A Nutritionist’s Guide to Plant-Based Protein


If you’re looking to scale back on animal protein, it’s likely that better health is one of your goals. Getting more plants in your diet is almost never a bad idea!

Some research has suggested that a plant-based diet could play a role in cancer prevention. Other studies have shown plant-based eating can be a helpful strategy for weight loss and type 2 diabetes management.

Meanwhile, plant-based foods typically contain fiber, which promotes good gut bacteria, smoother digestion, and — in the case of soluble fiber — better heart health.

A 2019 study found that a plant-based diet was linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death from any cause in middle-aged adults.

Beyond their advantages for personal wellness, proteins from plants also make a difference for the environment. In terms of land use, freshwater consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, plant foods have a definite upper hand over animal products, according to the World Resources Institute.

Plus, when you opt for proteins that grew in the ground — not on a feedlot — your conscience can rest easy about animal cruelty concerns.

Despite their many benefits, proteins from plants do have some drawbacks — some more than others.

Though most plant-based choices provide ample amounts of protein, in many cases, they simply can’t compete with the high levels in animal products like beef or chicken. If you require a very high protein diet, you may have to get strategic about planning your plant-based menu.

Similarly, don’t expect plant-based proteins to provide one-to-one levels of micronutrients with animal products. Many have lower amounts of B vitamins, iron, and vitamin D3, for example.

It’s important to note, too, that commercially prepared plant-based proteins are often quite processed. A diet high in processed foods has been linked to weight gain and a possible increased risk of cancer.

With innumerable kinds of vegetation growing on planet Earth, there’s a wealth of plants that provide protein. To distinguish your many options, here’s a look at the various categories:

Soy-based: tempeh, tofu, edamame, soy milk, soy crumbles (textured vegetable protein)

Bean- or legume-based: lentils, beans and rice, chickpeas, black beans, bean burgers, eggless eggs

Pea protein-based: Impossible Burger, pea protein, pea milk

Grain-based: seitan, Ezekiel bread, whole wheat flour, spelt, teff

Nut- and seed-based: almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, quinoa

Veggie-based: potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, asparagus

Other: mycoprotein, spirulina

While the vegetables listed above are higher in protein than others, it’s a minimal amount per serving compared to other sources of protein.

1. Seitan

Nutrition: This wheat-based protein is relatively low cal and low carb, at just over 100 calories and 4 grams of carbs per serving. Its sizable dose of the antioxidant selenium combats cellular damage from free radicals.

Taste: Although seitan is made of wheat gluten, it doesn’t taste like bread. Its flavor and texture is sometimes compared to the chewiness of plain chicken or mushrooms.

Using in cooking: Seitan’s meaty texture is one you can really sink your teeth into. It makes a convincing substitute for chicken strips, burgers, or meat kabobs.

2. Tempeh

Nutrition: Tempeh is tofu’s firmer, denser cousin. It contains more protein, fiber, iron, and potassium.

Taste: Tempeh is made from soy, but you may find it hits your palate with a nutty or mushroomy taste. Like tofu, it adapts easily to match other flavors.

Using in cooking: With its thick texture, tempeh holds its shape well in a variety of preparations. It works well sautéed as a chicken-like filling for sandwiches. You can also use it as the centerpiece of a stir-fry.

3. Tofu, soy crumbles, and edamame

Nutrition: Soy foods are among the highest protein vegan options. One 3-ounce serving of tofu provides 8 grams, while edamame supplies 7 grams per half cup.

Soy crumbles, sometimes called textured vegetable protein or TVP, are protein-rich as well, with 13 grams per 1/4 cup.

Taste: Tofu and soy crumbles are famous for their ability to take on any flavors applied during cooking. This is why you probably don’t want to eat them all by themselves.

Edamame, on the other hand, has a rich, almost buttery flavor straight out of the shell.

Using in cooking: Crispy, firm tofu makes a delectable base for stir-fries, tacos, and even sandwiches. To make it crisp up to perfection, squeeze as much liquid from the tofu as possible before cooking.

Use silken tofu to add protein to smoothies or as a substitute for ricotta cheese.

For a convenient weeknight side dish or protein-rich afternoon snack, serve steamed edamame with a sprinkle of salt.

Enjoy experimenting with soy crumbles as a partial replacement in any dish that calls for ground meat.

4. Eggless eggs

Nutrition: Faux eggs, typically made with mung beans or soy, are a viable alternative to chicken eggs for their comparable calorie and protein content.

Do watch out for sodium, though. Fake eggs commonly contain over double the amount that’s in regular eggs.

Taste: With the magic of food science, eggless eggs mimic the taste and texture of the real thing almost to a T.

Using in cooking: Pourable mung bean-based “eggs,” such as JustEgg, can be used anywhere you’d cook with whisked eggs. Try them in quiches, souffles, scrambled eggs, and baked goods.

5. Impossible Burger

Nutrition: A 4-ounce Impossible Burger supplies 3 grams of fiber and an impressive array of vitamins and minerals.

It’s also high in protein, at 19 grams from a surprising source: peas!

Downsides here include 40 percent of the Daily Value of saturated fat in one patty, plus a relatively high level of sodium.

Taste: Some people say the Impossible Burger’s taste is indistinguishable from a traditional beef burger. Others are less convinced.

One thing’s for sure: Impossible’s food scientists have poured tremendous time and research into attempting to nail the savory taste of beef through a blend of seasonings and oils.

Using in cooking: Impossible Burgers are a popular restaurant entrée, but you can purchase and cook them at home too.

According to the manufacturer, Impossible Burger patties cook just like ground beef, about 2 minutes per side on the grill or pan.

6. Pea protein

Nutrition: Talk about nutrient-dense! In a single scoop of pea protein, you’ll find 24 grams of protein, 120 calories, and 35 percent of your daily iron supply.

Taste: Does pea protein taste like peas? Not necessarily. Many fans of the alt-protein powder say it’s got a pleasantly mellow flavor. Plus, it’s not chalky or gritty and blends well in recipes.

Using in cooking: Pea protein is used in a number of store-bought products, like pea milk and meat alternatives. As a standalone food, you’ll most likely find it sold as a powder.

Scoop a tablespoon or so into your morning smoothie or into the batter of baked goods.

7. Lentils

Nutrition: Need a fiber boost? Lentils will do the trick with 14 grams per cooked cup, plus 18 grams of plant-based protein.

Taste: Lentils come in multiple varieties, including green, brown, yellow, red, and black.

Each may have a slightly different taste, but you can expect them to have an earthy flavor and a soft, creamy texture when cooked.

Using in cooking: Lentils are a culinary rock star! Their relatively neutral flavor and velvety smoothness lend themselves well to soups, curries, and salads.

You can also substitute them for a portion of ground meat in dishes like tacos, casseroles, and burgers.

8. Beans and rice

Nutrition: Beans and rice have long been touted as a complete vegetarian protein. This means they supply all the amino acids your body can’t produce on its own when combined.

Another bonus: No matter which beans you use, this classic combo is extremely high in fiber, especially when made with brown rice.

Taste: The taste of any B&R dish will depend on the variety of beans you use. For an adaptable dish, start with a milder bean like cannellini or black.

Using in cooking: While you can eat beans and rice all on their own, they also make a tasty filling for stuffed peppers, enchiladas, or wraps.

9. Chia seeds

Nutrition: For such a small food, chia seeds are remarkably nutritious. They’re ripe with omega-3s, antioxidants, and fiber.

Taste: These itty-bitty seeds aren’t known for strong flavor. In fact, added to recipes, you may not taste them at all.

Using in cooking: Chia seeds provide a protein boost for smoothies and puddings, but they can make friends with savory foods, too. Add a sprinkle to a basil pesto or homemade salad dressing.

10. Mycoprotein

Nutrition: Mycoprotein, sold under the brand name Quorn, is unusual in that it’s derived from fermented fungus. One serving offers a sizable amount of protein, coming in at 15 grams.

Taste: Quorn’s seasonings aim to create a sensory experience similar to that of eating chicken.

Using in cooking: Although it’s made from plants, Quorn must be cooked before eating. Try mycoprotein meatless grounds in lasagna or baked meatless nuggets dipped in ketchup.

11. Quinoa

Nutrition: Think quinoa’s just a wimpy side dish? Think again!

This fluffy “grain” (which is technically a seed) is high in calcium, potassium, complex carbs, and — of course — protein.

Taste: “Nutty” is the word most people use to describe quinoa’s flavor, with a texture similar to couscous.

Using in cooking: Quinoa cooks quickly on the stove top. From there, you can use it as a starter for everything from Mexican dishes to fried patties to casseroles.

Sprinkle leftovers on salads, or add milk and cinnamon to eat it as a porridge for breakfast.

12. Spirulina

Nutrition: For a noteworthy amount of protein and not a lot of calories, consider spirulina.

One tablespoon of the dried stuff has just 20 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 2 grams of carbs, and 4 grams of protein.

Taste: I won’t lie, spirulina has a strong taste many people find unpalatable. This plant-based protein is actually a type of algae, so it’s no wonder it’s often described as tasting like salt water.

Still, your taste buds may eventually adapt to its unique flavor.

Using in cooking: You can take spirulina in tablet form. To add it to food, the most common methods are blending it into a smoothie or simply stirring the powder into water or juice.

13. Chickpeas

Nutrition: Chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, are chock-full of nutrients. One cup provides 15 grams of protein, 13 grams of fiber, and 10 percent of your daily calcium needs.

Taste: Like many other plant-based proteins, chickpeas taste somewhat nutty or earthy.

Using in cooking: In whole form, chickpeas make an easy addition to savory salads. There’s no shortage of options for mashed chickpeas, too.

Try them in wraps, falafel, hummus, or chickpea cakes.

14. Ezekiel bread

Nutrition: Because of its base of lentils, soy, and sprouted and whole grains, Ezekiel bread offers a robust nutrition profile that’s much higher in protein than most breads.

Taste: You’ll probably taste the difference between Ezekiel bread and traditional breads, and that’s not a bad thing! Its variety of ingredients give this loaf a signature heartiness.

Using in cooking: Use Ezekiel bread as you would whole grain bread.

15. Potatoes

Nutrition: You may not think of potatoes as a protein powerhouse, but as vegetables go, they’re in the top tier. You’ll get 4.5 grams of plant-based protein from 1 medium Russet potato.

Meanwhile, this humble starch provides plenty of potassium and fiber.

Taste: Dress up the mild taste of white potatoes with herbs and spices for a low or zero-calorie flavor boost.

Roasting and sautéing can also help bring out the natural sweetness of spuds.

Using in cooking: Since potatoes don’t contain off-the-charts levels of protein, you may want to pair them with another plant-based protein in recipes.

Try potato-chickpea burritos, potatoes with a faux egg scramble, or a potato-tofu hash.

16. Nuts

Nutrition: Hello, healthy fats! Nuts like almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts come preloaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

An average of 4 to 6 grams of protein per 1-ounce serving adds to the nutritious mix.

Taste: Flavor profiles vary between nuts, and so will the flavor of nut butters, depending on the nut used.

Using in cooking: There’s nothing quite as convenient as a handful of nuts for a quick snack.

Nuts can also take center stage at meals and desserts. Briefly toast almonds in the oven for a perfect ice cream topper or whip up a rich cashew curry.

17. High protein vegetables

Nutrition: Higher protein veggies include Brussels sprouts, spinach, peas, corn, broccoli, and asparagus.

Though these may not match the protein content of some other plant-based choices, every little bit helps.

Plus, what they lack in protein, they make up for in fiber and micronutrients like potassium, calcium, and vitamin K.

Taste: No one will turn their nose up at veggies prepared the right way.

Make vegetables like spinach and broccoli more palatable by choosing cooking methods that enhance rather than obliterate their flavor. These include grilling, sautéing, and roasting.

Using in cooking: Anything goes when it comes to veggie preparation.

On a Meatless Monday, veggies can stand in for meat in just about any food package.

Nestle asparagus in a cheesy pasta, top pizza with roasted broccoli, or pack a pot pie with peas and corn.



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