10 Complete Plant-Based Protein Sources To Add To Your Diet
Did you know that not all proteins are created equally? There are complete proteins, i.e. proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids our bodies need but can’t produce, and incomplete proteins, those that lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids.
“There are 20 different amino acids that make up protein, nine of them are called essential amino acids because our bodies can’t produce them, so we need to get them from food.” The nine essential amino acids our bodies require to effectively function (build muscle, grow skin, fuel organs, etc.) are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
Note: The amount of protein an individual requires on a daily basis varies from person to person. But, on average, the recommended intake of protein is about 0.36 grams per body weight pound. Not sure how much protein should be included in your daily diet? Use the equation below to help you calculate your personal daily protein intake.
Your weight x .36 = grams of protein per day
NOTE: The average woman requires about 46 grams of protein per day while the average man requires about 56 grams of protein per day. This number will obviously vary depending on your weight, activity level, age, muscle mass, goals, etc.
10 Complete Plant-Based Protein Sources
I am pretty hesitant when it comes to recommending soy products, especially for women, as soy, more importantly, processed soy products, can actually mess with your hormones. Alissa Vitti, a functional nutritionist and women’s hormone expert, wrote a great article about this (Is Soy safe for your period and fertility?), so I won’t go into too much about it here. That said, tempeh, fermented soybean, which is different from tofu, is a great source of complete plant-based protein and, in small quantities, really good for you.
1 Cup (166gm) of Tempeh = 30.8g of protein (62% of Daily Value (DV))
1. Tempeh is packed with health benefits and nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium.
2. Contains prebiotics: While tempeh is a fermented product, it doesn’t actually contain high levels of probiotics that other unpasteurized fermented products such as kimchi may have. This is primarily because Tempeh is fermented using a fungus and is usually cooked before eating and that most commercial products are pasteurized. That said, tempeh is a great source of prebiotics — “types of fiber that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system.” 1 Prebiotics have been found to help promote digestive health and potentially reduce inflammation. 2
3. Rich in calcium: Tempeh is also a great source of animal-free calcium. One cup (166 grams) of tempeh contains about 2/3 of the calcium found in one cup of whole milk. 3
Tip: When buying tempeh, I recommend purchasing tempeh that has been minimally processed. Warning: If you’re allergic to soy or have thyroid issues, this might be a plant-based protein you want to avoid.
This is my all-time favorite source of complete plant-based protein. It’s just so easy to cook, super versatile, and pretty inexpensive. I use this little legume to make stews, salads, patties, curries, etc. After soy, lentils are a great complete plant-based protein alternative to meat. In fact, lentils are made up of over 25% protein. And when combined with a whole grain, like brown rice, they can give you the same quality of protein as meat.
One cup (198 g) of cooked/boiled lentils = 17.9 grams of protein (½ cup is 8.85 grams) (36% of DV)
1. Lentils are packed with B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and potassium and is a great source of fiber and iron!
Phytochemicals, according to Harvard Health, ”are literally plant (phyto) chemicals: compounds in plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes) that contribute to their color, taste, and smell…Phytochemicals are found in all edible parts of a plant, especially the skin or peel.”
Scientists are still researching and exploring all the health benefits these plant chemicals provide but it is believed they may help fight cancer, inhibit cancer growth, fight inflammation, lower blood pressure, and reduce heart disease, to name a few. Some of the polyphenols in lentils, such as procyanidin and flavanols, are known to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects. It’s believed that the polyphenols in lentils may also play a part in improving blood sugar levels. 4
3. Beans + Rice:
This is a staple in our home. I use this combo in salads, soups, and just as a side. It’s important to pair beans with rice though as, on their own, beans are considered an incomplete protein source as they have lower levels of methionine. But, when paired with brown or white rice these little legumes are a great source of complete plant-based protein.
Why? Because “brown and white rice are low in lysine but high in methionine while beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. Lysine is mainly essential for tissue growth and repair. Methionine is required for normal growth and repair of body tissues, and plays an important role in cellular metabolism.” 5
One cup (239 g) of rice and beans = 12 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.
Beans are packed with nutrients and protein and, similar to lentils, a super versatile legume. Not to mention, they provide the fiber many of us are missing in our diets. “One cup of white rice and beans has 10 grams of fiber, mostly supplied by the beans. Compare that with a cup of chicken and rice, which has less than 1 gram.”
In addition to being a relatively inexpensive form of plant-based protein, beans are full of nutrients, including copper, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, as well as protein and fiber. 6 Plus, beans are also rich in polyphenols!
4. Chickpeas + Pita Bread
If you’re looking to keep your appetite under control, this may be a legume you want to start adding to your diet as the protein and fiber combination help to slow down digestion, which helps promote fullness. Similar to beans though, chickpeas are not a complete plant-based protein as they don’t contain methionine. So, best to pair this little legume with whole grains, rice, pita bread, etc.
One cup (240g) of canned chickpeas = 11.9 grams of protein (24% DV)
Chickpeas are packed with fiber, nutrients, and are a great source of minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, both of which have been studied for their potential to boost heart health 7
Rich in saponins: Chickpeas contain saponins, which are naturally occurring compounds widely distributed in all cells of legume plants. “Clinical studies have suggested that these health-promoting components, saponins, affect the immune system in ways that help to protect the human body against cancers, and also lower cholesterol levels. Saponins decrease blood lipids, lower cancer risks, and lower blood glucose response.” 8 Saponins have also been studied for their role in inhibiting tumor growth! 9 (NOTE: Saponins are also categorized as anti-nutrients, i.e. known to block the absorption of nutrients when ingested. You can read more about anti-nutrients here.)
When in a pinch, boil a cup of quinoa and add any leftover produce to a large bowl, and voila! Dinner is served. I can’t tell you how many times this pseudo-cereal has been the foundation of my meals on extremely busy days.
One cup (185 g) of cooked quinoa = 8.1 grams of protein (16% DV)
Though technically a seed, Quinoa is classified as a whole grain and is a good source of complete plant protein and fiber. One cup of cooked quinoa provides about 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. It’s also packed with iron and is rich in manganese, phosphorus, magnesium. folate, thiamin, (Vitamin B1), and Vitamin B6. 10 11
Fun fact: NASA scientists have been looking at it as a suitable crop to be grown in outer space, mostly based on its high nutrient content, ease of use, and simplicity of growing it.
Quinoa also contains large amounts of flavonoids, including quercetin and kaempferol, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer, and anti-depressant effects in animal studies (source). Needless to say, quinoa is packed with numerous health benefits. 12
6. Chia Seeds:
I wrote an entire post on the health benefits and nutritional value of chia seeds, check it out here!
7. Ezekiel bread: Complete Plant-Based Protein
Ezekiel bread is a type of sprouted grain bread that is prepared using traditional methods of soaking, sprouting and baking. Note: Sprouting a grain or legume means soaking them in water so seeds germinate. 13
Made out of sprouted whole grains, legumes, and sometimes seeds, Ezekiel bread includes more protein, fiber, and absorbable vitamins and minerals than non-sprouted bread, i.e., it’s a healthier alternative to most whole wheat breads on the market. Note: Ezekiel bread is not gluten-free.
According to Food For Life, the makers of one of the most popular types of Ezekiel breads, one slice of Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Bread has about 5 grams of protein ( and 3 grams of fiber (11% of DV)
Complete Protein: Not only is Ezekiel bread delicious, it’s also a great source of complete protein. In fact, according to Dr. Axe, “Ezekiel bread contains 18 amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, including all nine essential amino acids.” Plus, Ezekiel Bread is easier for most people to digest as sprouted grains are, for the average person, more easily digestible. Additionally, the sprouting process makes some vitamins and minerals easier to absorb. 14
Not to mention, Vitamin C, B vitamins, and Vitamin E also seem to become more concentrated when sprouted.
This nutty-tasting grain is a must for anyone looking to increase their intake of plant-based protein and fiber. There are 9 grams of protein for every 1 cup of amaranth. Not to mention, this is a gluten-free grain, i.e., great for anyone who is sensitive to gluten.
One cup (246 g) of cooked amaranth = 9.3 grams of protein (19% DV)
Amaranth is an amazing source of plant-based protein, fiber, and other nutrients our bodies need. 15 A complete protein with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, this grain is also packed with fiber, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron. 16
Calcium Rich: One cup of amaranth contains 12% of your DV of calcium (116 milligrams), which is great for anyone who needs to strengthen or repair bones. It’s also been found that amaranth may be a more natural treatment for those with arthritis while also having the “power to reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis and other inflammatory conditions.” 17
Buckwheat has become popular as a health food due to its high mineral and antioxidant content. While it may not be the highest source of plant-based proteins — one cup of buckwheat yields about 5.68 grams of protein — this is one gluten-free pseudocereal you don’t want to overlook.
One cup (168 g) of cooked buckwheat groats = 5.7 grams of protein (11% DV)
Similar to most of the plants listed in this list, buckwheat is rich in fiber and healthy nutrients. contains vitamins including: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6. 18 One cup of buckwheat contains 1.58 mg of the recommended 14 to 16 mg of niacin for adults. niacin, or Vitamin B3, is essential for converting carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy for the body’s cells to use. 19
10. Peanut Butter Sandwich:
Ah, the peanut butter and bread combo, my favorite snack of all time! So, you can imagine my excitement when I found out that this delicious combo was also a source of complete plant-based protein. Peanut butter tends to be high in fats (a 100-gram portion contains 588 calories) so it is something you might want to consume in moderation. That said, the fats found in peanut butter are primarily healthy fats, so you shouldn’t completely avoid this protein-packed spread. In fact, “half of the fat in peanut butter is made up of oleic acid, a healthy type of monounsaturated fat also found in high amounts in olive oil.” 20 While packed with nutrients, peanut butter is, like many other legumes, low in methionine, making it an incomplete protein. Which is why you’ll want to pair it with whole wheat bread (read more about methionine here).21
Tip: Opt for whole wheat bread and natural peanut butter, which limits its ingredients to peanuts and a bit of salt.
Whole wheat bread (whole-wheat, commercially prepared = 2.0 x 1 slice (28g)) + peanut butter (smooth style, with salt = 1.0 x 2 tbsp (32g)) = 15.3 grams of protein (31% DV)
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- National Library of Medicine
- Consumer Reports
- National Library of Medicine
- National Library of Medicine
- Harvard Health
- Live Science
- Dr. Axe
- Dr. Axe
- Dr. Axe
- Medical News Today
- Medical News Today