Ask A Dietitian: What Are The Best Plant-Based Proteins?
Meat: It's no longer what's for dinner.
Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs are high-quality foods containing all the essential amino acids required by the body and approximately 7 grams of protein per ounce. Because of this, these are the first foods many think of when choosing what meets their daily protein needs.
BUT, there are some plant-based proteins that shouldn't be overlooked. Check out this list of top protein-rich plant foods that not only pack hefty doses of protein, but also contribute essential amino acids to your daily diet.
Sources with 12 to 18 grams per serving
Nutrition stats (1 cup canned or cooked): 18g protein, 230 calories, 40g carb, 16g fiber
Lentils are a tiny member of the legume family that also claims beans, peanuts, and soybeans. They are inexpensive and cook quickly because of their size, but they're also packed with protein and fiber. Whether you choose red, yellow, green, black, or brown, lentils are a hearty plant-based substitute for meat. They shine in recipes like Lentil Shepherd's Pie, as well as an easy way to boost protein in salads and grain bowls like Kale and Lentil Bowl with Thai Almond Sauce.
Nutrition stats (1 cup canned or cooked): 17g protein, 190 calories, 16g carb, 8g fiber
Firm with a slightly nutty flavor, edamame are young green soybeans that are served shelled or in pods. What's important to know about edamame and other soy-based foods (like tofu) is that it's one of very food plant foods considered a "complete protein," meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. Their creamy texture makes them ideal to puree as a part of a hummus, or for a sauce for something like Spaghetti Squash with Edamame-Cilantro Pesto. I've found it easiest to toss a frozen handful into grains, stir fries, and pasta dishes like this Soba-Edamame Noodle Bowl.
Legume-Based or Protein-Fortified Pasta
Nutrition stats (1 cup cooked chickpea-based): 16g protein, 220 calories, 37g carb, 9g fiber
The dry pasta section of the grocery has more than doubled in size over the past few years, thanks in large part to new varieties that use chickpea or lentil-based flours, or flour blends featuring whole-grain and pea flours to boost protein. Pasta with Green Peas and Almond Gremolata and Creamy Four Cheese Pasta with Spinach are two protein-packed vegetarian dishes that use them, but you can substitute these pastas for regular spaghetti if you'd like to further boost protein and fiber.
Nutrition stats (1 cup canned or cooked); 12g protein, 190 calories, 35g carb, 9g fiber
Lima beans are a staple in the South (where I live), and a legume that I never realized was such a great protein source until recently. In fact, they're equivalent to canned and dried beans when it comes to protein and fiber. I love their creamy, starchy texture when served by themselves, but also when tossed in a salad made with grains, greens, or another legume. I'd recommend trying Succotash Salad with Lentils or Black Bean-Quinoa Salad with Basil-Lemon Dressing if you're wanting to expand your lima bean wheelhouse.
Nutrition stats (1 cup canned or cooked); 12g protein, 200 calories, 34g carb, 10g fiber
Canned black beans are a staple I always have in my pantry because of their versatility. Whether extending a taco dish made with beef, tossing with tomatoes and avocado for a quick protein-packed bean salad, or using as a veggie burger base, these beans handle their assignment with aplomb. Because most other canned and dried beans—from kidney to chickpeas to cannellini—have approximately the same nutrient stats, though, don't limit yourself to just black beans. Try serving up some Black Bean Burgers with Sriracha Aioli or Fava Beans with Pesto and Cavatappi.
Sources with 6 to 8 grams per serving
Nutrition stats (2 Tbsp); 8g protein, 190 calories, 6g carb, 2g fiber
Because peanuts are a legume, peanut butter boasts a little more protein when compared to nut butters made with tree nuts (think almonds). Add flavor and creaminess while boosting protein by incorporating it into sweet dishes like Peanut Butter, Flax, and Banana Smoothies, or savory ones like Zucchini Noodles with Spicy Peanut Sauce.
Nutrition stats (1 cup cooked): 8g protein, 220 calories, 39g carb, 5g fiber
This whole grain cooks quick and its hearty texture allows it to serve as a base for grain pilafs and veggie burgers alike. It's also considered a complete protein like edamame. Here are a few different ways to incorporate quinoa into your meals:
- Buffalo Quinoa Burgers
- Quinoa with Leeks and Shiitake Mushrooms
- Tomato-Leek Pie with Quinoa Crust
Nutrition stats (1 cup cooked): 8g protein, 130 calories, 23g carb, 7g fiber
Peas are easy to overlook, and while they don't contain as much protein as beans, they're still a good source of both protein and fiber. Use either fresh or frozen to boost protein in recipes, like this Indian-Spiced Pea Frittata, or Pea Pappardelle Pasta.
Nutrition stas (1 ounce, about 22 whole): 6g protein, 170 calories, 6g carb, 3g fiber
Sure, they're a great source of healthy fats, but almonds are also an easy, portable source of protein. Of course, you can also incorporate them into snacks like Cherry-Almond Energy Bars or entrees like Rigatoni with Green Olive-Almond Pesto and Asiago Cheese. Not an almond fan? Pistachios offer comparable protein.
There are also a few other produce protein sources that might surprise you. Even though they contain small amounts, these plants can help boost your daily intake.
- Asparagus (12 cooked spears): 4g protein, 40 calories, 7g carb, 4g fiber
- Avocado (1 whole): 4g protein, 320 calories, 17g carb, 13g fiber
- Potato (1 medium cooked): 4g protein, 160 calories, 37g carb, 4g fiber
- Corn (1 ear cooked): 4g protein, 120 calories, 27g carb, 4g fiber
- Spinach (2/3 cup cooked): 4g protein, 30 calories, 5g carb, 3g fiber