Vegan proteins, somewhere along the line, got this mistaken perception they are somehow lesser than other protein sources.
Admit it. If not you, then someone you know has at some point thought of vegans/vegetarians as weaker because there’s just no way a body can build muscle mass and strength eating plants, yada yada yada.
Well, we’re here to tell you that is not the case, and if you don’t believe us, we’ve got someone we’d like for you to meet.
The Diaz Brothers
When Nate Diaz stunned Conor McGregor in their first fight, his always supportive brother, an MMA fighter himself, tweeted out, “Conor McGregor got his a** kicked by a vegan.”
Of course, Nick wasn’t surprised. Not only was he completely confident in baby brother’s ability, he had a long history of knocking the lights out of his opponents long before Nate ever stepped in a cage.
Nick Diaz didn’t buy into the misconception about vegans because he was/is one himself, and he knew that it didn’t have to be a detriment to his MMA career.
Of course, a major component to any good diet — vegan or otherwise — is in the quality of proteins you consume. Before getting into the best vegan proteins for your diet, let’s see how they measure up compared to animal-based proteins.
Plant Proteins vs. Animal Proteins
Animal proteins have long been considered necessities because they more closely resemble the proteins comprising the human body. These consist of the following:
Critics of vegan proteins argue that animal proteins are better for two reasons: a) they contain all of the essential amino acids the body needs for optimal functionality; and b) they contain more nutrients than vegan proteins.
Nutrients found more abundantly in animal proteins include vitamin B12, vitamin D, DHA, Heme-iron, and zinc.
So If That’s the Case, Why Should You Care About Vegan Proteins?
Supporters of animal proteins usually fail to point out these two realities when drawing comparisons.
First of all, just because a single vegan protein source isn’t “complete” in terms of nutrients and amino acids, that doesn’t mean you are out of luck when it comes to picking up those acids/nutrients through a combination of vegan-friendly sources.
(We’ll get into the varying functions of the 23 vegan proteins in a moment.)
Secondly, animal proteins, particularly red meat, have a pretty serious side effect that can be way worse than forcing you to eat a few extra plants to get the same benefits.
As Healthline notes, certain types of meat may cause disease.
UK-based contributor Dr. Mary Jane Brown notes that “observational studies have linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and early death” in spite of its being a high-quality source of protein on paper.
Processed meat also is an issue with links to heart failure and early death.
Vegan Proteins: General Benefits
In contrast to processed animal-based proteins (i.e., most of the meat that you’re going to buy at a grocery store), vegan proteins have been linked to a number of health benefits.
It should be noted correlation and cause are two separate things, but studies have observed vegan protein consumption can aid with the following:
Lowered Heart Disease Risk
High blood pressure and large amounts of LDL (aka “bad cholesterol”) are the two biggest factors in getting heart disease. While animal sources are great for protein grams, they’re anywhere from poor to nonexistent with fiber content.
Fiber can suck out the artery buildup that exacerbates heart disease. As a result, people who get more of their protein content from plants tend to skew lower on blood pressure and lipid counts.
In this study, researchers recommended getting half your proteins from a vegetable-based source to enjoy the benefits.
Reduced Type 2 Diabetes Risk
Many people fail to take type 2 diabetes seriously enough because they are under the impression that it can be cured or reversed through diet and exercise.
However, the problem with type 2 diabetes that no one wants to face, is that it can often go undiagnosed until a blood test is ordered for it, and that will depend on manifestation of symptoms.
Many people with type 2 diabetes may not even realize the symptoms they experience are related.
For example, if you suffer from any of the following conditions…
- Unusual urine odor
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Unintentional weight gain or loss
- Dark discoloration in certain areas (i.e., armpits, chin, groin)
- Blurry vision
…then you may have type 2 diabetes.
What does that mean for the long term? It means more serious vision problems, kidney disease, heart disease, urinary tract infections, and sexual performance issues.
So you definitely want to take it seriously, and by replacing red meat with legumes and other vegan proteins, you can reduce the risk.
In fact, one study found that replacing two servings of red meat per day, three days a week, greatly improved the situations of type 2 diabetes patients.
Weight Loss or Weight Gain Prevention
Weight loss — or if you’re already at a healthy weight, weight maintenance — are much easier to pull off provided you are eating a diet high in vegan proteins.
That’s because, unlike animal-based proteins, vegan proteins tend to run higher in fiber since they are derived from plant sources.
Fiber is the material that keeps your body feeling satiated. Since vegan protein sources also are lower in calories than animal-based sources, you end up staying fuller on fewer calories.
Fewer calories consumed than you burn results in weight loss every time, or it always gives you a surplus that you can lean on for those off days when you go a little overboard.
And as noted above, keeping weight under control keeps other factors like heart disease and type 2 diabetes risks under control as well.
The 23 Vegan Proteins
So now that we’ve covered the benefits of vegan proteins and why you should consider them ahead of animal-based proteins, let’s get to those individual ones that we promised you.
Again, vegan proteins are considered “incomplete,” but there are many more beyond the 23 we’re about to discuss, and you can get a different amino acid/nutrient combination from each one.
By doing a little homework ahead of time, it is possible to completely replace animal-based proteins from your diet in favor of the produce section.
And we’re not even telling you to do that! But by bringing in some vegan proteins, you can reduce the amount coming from animal sources, and that alone can have a monumental effect on your health.
Okay, let’s keep going!
Seitan also is known as gluten, gluten meat, or wheat meat. The protein is produced by washing off the starchy granules from wheat flour dough and cooking the resulting mass for consumption.
The pre-cooked version can be sticky and elastic in texture and form, but the finished product is quite nice and adaptable.
Most people choose to cook it in vegetable broth to add to flavoring.
Try refrigerating it in cooled broth inside of a storage container. The material will stay good for up to 10 days. If you want to make a larger batch, consider freezing it. Through this method, it can last as long as three months.
A 3-ounce portion “contains 2.5 to 4 grams of carbs, 1 to 2 grams of fiber, 0 to 2 grams of fat and 21 grams of protein.”
Tofu is a soy-based protein that you are probably quite familiar with from Asian cuisine.
While the product certainly has its critics, it’s a tasty concoction comprised of mashed up soybeans, which are very high in protein (and usually more “complete” than most vegan proteins).
Also known as “bean curd.”
Tempeh is a soy-based protein as well, and that can be a source of confusion for many newbies; however, there is a clear difference that comes in the preparation.
While tofu is mashed up — it can be served soft, firm, or extra firm — tempeh comes from cooked, whole soybeans.
The taste profile of tempeh is firm and dense with a chewy quality. It’s usually takes the form of a cake, and it possesses higher protein, fiber, and vitamin content than tofu (though both are quite good).
Quick comparison: one half-cup of tempeh packs about 20 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber, and only 220 calories. Tofu has around 18 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fiber, and 164 calories in the same serving size.
Lentils are part of the legume family — a popular grouping of vegan proteins — and when you get a look at the nutritional profile, you can understand why.
Consuming one cup of lentils will give you around 18 grams of protein for just 230 calories. It’s also incredibly high in fiber with 15.5 grams per same serving size.
If you’re on a protein diet to lose weight, you can conceivably pick up both your daily needed intake of proteins and fiber without hitting the 1,000-calorie mark.
That’s not a suggestion as your body needs other elements to function, but it does show you the power of this valuable protein.
Edamame has started to raise its profile in the United States thanks in part to factory production ramping up domestically from overseas companies (namely China and Japan).
What’s referred to as edamame is, in reality, a preparation of immature soybeans. In the U.S., they’re often boiled and served with salt.
The nutritional profile is not the most protein-dense, but at 17 grams per 189-calorie cup, it’s a well-rounded food source. Additionally, one cup of edamame brings with it 8 grams of fiber.
Chickpeas, also known as Garbanzo beans, are an incredible food source for both protein and fiber. One tablespoon delivers 2.4 grams protein and 2.2 grams of fiber.
That said, it’s one of the higher calorie adders with 46 per tablespoon or about 736 per cup. Running the conversions on that for fiber and protein, you would end up with 35.2 grams of fiber and 38.4 of protein.
While that makes it quite stellar for getting your daily fiber intake with calories to spare, that’s not so much the case if you’re training and you’re goaling for 150-200 grams of protein daily.
If you were to eat nothing but chickpeas for the day, you’d have to consume around 3,000 calories to meet that goal, and fiber-wise, it would put you in the restroom for the remainder of the day.
Not a lot of balance there.
7. Nutritional Yeast
Most commonly used as a seasoning or cheese replacement, nutritional yeast adds 3 grams of protein per tablespoon along with one gram of fiber. It has zero calories.
Also known as hulled wheat, spelt is somewhat high in calories, especially compared to other vegan proteins, but a 588-calorie cup still brings around 25 grams to the table.
Admittedly that ratio is somewhat poor, but considering that same cup contains 19 grams of fiber, it puts you in the position where you can easily supplement the rest of your day with other low-calorie vegan protein sources.
Or, a cup of spelt and one 8-ounce chicken breast will give you around 96 grams of protein for the day at a calorie intake of just 963.
Sprinkle in about 10-15 grams of extra fiber, and you easily can stay within a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet for maintenance or rapidly lose weight without cutting into muscle mass.
Teff is an annual grass that produces edible seeds. It’s somewhat low in protein per calorie (3.87 grams:101 calories). Still, it helps with fiber intake, manages blood sugar, and provides a low-sodium food source that nicely supplements the vegan diet.
Don’t worry, teetotalers, hemp is just a component of marijuana. You’re not going to be failing any drug tests if you sprinkle raw hempseed onto your food for a little extra protein power.
Per 100 grams, hempseed brings with it 32 grams of protein and 586 calories, but the typical serving size is around two tablespoons (70 calories, 4 grams of protein), and you add it to your food for extra texture and supplementation.
11. Green Peas
Green peas are low-fat, high-fiber, and respectable on protein in relation to calories. A single cup delivers 7 grams fiber, 8 grams protein, and 118 calories.
Furthermore, research suggests that green peas promote antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties found in the body as well as blood sugar regulation, and heart health.
Another study based out of Mexico City suggested that it could be beneficial to individuals suffering from stomach cancer.
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that many vegans use as a protein supplement because of its high protein to calorie ratio.
A single tablespoon contains just 20 calories while delivering 4 grams of protein. For illustration purposes, a whole cup would be around 64 grams on just 320 calories.
Again, don’t take it that way. Most consume it as a supplement for shakes or meals. It’s not a main course item. It’s also quite low in fiber compared to other vegan proteins.
Many confuse amaranth with traditional grains and cereals even though it is not a member of the same family. However, it does possess many of the same starchy qualities, and as such, people have used it somewhat interchangeably for a number of years.
One thing about amaranth — it blows other cereals out of the water when it comes to nutritional components, delivering 5 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein per 252-calorie cup.
Add another cup of soy milk, and you’re looking at a 17-gram bowl of cereal with six grams of fiber and just 350 calories. Great way to start the day!
Quinoa is part of the amaranth family. Most blends run higher in calories (367 per 100 grams), but they also deliver 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per same serving size.
One of the most complete vegan proteins there is, quinoa can be tricky to cook for the right consistency, but it’s essential if you’re serious about doing a vegan diet.
15. Ezekiel Bread
“Ezekiel” bread is the most common brand name for flourless wheat bread.
Its popular name has a religious connotation, referring back to the Ezekiel 4:9 passage in the Bible. But you don’t have to adhere to any particular faith to get the health benefits.
One slice of Ezekiel bread contains 80 calories, 4 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fiber.
Dr. Axe has a complete breakdown of the ingredients that you can check out here.
We’ve already covered several separate preparations of soy (i.e., edamame, tofu, tempeh), but the bean itself has some excellent nutritional qualities.
In just two cups of soybeans per day, you could get everything you need in fiber, protein, and calories, in a darn-near perfect calorie composition. Here’s how it would breakdown.
For the single cup, just divide everything by two.
- 74 grams of total fat
- 10 grams of saturated fat
- 1,680 calories
- 8 milligrams of sodium
- 0 milligrams of cholesterol
- 34 grams of fiber
- 136 grams of protein
- 28 grams of sugar
- 50 grams of added carbohydrates
The only thing keeping it from being the perfect food is that it lacks all the essential amino acids that your body would need.
One popular myth: soybeans are bad for men’s testosterone levels. There have been no studies to indicate this, and the ones that have been done actually suggest soy consumption may bring with it a lower risk of developing prostate cancer.
This cereal grain is not the ideal protein source, but it does a fine job of supplementing the vegan diet with 26 grams per cup and 17 grams of fiber. It’s also low in fats and sugars.
The only drawback is that it runs higher in calories. (One cup = around 600.)
18. Wild Rice
Wild rice has about 570 calories per cup (a bit high), but it is low in fat and packs 10 grams of fiber and 24 grams of protein in the same serving size.
It also pairs nicely with different bean selections for a significant fiber-protein/one-two punch.
19. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a go-to source for omega-3 fatty acids as well as “fiber, antioxidants, iron, and calcium.” In a 28-gram serving (approximately 1 ounce), consumers get 5.6 grams of protein. “Mixed with water, they can replace egg in vegan cooking,” the site adds.
Cashews come from the cashew tree. The tree produces both cashew apples and cashew seeds. It is classified as a nut, and it contains around 160 calories per ounce, 0.9 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of protein.
Cashews, like soy and almonds, are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to dairy milk.
21. Peanuts/Peanut Butter
Peanuts are fantastic if you’re not allergic to them, but do exercise caution. In recent years, peanut allergies have become more heavily diagnosed, and the reactions can be anywhere from irritating to deadly.
Furthermore, if you suffer from a peanut allergy, it’s rather easy to be exposed through direct contact or indirect contact (e.g., from other items that have come into contact with peanuts).
If you are allergy-free and don’t come into regular contact with people who are, then this is a great food to have available as it packs 38 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber per cup.
That said, it’s high in fat and calories, so it won’t work for everyone’s diet, but in small quantities, they produce a welcome energy boost throughout the day.
Also, peanut butter and jelly — need we say more?
22. Protein-Rich Fruits
Fruits generally are not known for their great protein content, and they can certainly run high in sugars so proceed with caution.
That said, if you’re hoping to get a fix from Mother Nature’s candy, then stick with these selections:
- Dried apricots
Keep in mind that even good protein-rich fruits are not going to be good as your main go-to, so think of each in a supplemental sense.
23. Other Protein-Rich Vegetables Worthy of a Mention
- Black beans
- Lima beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Brussels sprouts
Prevention has a breakdown of the nutritional components for each that you can check out here.
Whew, so that’s more than 23, and we’re out of breath. What are some of your favorite vegan proteins, and which ones have you yet to try from our list that you would like to?
Sound off in the comments section below!