Protein is made of amino acids. There are 20 of them, nine of which are called essential as your body cannot produce them and needs to obtain them through your diet. If a food contains all nine essential amino acids, it’s considered a complete protein.
Some plant-based sources of protein are complete (such as chia seeds, hemp seeds and buckwheat), while others contain only some essential amino acids (think nuts, sesame seeds and chickpeas).
The old school of thought was that you needed to combine various proteins in one sitting, but current research suggests you can simply enjoy a variety of plant proteins over the course of a day. Here are some sources of plant-based protein to keep on hand to help fuel you.
We often hear the terms “legume,” “pulse,” and “bean” used interchangeably. But that’s not quite right. Let’s spill the beans: A legume is any plant from the Fabaceae family. A pulse is a legume in its dried form. Beans, specifically, are just one type of legume (some other common types include soybeans, peas and chickpeas). Try black beans in brownies, tossed into soups or as a base for a tostada.
½ cup black beans = 8 g protein
Archeological finds suggest that quinoa may have been grown in South America as early as 7,000 years ago. This seed, called “Mother Grain” by the Incas, was more than a valued harvest; it was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Besides being a complete protein, quinoa is high in fiber and rich in minerals such as iron and magnesium. Use it as a base for salads and bowls, in a breakfast porridge or as a base for veggie burgers.
1 cup cooked quinoa = 8 g protein
The origins of tofu are lost in time, but one colorful tale tells of Liu An, a prince in China’s Western Han Dynasty who trekked into the mountains, hoping to learn from alchemists how to blend an elixir to ensure immortality. Liu An created a potion from soybeans, a rich source of complete protein and one of ancient China’s sacred Five Grains. Though not a recipe for eternal life, tofu is a healthy choice that just may add a few years! Use tofu to replace chicken in stir-fries or curry recipes, or slice it into strips and bake or fry it for crispy tofu fries.
½ cup tofu = 10 g protein
One of the highest nut sources of protein, walnuts are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development and function. In fact, the ancient Greeks named the walnut karyon, meaning “head,” likely because of the shape of the outer shell as well as the inner kernel’s resemblance to a brain. Pop some walnuts into your morning smoothie with blueberries.
¼ cup walnuts = 4.5 g protein
Unlike traditional soy foods, tempeh did not originate in China or Japan. Rather, Indonesia’s island of Java is thought to be its birthplace. One theory suggests that this fermented food has been enjoyed for over a thousand years; another that it was developed as a byproduct of Java’s thriving tofu industry in the 1600s. Either way, hundreds of recipes for cooking with tempeh tempt foodies around the world today. Enjoy tempeh in plant-based burgers; cut it into slices, then add a little liquid smoke and fry it like bacon; or crumble it and use it in place of meat for taco night.
1 cup tempeh = 31 g protein
Over the course of a day, veggies contribute to your total count of protein, especially fresh green peas. But they are just as nutritious in their frozen form. In addition to being rich in protein, these sweet green gems also provide potent antioxidants including flavonoids and carotenoids, which help the body fight inflammation. Use them to top salads, stir into soups or blend with coconut yogurt and herbs to make a dip.
1 cup green peas = 8 g protein