Plant-Based Proteins and How to Eat Them

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Plant-based protein is highly sought-after by vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike. It is also commonly misunderstood since many people believe that plant-based protein simply cannot substitute for animal protein.

The truth is that getting more plant-powered protein into your family's diet is easier than you might think. Once you know about the health benefits of plant-based protein, you will want to add these delicious, protein-rich plant foods to your meals.

Why You Need Protein

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Despite their humble definition, amino acids are a vital component of health.

When we eat protein-rich foods, they are broken down into their amino acid components. Different foods contain different amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in total and once they enter the body, they serve several important functions, including forming muscle tissue, allowing for fluid balance, supporting the immune system, and producing enzymes

Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein: Which Is Healthier?

When deciding which protein-rich foods to eat, the goal is to consume all the building blocks. Animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products contain all 20 amino acids, while protein from plants may be missing one or more amino acids.

Select plant-based foods do meet the 20 amino acid quota, while others, when eaten in certain combinations, can also meet these needs. For example, rice and beans together add up to all 20 amino acids.

Benefits of Plant-Based Protein

Plant-Based Proteins to Try

There are plenty of ways to enjoy plant-based proteins if you gravitate toward these seven nutrient-dense foods. Thanks to the increasing popularity of plant-based foods, these are affordable and easy to find at your local grocery store.

Soy Products

The rumor mill has given soy foods like edamame, tofu, and soymilk a bad reputation. Put the gossip aside and embrace these foods, as the scientifically proven health benefits of soy are extensive. Soy and soy-based foods are low in fat and come naturally equipped with a full arsenal of amino acids, the same ones found in meat.

Enjoy cubed extra firm tofu as a replacement for scrambled eggs, roasted in a hot oven, or sautéed in a nonstick pan with a few drops of oil and seasoned with salt.

Soymilk contains more than 6 grams of protein per one-cup serving. The same portion of cow’s milk contains eight grams. Soy milk also comes fortified with vitamin D and calcium, making it a wonderful dairy-free swap for cereal, smoothies, and baking.

Lentils

Lentils are an underappreciated legume. From a nutrient standpoint they have it all. Use lentils in soups, stews, side dishes, or main course staples like tacos and lettuce cups. Lentils can also be used as a meat replacement in recipes for burgers and chili.

Lentils pack in a big dose of nutrients and fiber-rich carbs. With double the protein content of quinoa and a long list of vitamins and minerals, they are worth eating more often.

Nuts

Find ways to incorporate nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and cashews into your meals and snacks. Each type of nut has its own special nutrient profile, and there’s room for all of them in a healthy diet—as long as you aren't allergic.

Almonds can be used for homemade granola, almond butter, and muffins. The mild, buttery flavor of cashews is a welcome addition to stir-fries and fried rice. Soak cashews in water overnight and then blend to incorporate into smoothies and soups as a non-dairy replacement for cream.

Rich in omega-3s, walnuts add a unique flavor and texture element to smoothies and make for an optimal meat alternative in vegetarian dishes. Crunchy almonds are filled with vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant) and are an easy way to curb an afternoon case of the munchies.

Quinoa

Quinoa is another plant-based food with the same full panel of amino acids as meat. Quinoa seeds are very small and can be used raw or cooked in soups, cold and warm salads, and overnight oats. Quinoa also makes a wonderful grain-free filling option for stuffed peppers and veggie burgers.

Each cup of cooked quinoa packs in fiber, iron, and eight grams of protein. Make batches in bulk on a meal prep day; it only takes about 20 minutes to prepare.

Peanut Butter

Look beyond sandwiches and use peanut butter to give flavor, texture, and plant-based goodness to salad dressings, smoothies, and homemade snack bites. When shopping for peanut butter, look for a brand with a simple ingredient list (peanuts and salt) instead of oils and added sugar.

Each two-tablespoon serving of this classic kid favorite contains seven grams of protein, plus heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

Chickpeas

Beans are one of the most versatile plant-based proteins. Add chickpeas to avocado toast, mix into vegetable or grain salads, or blend up a batch of hummus for dipping and spreading on sandwiches. Rinsed, drained, and dried chickpeas can also be seasoned and roasted in the oven for crunchy finger food.

In one cup of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), you’ll find nearly 11 grams of protein and a half day's worth of hunger-fighting fiber.

Chia Seeds

Known for having plentiful amounts of omega-3 fats, there are numerous nutritional benefits of chia seeds. Once an elusive and hard-to-find ingredient, chia has gone mainstream. They are a popular garnish for smoothie bowls, but some folks may not realize chia's impressive protein content. 

Stir up chia seeds with yogurt, almond milk, and chopped fruit and store them in the fridge overnight for a batch of dreamy chia pudding the next morning. Blend a few spoonfuls into smoothies or mix with water and use as an egg replacement in muffins and other baked goods.

Two tablespoons of chia seeds contain almost five grams of protein, along with an ample dose of fiber.

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Verywell Fit 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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