these individuals. Those who are not bothered by gluten seitan can be a great protein source for those who do not eat meat.

Vegetables High In Protein

You can get protein from vegetables too. Broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts are high plant-based protein foods.

These vegetables provide the following protein per cup cooked [R,R,R,R,R,R]

  • Broccoli has 2.6 grams of protein
  • Spinach has 5.3 grams of protein
  • Asparagus has 4.3 grams of protein
  • Artichokes have 5.2 grams of protein
  • Sweet Potatoes have 4.5 grams of protein
  • Brussels Sprouts have 4 grams of protein

Nuts & Nut Butters

Nuts and seeds are a great source of protein. Nuts provide anywhere from 4 to 7 grams of protein in just one ounce [R]:

  • Peanuts have 7 grams of protein
  • Almonds have 6 grams of protein
  • Pistachios have 6 grams of protein
  • Cashews have 5 grams of protein
  • Brazil nuts 4.1 grams of protein

Nuts can also be made into various nut butters which can pump up your protein intake. Add almond or peanut butter to your favorite smoothie recipe for a quick protein fix on the go.

Seeds As a Source of Protein

Seeds can also be a great source of protein for vegetarians and vegans. Some seeds to add to the diet include the following:

  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds have as much as 4.7 grams of protein in just one ounce [R]. They come in both black and white varieties. Though the taste does not differ between the two seeds there is slightly a difference in protein content when comparing nutrition facts. Black chia seeds have slightly higher protein content. Chia seeds can be added to a shake, soup, salad, and smoothie.

Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant. This is the same family that produces the marijuana plant. One thing you don’t have to worry about with hemp seeds is getting high.

There is so little THC present in these seeds that you would need to consume about 300 grams for any narcotics to show up in your blood [R].

Hemp seeds are a complete protein and provide about 9 grams of protein in a one-ounce serving. They can be used similar to chia seeds and are easily digested [R,R].

Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds are a great way to get more protein in your diet. They provide 8.5 grams of protein per serving [R].

Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds provide about 5.5 grams of protein serving [R].

Legumes are a High Plant-Based Protein Food

Legumes are the word used to describe the seeds of plants from the legume family. These include beans, peas, and lentils.

There are a wide variety of beans that can be added to the diet for protein: garbanzo, black, pinto, and kidney beans. These beans provide between 14 and 15 grams of protein per cup when cooked [R,R,R,R].

  • Garbanzo beans provide 14.5 grams of protein
  • Black beans provide 15.2 grams of protein
  • Pinto beans provide 15.4 grams of protein
  • Kidney Beans provide 15.3 grams of protein

Peas are another legume that is high in protein. Raw peas provide 7.9 grams of protein per cup. When cooked they provide 16.3 grams per serving [R,R].

High Protein Whole Grains

Certain whole grains can provide a good amount of protein along with fiber and other essential nutrients. These include quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, and amaranth. When cooked these grains provide between 4.5 and 9 grams per cup [R,R,R,R,R]:

  • Quinoa provides 8 grams of protein
  • Brown rice provides 4.5 grams of protein
  • Buckwheat provides 5.7 grams of protein
  • Amaranth provides 9.3 grams of protein

Quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth are all complete proteins. Brown rice does not contain the essential amino acid lysine.

Protein Powders

Adding more whole high plant-based protein foods to the diet is an easy way to increase protein intake. However, when time is limited you may find that adding a protein powder supplement can be an easy way to increase your protein intake.

Protein powders that are made from brown rice, pea, or soy protein are high plant-based protein foods that will increase your protein needs when you are strapped for time.

Some protein powders will also mix a blend of different plant proteins together in one product.

Brown Rice Protein Powder

Brown rice is made into protein powder and marketed as a way to build muscle for vegetarians and vegans. Brown rice protein provides 24 grams of protein per scoop [R].

Rice contains all essential amino acids but it is too low in lysine and is considered inferior to animal-based protein powders like whey protein when it comes to physical performance and muscle building.

There is some evidence for it to be a good substitute for vegetarians and vegans, but more research needs to be done to see the true effects on physical performance.

A study compared the effects of rice and whey protein isolates in male athletes. There were no differences found in perceived recovery or soreness between the two proteins [R].

An intake of 48 grams of rice protein isolate following exercise had the same effect on body composition, performance, and recovery as whey protein in fit, healthy, college-age men [R].

Soy Protein Powder

Soy protein powder offers vegetarians and vegans a complete protein. This protein is made from soybeans. It is highly processed but does provide an adequate amino acid profile.

There is some concern over soy consumption due to it being genetically modified and contains pesticides. Soy is also a common allergen [R].

When it comes to exercise, soy performs better than some animal protein but worse than others.

Soy protein was better at building muscle in young men when compared with casein protein. When paired with resistance training whey protein had better results than soy protein. This may be due to soy’s lower leucine content and its ability to digest faster than casein but slower than whey [R].

Pea Protein Powder

Pea protein is made from the yellow split pea and provides a good amount of protein.

The protein content varies by brand but can offer around 21 grams of protein ¼ cup serving [R].

There is conflicting evidence on pea protein’s amino acid profile. Some say it is a complete protein while others say it is lacking in adequate amounts of methionine and cysteine [R].

How does the protein stack up when it comes to exercise and muscle growth? The research says the jury is still out.

Studies on this topic are very limited. Some research showed favorable results for pea protein in conjunction with resistance training.

Similar increases in muscle thickness were seen among men whether they consumed 50 grams of pea or whey protein daily for over a 12 week period [R].

More advanced research needs to be done to really know how pea protein can help with exercise.

Hemp Protein Powder

Hemp protein powder is made from hemp seeds. The seeds are pressed into a powder.

Hemp is considered a high-quality protein that contains all essential amino acids. But when you look at the research there is some concern over the quality of the amino acid profile.

The status of this protein powder is quite rather ambivalent.

Some research shows hemp to be as good of a quality of protein as egg whites or soy, but other evidence shows hemp is lacking in lysine decreasing its quality as a complete protein [R,R,R].

It does give a high dose of protein with about an average of 12 grams per ¼ cup serving [R]. The nice thing about hemp is that it is less processed than some other protein powders.

When it comes to performance and muscle growth there are no studies as to whether or not this protein can deliver results.

Some High Plant Protein Based Foods Lacking in Certain Amino Acids

Many plant proteins are lacking in all of the required essential acids. This is even true of foods that are complete proteins. Increasing protein intake or mixing plant proteins may help increase the amino acid profile of the diet.

Increasing Plant Protein Intake

Increases in protein intake may help individuals reach the essential amino acid requirements. Amino acids were found to increase when plant protein intakes were increased from 35 to 60 grams of wheat protein. Postprandial muscle protein synthesis was also seen [R].

While it may be a way to increase protein intake it may not be feasible or practical for some individuals [R].

Mixed Plant Proteins for a Complete Amino Acid Profile

Normally plant-based proteins will have some limitations in the nutrients it can provide. One way to combat this is to mix together various plant proteins for a complete amino acid profile [R]. This means blending two or more types of plant protein including chia, hemp, rice, pea, etc.

Grains are often deficient in lysine. Pair them with legumes for a complete protein. This may meet the needs for muscle building [R].

Cautions with Using High Plant-Based Protein Foods

For the most part, if you are consuming whole plant-based foods there is little risk involved unless you have a specific allergy or sensitivity to that food.

Plant-based foods that are processed may have additives that can affect your health and lead to inflammatory conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity [R].

What to Look for When Choosing High Plant-Based Protein Foods

You also want to avoid any products with added salts, sugars, or preservatives. You want to make sure a large portion of your intake is whole food vegetables, nuts, beans, and seeds.


Protein is an essential nutrient needed for healthy body function and physical performance. Getting adequate protein is especially important for vegetarians and vegans. Knowing what foods to incorporate into the diet will help to improve protein intake. Focus on consuming a large amount of unprocessed high plant-based protein foods. Grouping different foods together will create complete amino acid profiles that will help to improve muscle mass while strength training.


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