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8 of the best plant-based sources of protein, according to dietitians

INSIDER logoINSIDER 3/2/2021 insider@insider.com (Ava English,Kailey Proctor)
a sandwich and salad on a plate: Tempeh can be added to sandwiches in place of lunch meats or chicken. Christoffer Persson / EyeEm/Getty Images © Christoffer Persson / EyeEm/Getty Images Tempeh can be added to sandwiches in place of lunch meats or chicken. Christoffer Persson / EyeEm/Getty Images
  • Some of the best plant-based sources of protein include whole soy products like edamame or tofu. 
  • Plant-based protein sources are lower in calories and higher in fiber than animal-based sources. 
  • To add plant-based protein into your diet, mix it with stir-fries, soups, or salads. 
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Plant-based protein sources, like beans and legumes, are typically lower in fat and higher in fiber than their animal-based counterparts, like beef or chicken. However, animal-based protein sources tend to have higher amounts of protein per serving which helps meet nutritional needs.

Here are eight of the best sources of complete plant-based proteins.

1. Quinoa

a bowl of food on a plate: A quinoa salad with mango, carrots, red bell pepper, and red onion. Westend61/Getty Images © Westend61/Getty Images A quinoa salad with mango, carrots, red bell pepper, and red onion. Westend61/Getty Images

Quinoa is a seed that is not only a complete protein but is also filled with fiber. Fiber can improve gut health by relieving constipation and can help with weight management by increasing satiety.

Medical term: A complete protein is a protein that contains all nine essential amino acids that are not produced naturally by your body.

One cup of cooked quinoa has eight grams of protein, 222 calories, and five grams of fiber.

How to eat it: You can add quinoa to your diet as a rice substitute or add it to your soups or salads.

2. Tofu

a plate of food on a table: Add tofu to your salads or on top of sautéed vegetables. istetiana/Getty Images © istetiana/Getty Images Add tofu to your salads or on top of sautéed vegetables. istetiana/Getty Images

Tofu is also a complete protein source made of soy. Tofu contains essential minerals like calcium and magnesium, which promote bone health.

 

Three ounces of tofu contains eight grams of protein and only 80 calories.

How to eat it: Tofu has minimal flavor on its own, so you can incorporate it into your diet by mixing it into stir fry dishes or adding it to curries.

3. Tempeh

a tray of food: Tempeh can be added to stir-fries or salads. Harald Walker / EyeEm/Getty Images © Harald Walker / EyeEm/Getty Images Tempeh can be added to stir-fries or salads. Harald Walker / EyeEm/Getty Images

Tempeh is similar to tofu but is made from fermented soybeans. It is often used as a meat substitute for vegans and vegetarians. 

Important: Tempeh is high in iron - a mineral often lacking in plant-based diets that carries oxygen throughout your body. 

One cup of tempeh has 34 grams of protein, 319 calories, and five milligrams of iron.

How to eat it: You can incorporate tempeh into your diet how you would tofu: By mixing it into stir fry or adding onto vegetable skewers. 

4. Edamame

a close up of a bowl of fruit: Edamame makes an easy, healthy snack. Getty Images © Getty Images Edamame makes an easy, healthy snack. Getty Images

Edamame are boiled green soybeans. These beans are not only loaded with protein but low in calories and high in fiber. 

One cup of cooked edamame has 19 grams of protein, 224 calories, and eight grams of fiber.


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How to eat it: Edamame is easy to add to your diet by sprinkling it on salads, eating it as a snack, or mixing it into stir-fried rice.

5. Lentils

a close up of a bowl of food: Lentils are a great addition to soups. tovfla/Getty Images © tovfla/Getty Images Lentils are a great addition to soups. tovfla/Getty Images

Lentils are a type of legume. They also contain resistant starch - a type of carbohydrate that digests slowly and helps keep blood sugar levels from spiking. This makes it a great choice for people with diabetes.

One cup of cooked lentils has about 18 grams of protein and 230 calories. 

How to eat it: Lentils are a great addition to warm winter soups or stews, but can also pair well with Indian dishes. 

6. Chickpeas

a plate of food on a table: Hummus is made from chickpeas, making it a healthy and protein-packed snack. Nicole Raucheisen/INSIDER © Nicole Raucheisen/INSIDER Hummus is made from chickpeas, making it a healthy and protein-packed snack. Nicole Raucheisen/INSIDER

Chickpeas are another type of legume. They are rich in folate - a B vitamin your body needs to make new cells. 

One cup of chickpeas has 15 grams of protein, 363 calories, and 70 mcg (micrograms) of folate.

How to eat it: Chickpeas are the main ingredient in hummus, so eating hummus as a vegetable dip or on toast is a good way to add chickpeas to your diet. 

7. Rice and beans

a close up of a bowl of food on a plate: Rice and beans can be a quick side dish for dinners. Juanmonino/Getty Images © Juanmonino/Getty Images Rice and beans can be a quick side dish for dinners. Juanmonino/Getty Images

When eaten separately, rice and beans are incomplete protein sources. However, when paired, they make a complete protein. Beans are also a good source of iron.

One serving (100 grams) of white rice and black beans has 10 grams of protein, 272 calories, and three mg of iron.

How to eat it: Rice and beans is a good side dish for meals with vegetables and other protein sources.

8. Ezekiel bread

a piece of cake sitting on top of a paper plate: Swapping out regular bread for Ezekiel bread can boost your protein intake. MarynaVoronova/Getty Images © MarynaVoronova/Getty Images Swapping out regular bread for Ezekiel bread can boost your protein intake. MarynaVoronova/Getty Images

Ezekiel bread is a type of bread made of wheat, barley, lentils, soybeans, and spelt. It is a complete protein source. One serving of Ezekiel bread has four grams of protein and 80 calories.

How to eat it: You can add Ezekiel bread to your diet by substituting it for other types of bread when making sandwiches or toast. For an added boost of protein make a tempeh sandwich with Ezekiel bread.

Plant-based protein vs. animal-based protein 

If you are eating a plant-based diet, it's essential to track your protein intake. It can be difficult to meet daily protein needs by only eating plant-based protein since they are less efficient protein sources per calorie.

"It would take about 200 calories of almond butter to get seven grams of protein, while it would only take 35 calories of two egg whites to get the same seven grams of protein," says Muhlstein. Thus, if your goal is weight maintenance or weight loss, portion sizes are still important. 

 

Proteins are macronutrients - which are nutrients your body requires in large amounts in order to function properly. Proteins are especially important because they contain amino acids. Amino acids are involved in everything from digestion to growth to immune system functioning. 

There are around 20 amino acids that can form proteins, says Ilana Muhlstein, MS, a registered dietitian with a private practice in Los Angeles, California. Of these, nine are considered essential, meaning your body can't make them on its own, so they have to be obtained through diet. When a protein source contains all nine it's considered a complete protein. 

"Animal products, like meat, poultry, and fish are considered complete proteins, whereas most plant-based proteins are incomplete," says Gal Shua-Haim, MS, a registered dietitian based in San Diego, California. 

Animal products also have some additional vitamins and nutrients that plant proteins typically lack. Muhlstein says some nutrients that are often missing in plant-based diets include: 

However, there are many benefits of opting for plant-based protein sources. These benefits include:

Insider's takeaway

Most plant-based protein sources are incomplete proteins. However, both Shua-Haim and Muhlstein explain that you can get all nine essential amino acids from eating a varied diet of whole foods even if you are plant-based.

Combining plant-based protein sources like whole grain bread with hummus or rice and beans is another way to help you get the essential nutrients you need.

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