10 Best Plant-Based Protein Sources
By Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN a performance and consultant dietitian who works with Clif Bar.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
With health and environmental sustainability in mind, you may be interested in plant-based diets while also wondering how you’ll get enough protein. Despite what critics claim, there are plenty of plant-based protein foods to incorporate into these eating patterns to support performance for your busy, active lifestyle.
Read on to learn more about sources of protein other than meat and the 10 best plant-based protein sources.
What Is Plant-Based Protein?
While plant-based diets may include some animal products, plant-based proteins are the proteins derived from only plants. This means that even foods containing dairy or eggs, which are still eaten by many vegetarians, would not be considered plant based.
While physical and mental health benefits of plant-rich diets have been noted for some time,1 a focus on plant-based eating patterns for environmental sustainability has been gaining momentum in recent years. From lower carbon emissions and water usage to effects on soil and deforestation,2 replacing some animal protein with plant-based protein sources can be a step in the right direction in protecting our planet.
Plant food categories that contribute significant protein include legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Additionally, many vegetables contribute up to 5 grams of protein per serving. Both whole plant foods and convenient products made from them are a great foundation for reaching protein needs on a plant-based diet.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
A common protein goal for many active individuals is 20g of complete protein per meal or snack throughout the day. To determine more specific personal goals, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for the average American adult is 0.36 grams per pound (lb.) of body weight per day. In not only athletes but also physically active adults, recommendations increase to a range of 0.64-0.91 grams/lb. per day to maintain or build muscle mass.3 For example, this equates to 83-118 grams for a 130 lb. person or 112-160 grams for a 175 lb. person. For athletes and active individuals, it may be best to spread intake into moderate doses at least four times per day,3 or every 3-4 hours.
On top of this, those following vegan diets, or who exclude animal protein, may need more protein each day, especially if not consuming soy products daily.4 This is because many plant protein sources are not complete proteins, meaning they do not contain enough Essential Amino Acids (EAAs). Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and EAAs are those we must eat enough of since the body cannot produce them on their own. While not all plant-based proteins are complete protein sources, all animal protein sources are.
Plant-Based Protein Recommendations
When not eating soy protein, you’ll more easily reach your protein needs by eating two or more sources of plant-based protein at once. For example, a grain bowl may have several grams of protein from vegetables, a protein-rich grain such as farro, lentils (as the highest plant protein source), and pumpkin seeds as a topper. Since grains tend to be lacking in the essential amino acids that legumes offer, and vice versa, pairing foods from each group means the protein content and usability of protein in the body will increase. You’ll see how both individual sources of plant-based protein and combined sources stack up below!
The 10 Best Plant-Based Protein Sources
Thanks to soy protein, CLIF Builders Bar offer 20 grams of high-quality plant-based protein per bar with essential amino acids to help rebuild muscles after exercise.
This great-tasting bar comes in delicious flavors such as chocolate peanut butter. Eat it within 30 minutes after training along with water, whether in a pinch for time at home or on the go.
2. Roasted Edamame (14 grams per serving)
Soy protein products come from edamame, which are whole soybeans. Dry roasted edamame offers a crunchy texture and 14 grams of quality protein per ⅓ cup (1 oz.) serving. You can enjoy it as a snack with fresh or dried fruit or add to a trail mix.
3. Extra-Firm Tofu (12 grams per serving)
A commonly used alternative to animal protein, extra-firm tofu provides 12 grams of protein per 4 oz., or a half cup. It easily takes on whatever flavors are added to it, so you can crumble for use as a scramble or cube, marinate, and cook to pair with a variety of cuisines. It can also be blended into a ricotta texture as an alternative to dairy or even added to smoothies.
4. Tempeh (18 grams per serving)
Another soy protein, tempeh has a firm texture that can replace chicken and crumbles to resemble ground poultry and meats. With 18 grams of protein per 3 oz. serving, you can slice it and make it into fajitas, add your favorite condiments for a sandwich, or crumble to make a meaty sauce for pasta night.
5. Lentils (12 grams per serving)
With 12 grams of protein per half-cup cooked, lentils should become a go-to for anyone following a more plant-based diet. Green lentils can easily be made into patties or used as a meatloaf alternative; black lentils are a wonderful addition to wraps and grain bowls; and red lentils are delicious for a curry or hearty soup.
6. Quinoa (8 grams per cooked cup)
Quinoa has more protein than most grains, with 8g of protein per cooked cup. It’s wonderful to prep in advance and pair with varied legumes or soy products throughout the week to offer both energizing carbohydrates for your workouts and protein for recovery.
7. Nut- and legume-based yogurt alternatives (8-15 grams per serving)
Many non-dairy yogurt alternatives provide 0-1 grams of protein per serving, so checking your nutrition facts panel is important here. In those made from an almond or cashew base and with added soy or pea protein, you may be able to obtain 8-15 grams of protein in a 4-5 oz. serving. Enjoy the higher protein options as a sole plant-based protein source with fruit as a snack or eat with cereal, nuts, and fruit for breakfast.
8. Peanut Butter Sandwich (20-25 grams per sandwich)
Some whole-grain breads can offer 5-7 grams of protein per slice. If making a sandwich with a serving of peanut butter, you’ll reach at least 18 grams. Sprinkle in a tablespoon of hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds) and you can have up to 25 grams of plant-based protein in minutes.
9. Oatmeal With Pumpkin Seeds (17 grams)
A half-cup serving of oatmeal only provides 5 grams of protein, but when made with soy milk and topped with half an ounce (2 tablespoons) of pumpkin seeds, you’ll reach 17 grams.
10. Grain and Veggie Bowl (20-25 grams)
Grain bowls are easy to throw together when you prep ingredients in advance. Grains such as quinoa, bulgur, and farro offer more protein than rice, for example, with roughly 6 grams of protein per ¼-cup dry serving (about ¾-cup cooked). Add a half-cup serving of lupini beans for an additional 13 grams to your favorite lettuces and grains, as well as roasted vegetables and your favorite sauce or dressing. Top with a tablespoon of crushed pistachios and you’ll have up to 25 grams of plant protein in your bowl.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: vegetarian diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4
- Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:36. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9