The general misconception about vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diets is that the individuals who adopt such a lifestyle are lacking in protein. I’m here to tell you that it is indeed a misconception, and completely untrue. Many healthy individuals, even athletes who require an immense amount of protein, thrive on plant-based diets just as much as non-plant-based diets. You just have to make conscious and informed decisions or it all to go smoothly.
What foods generally have protein?
- Usually, about 2/3 of the protein that people eat come from animal products. The remaining 1/3 comes from plants and similar products. There seems to be a quick shift in these numbers, however, especially in the past 5 years.
- Legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils, etc.) have the most protein out of the veggie reign, followed by nuts and grains. You then have cereal products and vegetables who have similar quantities of protein. Fruits are in the last place because they don’t have significant sources of protein.
- Cereals (wheat, sorgho, amaranth, millet, triticale, buckwheat, etc.) aren’t the richest in proteins, but considering how much we eat them on a daily basis, it definitely starts to add up and becomes more and more significant. This is why eating whole grains are better for you protein-wise.
Why is protein so important?
Here are a few of the many vital roles of proteins in our body:
- Proper muscle function and formation (actin and myosin protein);
- Healthy nails, hair and skin (keratin protein);
- Healthy bones, teeth, cartilage and blood vessels (collagen protein);
- Proper nutrient metabolism and digestion (enzymes);
- Proper hormonal function (insulin, for example);
- Helps heal wounds by forming scars (fibrinogen protein);
- Regulates body pH (hemoglobin protein);
- Transporting oxygen from the lungs to peripheral organs (hemoglobin).
Still not convinced? I don’t believe you 😉
Without proteins, our bodies would simply stop functioning.
What happens if I don’t eat enough protein?
For a non-athletic individual in reasonable health, it is recommended that you eat 0.8g grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So say someone who weights 55 kilograms would have to eat 55 x 0.8 = 44 grams of protein daily. Your proteins should count for anything between 10-35% of your daily macronutrient intake (which also include carbohydrates and lipids).
Someone who doesn’t eat enough protein will find that their normal bodily functions (as mentioned above) will suffer. This happens when you don’t eat enough protein in general, or when you don’t eat enough essential amino acids, which are the amino acids that your body can’t form on its own it, and absolutely have to come from your diet.
Usually, western civilizations don’t find themselves with many cases of protein deficiency, considering how easy it is to access food. However, in these societies, people who suffer from alcoholism, anorexia, digestive problems and sometimes those who are of old age are at a higher risk to suffer from protein deficiency.
Is there such a thing as too much protein?
Your body doesn’t store protein like it does with fats (stored in fat cells) or carbohydrates (stored in liver and muscles). So eating excess protein won’t bring you any benefits (sorry, aspiring bodybuilders, you’re gonna have to find another way). Your body will just use up whatever it needs and get rid of the rest through urine and bile.
There are many research papers that hint at excess in protein might lead to heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney and liver surcharge (overworking your kidneys and liver) and even cancer. However, don’t fret about these statements because the conclusions of these research papers aren’t very precise and sometimes contradictory. That being said, there is still some work to be done when it comes to the possible effects of protein excess.
My advice is to play is safe and, if you want to count your macros, stick to the 0.8 gram for every kilogram of body weight rule. If you’re very active or an athlete and you don’t think this average-Joe rule applies to you, consult a registered dietitian.
This average-Joe rule also doesn’t apply to you if you have digestive problems or health conditions that might affect your digestion and nutrient absorption. It is crucial you first consult a physician and ask for a referral to a registered dietitian.
Finally, the TOP 14 sources of protein for plant-based diets!
Below I have compiled values for over fifty food items from a variety of food groups (vegetables, legumes, algae, nuts & seeds, etc.) and will present to you the top fifteen food items with the most protein. For the sake of comparison, I have compared the quantity of protein of each food per 100 grams of said food. The values are taken from the CNF (Canadian Nutrient File) website, which is by far one of the leading sources of food-based information in Canada. Enjoy!
This is a superfood craze that lasted longer than expected. With 58 grams of protein per 100 grams of spirulina, this member of the algae family comes out on top of this list.
Over 50% of the weight of dehydrated Spirulina (which is sold in capsules or powder) is protein. However, because of how light it is, 100 grams of spirulina… is a lot of spirulina. It is a nice complement to add to an existing meal, but wouldn’t be fit for an entire meal replacement.
Spirulina can be found in grocery stores and some pharmacies as capsules or powder, and can, therefore, be taken as a supplement (in water or smoothies). You can also add it to your home-made baked goods (muffins, puddings, brownies…). It isn’t recommended to have it by itself due to its strong taste, and it is better when added to something that’s already sweet, like fruit smoothies, for example.
Spirulina will change the colour of the food you add it to, so beware of that.
2. Raw peanuts
They’re the peanuts you all know and love (unless you’re allergic). Roasted or raw peanuts are second on the list because they contain about 25 grams of protein per 100 grams of peanuts. That’s 25% of its weight!
I personally recommend eating raw peanuts that haven’t been already salted or sweetened (because companies usually go overboard with the stuff) and then adding your own topping according to your taste buds.
3. Raw peanut butter
This one is almost expected. Although it contains a little less protein than raw peanuts because of other added ingredients or the different consistency, natural and non-processed peanut butter is a great source of protein, with almost 4 grams of protein per tablespoon! It is not sweetened, however. My suggestion (and also favourite breakfast food) is to have it with banana on toast! Deee-licious!
The difference between raw and processed nut-butters is that large industrial food companies add many ingredients to raw nut-butters to change the consistency, increase their shelf-life and improve their flavour or texture (by adding sugar, among others). Because of those added ingredients, you’re most likely to get less protein per tablespoon, although the difference might not be much, admittedly.
4. Raw almond butter
Natural almond butter has very similar ingredients to peanut butter (except for the main ingredient, of course, the almonds). It has about 3.5 grams of protein per tablespoon.
I’d stay away from processed and packaged nut butter, considering how much-unneeded fat and sugar are added, not to mention preservatives that keep it crunchy. Natural is the way to go, as much as possible!
5. Raw almonds
Raw almonds have 21 grams of protein per 100 grams, which is about 21% of its weight.
They’re perfect to snack on, or to add on top of a summer salad to give it a bit more crunch. However, beware of the high-fat content of nuts. Even if they’re good fat that should be preferred over saturated fats like butter or margarine, that calories may add up. Moderation is key, depending on your goals.
Chickpeas are one of my favourites from this list. I could (and often do) eat these out of a bowl, seasoned with some olive oil, paprika and black pepper. I sometimes add other vegetables and turn them into a salad. Yummy!
You can also use a food processor to some home-made hummus, mash them up as a part of a veggie burger or veggie nuggets, or add some to a home-made pilaf to add texture and increase the protein content. You can even season and bake them and have them as a crunchy snack!
Raw chickpeas have about 20.5 grams of protein per 100 grams. That’s 20% of their total weight.
With (also) almost 20% protein (19 grams of protein per 100 grams), this product that derives from fermented soybeans is #7 on the list of rich plant-based protein sources. You’ll find tempeh at any grocery store. It is a delicious and quite versatile food item. Unlike tofu, it naturally has a smokier taste because of the fermentation process, but, like tofu, it absorbs practically any flavour of marinade you choose.
How to eat it? You can season it, stir fry it, bake it or steam it. You can eat it as a meat replacement on top of a salad, in a sandwich or on your regularly plated food. Leave a comment if you’d be interested in a tempeh recipe!
Believe it or not, these tiny little seeds contain 18 grams of protein per 100 grams Flax. This makes about 2 grams of protein per tablespoon!
Flaxseed tends to have the same issue as chia seeds when it comes to their digestion (see #13 below). I’d recommend grinding them first before adding them to a smoothie or as a topping on top of cereal, oatmeal, soup, and dips. You could also add a few tablespoons to home-made baked goods to increase the protein and fibre quantity.
9. Raw cashews
Just like its fellow members of the nut family, cashews are rich in protein. Cashews have about 18 grams of protein per 100 grams.
With 17,8 grams of protein per 100g and about 2.7 grams per tablespoon, tahini might be a bit unknown to those who are just starting out with their plant-based diets. It is of a thicker liquid consistency and is derived from sesame seeds, and is very popular in the Mediterranean diet (I’ve written a post about the Mediterranean diet here).
How to use: you can add tahini to dipping sauces such as hummus, or turn it into a dressing for salads and other dishes. It is a bit astringent on its own, although many prefer to eat it as is.
11. Cashew butter
Like with the other nut/nut butter combos, the nutritional value of cashew butter is comparable to that of raw cashews. It has about 17.6 grams per 100 grams, which makes about 2.85 grams per tablespoon.
12. (Plain) Oats
Next up, oats! This obviously doesn’t refer to the pre-packaged instant oatmeal that contains plenty of sugar and salt (although they might also contain protein). I personally prefer to buy plain oats and cook it quickly in the microwave with some hot water, milk or nut milk, and dress it how I like, usually with fruit like bananas and strawberries 🙂
Oats have 16.9 grams of protein per 100 grams of oats, so about 17%!
You can use oats for plenty of things other than oatmeal, like oatmeal cookies, home-made oatmeal bars, pancakes, oat flour, and you can even blend them up in a smoothie for a thicker final product!
13. Chia seeds
Similarly to flaxseed, these little seeds are very rich in protein and other nutrients, for which they have been called a ”superfood”. With 16.5 grams of protein per 100 grams, they made it to #13 on our list.
The issue with chia seeds, however, is that you don’t necessarily absorb all the nutrients when you eat them, and they pass directly through your digestive system without being assimilated because of the hard shell coating it has.
But, when ground, chia seeds are better absorbed and can be used in baked goods, sprinkled on top of cereals and other food items (like flax seeds, as seen above), or even in smoothies. I wouldn’t recommend eating them whole or as a pudding, though, simply for the missing nutritional benefits.
Are you starting to see a pattern in the main vegan protein sources? Walnuts are also on the list of highest vegan protein, with 15.2 grams per 100 grams of walnuts.
You can also use walnuts in baked goods or as toppings, or you can eat them as is as a snack! I personally prefer the latter. They are also delicious when in a banana-walnut muffin or bread.
There may be other food items that fit amongst the 14 that I have chosen to present today that I don’t even know about! If you have anything to add, leave a comment and I’d love to discuss it ♡
Just because some legumes/vegetables/grains/nuts haven’t made it to this list, doesn’t mean they don’t have any protein! Foods like lentils, hemp seeds, tofu, amaranth and buckwheat (and many more!!) also contain a very decent amount of protein, just not as much as the top 14 presented here today. The general idea is this: for plant-based protein, eat nuts & seeds, legumes and vegetables.
Hope you enjoyed!!
- Government of Canada. Canadian Nutrient File (CNF). https://aliments-nutrition.canada.ca/cnf-fce/switchlocale.do?lang=en&url=t.search.recherche. Last updated 2018-02-06. Last consulted 2019-07-19.
- Bélanger, M., Leblanc, M-J., Dubost, M. (2015). La nutrition: 4e édition. Publications Chenelière Éducation. Pages 219-243.