“Where do you get your protein?” – this is by far the most common question vegans and veggies get asked more than any other. Despite what some people may think, there are many ways to get enough protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Thankfully the list of veggie and vegan proteins extends way beyond tofu and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need as much protein as most people think, and it’s easy to get what you do need from beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and even greens!
The below protein sources make it easy to get your protein fill if you’re eating a vegetarian or vegan diet or just trying to eat less meat and more plants. Protein is a key nutrient for growing and maintaining muscles and keeping your skin and hair strong and healthy. It also helps keep you full.
Quinoa is a very unique plant protein as it is a complete protein. This means it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is rich in magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, iron, thiamine and folate. And as an added bonus for those with coeliac disease or any gluten sensitivity, quinoa is gluten-free. It is extremely versatile as it has a fairly plain texture, so can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. One cup of cooked quinoa weighing 185g provides 8.14 g of protein.
While these are technically a member of the bean family, lentils really deserve their own category as they have more protein than other beans and their flavour and texture are unique. Lentils come in a few varieties – red, green, brown and black or beluga lentils. Lentils are also high in fibre which is important for a healthy heart, helps keep you full and aids digestion. They are also a quick-cooking protein source for veggies and vegans. They only take about 15-20 minutes to cook so you can make a delicious dinner quickly.
Similar to lentils, beans give significant amounts of fibre – a nutrient many of us do not strive to get enough of. Beans are also an inexpensive way to add protein to dips, salads and soups as well as the fact that they are a plant-based source of iron. There are many different varieties and they are widely available and affordable. Beans are a great starting place for people who are looking to eat less meat! Another great tip is to mix beans and rice together – Most beans are low in methionine and high in lysine, while rice (both brown and white) is low in lysine and high in methionine. Put them together and you get protein perfection (subbing lentils or chickpeas for beans produces the same effect).
Soy-Based Proteins (Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame)
Soy is a complete protein and thoroughly deserves its status as the go-to meat substitute (but go easy on the processed varieties). Tempeh and natto are made by fermenting the beans, but tofu is probably the best-known soy product. If protein’s a concern, it’s important to choose the firmest tofu available — the firmer the tofu, the higher its protein content. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, which means it’s much easier to digest and also contains some beneficial bacteria for your gut. Tempeh, similar to tofu, has a very bland taste, so you can really go for it with seasoning and flavourings. Edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans that are green and have a slightly sweet, grassy flavour. They’re usually steamed or boiled and can be enjoyed on their own as a snack. Alternatively, they can be added to salads, soups, or grain bowls.
Nuts & Seeds
With a wide variety to choose from – not only can you use nuts and seeds as a snack, but you can turn them into homemade nut butters, bake with them and toss them into smoothies. They’re easy to use and again, pack a powerful punch in the healthy fat department! Nuts are tiny flavorful packages containing healthy unsaturated fats, protein, fibre, and other nutrients. For example, peanuts and pecans contain lots of B vitamins; almonds are rich in calcium and vitamin E; walnuts have lots of folates, vitamin E, and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid). And all nuts have magnesium. Seeds have mostly healthy fats, some fibre, and about 150 calories per ounce. And they do have protein, about 5 to 9 grams per ounce. Flaxseeds and chia seeds are also good sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. One of the highest sources of protein in the seed family are hemp seeds! They’re small, easy to incorporate and are also full of healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds can be found as seeds themselves, but many times you can also find hemp powder which would work just as your standard protein powder!
Nutritional yeast is made from a single-celled organism called Saccharomyces Cerevisiae that’s grown on molasses, cane sugar or some other medium. Once it’s harvested, it’s washed and dried then deactivated with heat so the yeast stops growing. It does not have leavening abilities like baking yeast since it’s deactivated during processing. After it’s treated with heat, it’s crumbled or flaked and packaged for use. Commercially, nutritional yeast is sold as a yellow powder or flakes and has a distinctive umami flavour that can be used to add a cheese-like flavour to vegan dishes, such as popcorn, pasta, or mashed potatoes. When fortified, nutritional yeast can also be an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and all the B vitamins, including B12.
Once considered a staple food in Incan, Mayan, and Aztec cultures, it has become a popular gluten-free grain alternative. Amaranth boasts an impressive nutrient resume, and like other pseudocereals, is a protein powerhouse. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, and at 14% protein, it contains close to double the amount found in rice and corn. Amaranth is a versatile grain that can be boiled for a side dish or porridge, or popped in a skillet to add texture to granola bars or salads. Similarly to quinoa, it has a delicate, nutty taste and retains its crunch even when cooked. When ground into a flour, amaranth can also be used in gluten-free baking.
While many people think that buckwheat is a cereal grain, it is actually a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel making it a suitable substitute for grains for people who are sensitive to wheat or other grains that contain protein glutens. While it’s not as high in protein as quinoa or amaranth, buckwheat is another pseudocereal that’s a plant-based source of complete protein. Nutty in flavour, the hulled kernels, or groats, can be cooked similarly to oatmeal or ground into a flour and used in baking. In Japanese cooking, buckwheat is most commonly consumed in the form of noodles, which are called soba. Buckwheat is also a good source of many essential minerals, including phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Mycoprotein is a complete protein providing all essential amino acids which are rarely found in plant-based protein sources. It is also high in dietary fibre, unlike meat. It’s made by growing a certain kind of fungus in vats and turning it into meat substitutes that are packed with complete protein. Since it’s usually bound together with free-range egg whites or milk, Quorn is not technically vegan, but the company does have some vegan products. It’s a rich source of essential amino acids and low in sodium, sugar, and fat, it’s a popular option for those looking for a plant-based alternative to chicken.