The Best Plant Protein Sources for an Active Lifestyle
Protein plays a key role in essential body functions such as building tissue, hormone regulation, enzyme production, and blood oxygenation.
Protein also helps to repair and strengthen muscle tissue, promote muscle growth and preserve existing lean muscle tissue.
No matter your fitness goals, your preferred diet, or your lifestyle...your body needs protein.
In this article, we'll take a look at the best plant based protein sources and best plant based foods to incorporate into your diet.
Here's a sneak peek:
- Plant Based Powders
- Whole Grains
- Seeds and Nuts
- Fruits and Vegetables
When you think of plants, protein is not what comes to mind, but there are many plant based proteins that are quality sources of protein.
Let's take a look...
PLANT BASED POWDERS
Plant based protein powders are a great addition to a plant based diet. They offer enough protein to ensure adequate protein intake to keep the body optimized and functioning.
Although most plant based proteins are not complete proteins, meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids, a high quality plant based powder with a high protein content can have many health benefits for individuals and athletes that follow a plant based diet.
Here's a look at the top plant based proteins:
- Pea Protein
- Brown Rice Protein
- Hemp Protein
Made from yellow split peas, pea protein is a complete protein source that contains all nine essential amino acids.
A high quality plant protein, pea protein is high in iron and naturally vegan to accomodate vegan diets.
BROWN RICE PROTEIN
A common substitue to whey protein, brown rice protein is hypoallergenic, easily digested, and has a smooth texture.
Brown rice protein powder is commonly found in combination with Pea Protein.
The two "blend perfectly because pea protein is low in the amino acids methionine and cysteine but high in lysine. In contrast, rice protein is low in lycsine but high in cystein and methionine. When the two pair together, it creates a superior amino acid profile than most single plant sources."
Hemp protein powders are extracted from the cannibis plant, but do not contain any psychoactive compounds, and ground into a fine power.
A lean source of protein, hemp protein has a slightly nutty flavor and all nine essential amino acids.
Easy to digest, a great source of fiber, and rich in minerals and antioxidants, hemp is arguably one of the best plant based protein powders on the market.
Legumes, also known as pulses, are a plant-based food group that includes beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
Most legumes contain about 15 grams of protein per cooked cup (170 grams). This puts them ahead of most foods in terms of protein.
Legumes take it even further, they are a rich source of other dietary nutrients essential to your overall health.
Studies have shown that a diet rich in legumes can help manage blood sugar levels and possibly help reduce cholesterol and body fat levels.
Below is a table with the top protein-packed legumes and how much protein they contain.
|LEGUME||PROTEIN CONTENT PER CUP|
|SPLIT PEAS||16.3 grams|
|PINTO BEANS||15.4 grams|
|KIDNEY BEANS||15.3 grams|
|BLACK BEANS||15.2 grams|
Most Americans don’t typically think of grains as high-protein foods. Perhaps, this is because refined grains in typical American cuisine have the protein-dense bran and germ removed during the milling process.
However, whole grains and grain-like seeds are naturally high in proteins. Better still, they are incredibly easy to incorporate into your diet (You probably already have oatmeal for breakfast.)
Additionally, whole grains are an excellent source of the complex carbohydrates needed to fuel your body during workout sessions and the proteins necessary for recovery.
Here’s a quick table of the top protein-packed grains:
|GRAIN||PROTEIN CONTENT PER CUP|
|WILD RICE||6.5 grams|
Related: Protein Before Workout vs. After Workout: How To Get The Most Out of Your Protein Shake
Seitan is a popular meat alternative and protein source for many vegetarians and vegans. It’s made from gluten—the primary protein found in wheat, and unlike most other meat alternatives, it has the look and texture of meat when cooked.
Seitan contains about 25 grams of protein for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces), making it one of the richest sources of plant-based proteins.
It’s relatively easy to make as it involves kneading the dough and rinsing off all the starch until all that's left is the gluten. Alternatively, you could find it readily available in the refrigerated section of grocery stores and food stores.
Note: Seitan is essentially wheat gluten. Avoid it if you are gluten-intolerant.
With 12 – 20 grams of protein for every 100 grams, soy-based proteins are among the most popular sources of plant-based protein.
This is because soy is a whole source of protein, which means that it contains all the Essential Amino Acids (EAAs).
TOFU: This is made from pressing soybean curds together in a process similar to cheesemaking. On its own, tofu doesn’t have much taste, but it easily takes on the flavors it’s cooked in, which makes it popular in stews.
TEMPEH: This is made from cooking and slightly fermenting mature soybeans then pressing them into a block, almost similar to tofu. However, unlike tofu, tempeh has a characteristic nutty flavor.
EDAMAME: This refers to immature soybeans with a sweet, grassy taste. Preparation typically involves steaming or boiling before consumption or addition to soups and salads.
SOY MILK: One of the most popular milk alternatives, soy milk is hypoallergenic and contains about 6 grams of protein per cup (244 ml).
SEEDS AND NUTS
Seeds, nuts, and their derived products are excellent plant-based protein sources. Typically, they contain between 5 – 7 grams of protein for every ounce, depending on the original seed or nut.
Some popular, protein-rich nuts and seeds include:
PEANUTS: With around 20.5 grams of protein per half-cup, peanuts are protein-rich and bursting with healthy fats.
ALMONDS: These contain 16.5 grams of protein for every half cup. They are also a rich source of vitamin E and healthy fats.
CHIA SEEDS: These are another whole protein source with about 2 grams of protein per tablespoon. They are also low-calorie and rich in fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids.
HEMP SEEDS: Like chia seeds, hemp seeds are also a source of whole protein. They contain about 5 grams per tablespoon.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Fruits and vegetables are typically known for their vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant counts, and are staples of a vegetarian or vegan diet, but did you know that specific fruits and vegetables can also be used as sources of protein for plant based individuals.
- Brussel Sprouts
BROCCOLI: 1 cup of raw chopped broccoli = 2.57 (g) of protein.
SPINACH: 1 cup of cooked, boiled, and drained spinach = 5.35 (g) of protein.
ASPARAGUS: 1 cup of cooked, boiled, and drained asparagus = 2.16(g) of protein.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS: 1 cup of boiled brussels sprouts = 5.64 (g) of protein.
GUAVA: 1 raw fruit = 1.4 (g) of protein.
AVOCADOS: 1 cup pureed = 4.51 (g of protein.
MULBERRIES: 1 cup of raw mulberries = 2.02 (g) of protein.
AMINO ACIDS AND PLANT BASED DIETS
Some proteins are considered whole, while others are considered incomplete.
This classification is based on the amino acids that different proteins contain. Whole proteins contain all the Essential Amino Acids, while incomplete proteins lack one or more of these amino acids.
But what exactly are these amino acids, and why should they affect your choice of plant-based proteins?
ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS (EAAs)
These comprise nine out of 20 total amino acids. They are the amino acids your body cannot produce and thus, must be obtained through your diet.
EAAs are responsible for body functions like:
- Muscle growth
- Regulating energy levels
- Regulating your immune and digestive systems
- Promoting healthy hair, skin, and nails
Out of the nine EAAs, three are classified as Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
These are: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine.
They are referred to as branched because they vary slightly in their chemical structure. This variance allows them to bypass the liver and metabolize in the muscle tissue.
BCAAs make up 35–40% of all EAAs in your body and about 14–18% of the EAAs found in your muscles.
They help reduce muscle soreness, post-workout fatigue, and muscle breakdown.
Effectively, they target areas directly impacted by athletic performance.
Related: 7 Basic Benefits of a Plant-based BCAA
NON-ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS
Unlike EAAs, your body can synthesize non-essential amino acids, with most of them synthesized from glucose.
They are just as crucial as EAAs and BCAAs for your body to function correctly. But as long as you eat a healthy diet, your body automatically produces these amino acids.
CONDITIONALLY ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS
When faced with severe stress or injury, your body has trouble producing seven of the eleven non-essential amino acids. This is why they are referred to as conditionally essential amino acids— because they become essential in stressful circumstances.