Plant based diets have been popular with health-conscious individuals for decades. And it makes sense. Adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet is rarely a bad idea. Many are low-calorie, low-fat, and contain high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
But the question is always about protein. Can you hit your daily protein goals without eating meat? The truth is there are plenty of ways to get more than enough protein following a plant based protein diet.
In this article, we will cover sixteen great high-protein plant based foods. You will have no trouble hitting your daily protein goals and making gains eating these nutritious plant foods.
Additionally, we’ll discuss the following:
- What is protein?
- What are veggie protein sources?
- Differences between vegetables with protein and meat proteins
- Why eat veggies high in protein?
- Cons of a veggie protein diet
- How much protein you need per day and why protein is essential
- 16 best protein veggies sources
- How to build muscle on a vegetarian or vegan protein diet
- Sample day of eating using plant based protein foods
What Is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient used for growth, development, and building and repairing cells. It contains four calories per gram and contains essential and non-essential amino acids. The nine essential amino acids are required, meaning you have to eat them to maintain good health.
Protein is commonly found in animal products such as chicken, fish, and beef but is also prevalent in nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.
What Are Veggie Protein Sources?
Veggie protein sources are plant-based vegan foods that contain a high protein content. This group, labeled as vegetables high in protein, includes nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, tofu, peas, and certain grains. We will get into the differences between veggie and animal protein sources in more detail below, but one difference is macronutrient composition.
Veggie protein sources, like high protein nuts and seeds, are rarely, if ever, only high in protein. They also will have a mix of healthy fat, complex carbohydrates, and fiber.
Vegetable vs Meat Proteins: What’s The Difference?
We’ve just answered a resounding yes to the “do veggies have protein?” question. Now it’s time to talk about how the protein in veggies and meat differ.
The quality of individual protein sources comes down to amino acid content and protein digestibility.
Higher-quality proteins, like these high protein low fat foods, contain all nine essential amino acids and are highly digestible. By this measure, animal proteins are typically considered higher-quality protein sources than plant proteins.
However, although most plant based foods fall short in one or more essential amino acids (soy is the only plant based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids), vegetarians and vegans can meet their protein needs by consuming a variety of plant foods.
Eating a wide variety of vegan foods for weight loss, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and rice, throughout the day will provide all essential amino acids since those foods contain different amino acid profiles.
So, although no plant based food is a complete protein, what one food lacks, another one has, leading to all nine essential amino acids in the diet daily as long as you eat a variety of plant foods.
Researchers who looked at the role of anabolic properties of plant versus animal-based protein sources state consuming larger amounts of plant-based proteins per meal is one strategy to overcome the lower anabolic capacity and digestibility of plant-based proteins1.
This means if you follow a plant based diet filled with veggies high in protein, make an effort to consume a little extra protein each time you sit down for a meal.
Why Eat Plant Based Protein?
The first reason someone may want to eat plant based protein has nothing to do with nutrition. Some people choose to rely on veggies with protein to avoid eating animal products for ethical reasons.
Nutritionally, reducing saturated fat intake is one of the benefits of consuming plant based protein.
Saturated fat is a form of dietary fat that is often solid at room temperature. Foods like cheese, pork, and red meat have high amounts of saturated fat.
Saturated fat is mainly in animal foods. The only plant based foods high in saturated fat are coconut oil and palm oil. Neither one of those are also high in protein.
High saturated fat intake is shown to be associated with an elevated risk of coronary heart disease2. The USDA Dietary Guidelines currently recommend limiting saturated fat intake to 10% or less of total calories3.
One of the best ways to lower saturated fat intake is by reducing reliance on animal-based products.
Lastly, increased daily fiber intake is another advantage of plant-based protein sources. Diets low in fiber are associated with constipation, heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. The good news is that nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and whole-grain bread are excellent sources of fiber and good protein sources.
Eating a combination of fiber and protein from protein veggie sources, paired with your workout split, we guarantee you’ll be feeling pretty great!
Cons of a Veggie Protein Diet
Although a veggie protein diet has many benefits, there are a couple of drawbacks.
For starters, many plant-based protein sources also come with carbohydrates and fats. The extra carbs and fats are sometimes good, as you also get fiber and high-quality fats with protein, but the extra calories can be problematic when in a fat-loss phase. For fat loss, you need to create a calorie deficit.
By definition, this requires some form of calorie restriction. When calories are low, hitting your daily protein goal can be challenging while keeping overall calories in check.
Another downside of relying on veggies with protein is the amino acid profile and poor digestibility. Most plant-based protein sources are incomplete proteins, meaning you must combine food sources throughout the day to ensure you are getting all nine essential amino acids.
However, as we mentioned, this is not a big deal. The more significant concern is that plant-based protein does not absorb and assimilate as well as animal-based foods. So you have to eat a little more plant protein to compensate for the lower absorption.
Lastly, when you get your protein strictly from plant sources, there is a risk for vitamin B12 deficiency, since it’s only in meat and dairy foods. If you eat an exclusively plant-based diet, consider supplementing with vitamin B12.
Why You Need Protein Rich Foods
As mentioned, there are nine essential amino acids, meaning we need to consume them to maintain good health, build muscle, and improve muscular strength. Specifically, we need protein to repair cells and make new ones. Muscles are cells, which is why protein is essential for building muscle.
Protein not only helps us build muscle, but it helps maintain muscle while on a fat-loss diet, or when following a cutting workout and diet plan. One of the biggest concerns when losing weight is a reduction in lean body mass. Eating adequate protein when dieting helps ensure that weight loss comes from fat and not muscle.
Protein is also the most satiating macronutrient, meaning it helps you feel full more than carbohydrates or fat on a per-calorie basis.
Besides aesthetics, protein is also vital for calcium metabolism and bone health. When consumed in adequate amounts, calcium and protein intake interact constructively to fully realize each nutrient’s benefit on your bones.
Research indicates that optimal protein intake for bone health is likely higher than recommended by the current RDA, particularly in the elderly4.
How Much Protein You Need Per Day
One of the most popular questions in fitness is how much protein you need daily, and the answer depends on who you ask.
The recommended daily allowance for protein to prevent deficiency for sedentary adults is .8 grams/kilogram of body weight, which equates to .36 per pound.
However, remember that intake is to avoid a deficiency, not maximize muscular development. For athletic and dieting populations, .8 grams/kilogram is not enough.
To build muscle, we need a couple of things. One, we require sufficient calorie intake. Eating in a calorie surplus (more calories than you need to maintain body weight) is the best way to maximize muscle.
Beyond calories, we need adequate protein intake. Research shows that between .7-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight is best to maximize muscle building5. For plant-based diets, stick closer to 1 gram/pound of bodyweight.
16 Best Veggie Protein Sources
So, what veggies have protein? Let’s get into it!
Here are sixteen good veggie protein sources to start eating for better health and muscle gains. Mix and match these best veggies for protein to hit all of your protein needs.
Serving Size: 1 cup = 15g protein, 41g carbohydrate, 1g fat [ 233 calories]
Beans are a highly underrated food that also happen to be one of the top veggies with high protein. They are a good protein source, high in fiber, and nearly fat-free.
You can’t go wrong with any beans. Black, kidney, and pinto, to name a few, are all excellent. Pick which ones you like best, or use them in a plant-based chili recipe. You can even get creative and find ways to add them to a hearty bulking breakfast.
Plus, when you combine rice and beans, you get all nine essential amino acids and a healthy meal filled with tasty vegan foods.
Serving Size: 1 cup = 18g protein, 40g carbohydrate, 1g fat [ 241 calories]
You have probably heard of lentil soup, but you may have yet to realize it is a great plant protein.
Like beans, lentils are high in protein and fiber and contain various vitamins and minerals.
3. Hemp seeds:
Serving Size: 30g = 8g protein, 2g carbohydrate, 14g fat [180 calories]
Hemp protein has become more popular as a health food over the past decade, so much so that it is a common ingredient in plant-based protein powder. There are plenty of great hemp protein powder supplements to try.
You can eat the hemp seeds raw or sprinkle them on salads, mix them in protein shakes, or use them in baked goods recipes. In addition to being one of the best vegetarian protein sources, hemp seeds are also high in healthy omega-3 fats.
And don’t worry, hemp seeds have none or very little of the psychoactive compound THC found in marijuana. You won’t get high eating them, and they will not appear on a drug test.
4. Chia Seeds:
Serving Size: 48g = 8g protein, 20g carbohydrate, 16g fat [240 calories]
Chia seeds are an excellent addition to many different recipes. You can use them as an egg substitute in pancakes, cookies, and high protein French toast, as well as other baked goods, by adding water and letting them soak. They are incredibly high in fiber.
The downside is they are a higher calorie food, so if you are dieting, use them sparingly.
5. Pumpkin Seeds:
Serving Size: 28g = 8g protein, 7g carbohydrate, 10g fat [150 calories]
The pumpkin season is known for spiced lattes and jack o’lanterns, but it can also be known for pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkin seeds, the things you throw out when you carve a pumpkin, are surprisingly high in protein.
Throw them on a baking sheet with oil and salt for a tasty high-protein treat. You can get them prepackaged, too, if that sounds like too much work. Either way, if you’re trying to find some foods to eat before a workout, it’s a great on-the-go snack to munch on as you drive to the gym.
6. Soy Milk:
Serving Size: 8oz = 8g protein, 9g carbohydrate, 4.5g fat [110 calories]
When you think of high-protein plant based foods, soy should always be top of mind. Soy milk has the same amount of protein per ounce as cow’s milk. Both have 8 grams of protein per 8 ounces.
Use soy milk in cereal, protein shake recipes, and when baking.
7. Green Peas:
Serving Size: 170g = 8g protein, 24g carbs, 0g fat [140 calories]
Green peas usually are not thought of as one of the best protein rich foods. However, they pack 8 grams of protein in every 170-gram serving, making them a great food for muscles. The best thing about green peas is how convenient they are.
You can get frozen or canned peas and use them as a quick side dish to any meal. Plus, when you combine this vegetarian protein with rice, they make a complete protein. Sounds like a great high protein lunch combination to us!
8. Peanut Butter:
Serving Size: 32g = 8g protein, 6g carbohydrate, 16g fat [200 calories]
No list of high-protein plant based foods would be complete without including peanut butter. After all, who doesn’t love peanut butter? Aside from those with a peanut allergy, this is one food in nearly everyone’s cupboard.
You can have a tasty high-protein snack, which also includes some healthy fats, when you combine peanut butter with whole-grain bread.
Any nut butter works. If you prefer almond butter, that is high in protein too.
Serving Size: 100g = 12g protein, 9g carbohydrates, 5g fat [130 calories]
Known for being a tasty snack while you wait for your sushi roll to come out, edamame wins the award for being one of the most delicious high-protein vegetarian foods.
It is highly versatile, and you can even buy it prepackaged in convenient 100-calorie snack packs. Edamame is high in fiber, too.
Serving Size: 3oz = 9g protein, 2g carbohydrates, 4g fat [80 calories]
Tofu has long been a vegetarian and vegan protein staple. It is high in protein and highly versatile. Tofu, sometimes called bean curd, is made by pressing soy milk into a solid block.
Some tofu is firm, while others are soft and smooth. It can be formed into different shapes and sizes and cooked in many ways. We suggest preparing a batch on Sundays so you can pull together easy high protein meal prep recipes throughout the week.
Serving Size: 166g = 31g protein, 16g carbohydrates, 18g fat [320 calories]
Although it is not a typical food in the United States, tempeh is another soybean-based high-protein food. Tempeh is an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans.
Tempeh is one of the highest plant based protein sources.
Serving Size: 28g = 21g protein, 4g carbohydrates, .5g fat [104 calories]
A glance at the nutrition facts doesn’t even seem real, making seitan one of our favorite vegan protein sources. Yes, there is a boatload of protein in seitan. It is high in protein because it is made from gluten, the protein in wheat.
Sometimes it is even called wheat meat or gluten meat. It is a popular food in Japanese and Chinese cultures. And it works well in stir-frys.
The macros are very favorable (low carb and fat while high in protein), so it is a great food to include in a fat-loss phase. However, eating seitan would not be a good idea if you have a gluten allergy.
Serving Size: 185g = 8g protein, 39g carbohydrates, 3.5g fat [220 calories]
Another one of our top vegan protein sources, quinoa has gained popularity in the past decade as a nearly complete protein, making it an in-demand protein rich food. It contains all nine essential amino acids but is low in a couple of them, hence “nearly” complete.
Either way, it is loaded with micronutrients, high in fiber, and gluten-free. With a profile like this, it certainly deserves a spot in your muscle building meal plan.
Serving Size: 80g = 10g protein, 54g carbohydrates, 6g fat [310 calories]
A breakfast staple, oatmeal is an excellent carbohydrate source that also happens to be high in protein.
If you want to supercharge your morning oats, throw a scoop of plant-based protein powder, like any of these pea protein supplements, in and mix it up.
15. Whole Grain Bread:
Serving Size: 2 slices = 10g protein, 36g carbs, 3g fat [210 calories]
We don’t usually think of bread as high in protein, but it is. Of course, bread is highly versatile and can be perfect for breakfast, lunch, snacks, or dinner. It is also a great ingredient when meal prepping for weight loss.
Grab whole grain bread as it will be higher in fiber than typical white bread. You can also find whole-grain bread with lower calories and some with even higher protein.
If you set a goal for how much protein you need per serving, it’ll make it easier to determine whether you need to find a higher protein bread or even include more peanut butter on your sandwich.
16. Plant Based Protein Powder:
Serving Size: 1 scoop = 20g protein, 1g of carbohydrate, 2g fat [100 calories]
Some people might say including a protein powder on the list is cheating, but the truth is that plant-based protein powders are an excellent protein source. (For those interested, we have a great article on the differences between plant protein and whey protein.) One of the most significant downsides to plant-based protein sources is that they also come with extra carbohydrates and fats.
When you are in a fat-loss phase, hitting your daily protein goal can be tricky without going over calories. However, protein powders are processed to eliminate most carbs and fats, so you get a high percentage of protein.
Simply including one or two scoops of plant-based protein powder daily can give you an extra 20 to 40 grams of protein.
Plus, most powders on the market use a protein blend such as rice and pea protein to ensure a complete amino acid profile. There are also options like organic sunflower seed powder and organic pumpkin seed powder that are packed with plant proteins.
And as far as what to eat after a workout, what could be better than a delicious veggie protein shake?
How To Build Muscle on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
Building muscle on a vegetarian or vegan diet is possible and highly probable if you adhere to the following four tips.
1) Eat In A Caloric Surplus.
The first step in building muscle, whether you are following a plant based diet or not, is being in a calorie surplus. This means as far as bulking vs. cutting goes, you need to be in a bulk, consuming more calories than your body needs to maintain weight.
You can find your maintenance calorie intake using an online calculator or formula. And then the key is to keep track of your body weight and ensure it is going up slowly over time.
2) Consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
After calorie intake, protein is next up. To build muscle, ensure you consume around one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you need help hitting this number, consider supplementing with a protein shake.
3) Follow a progressive resistance training program.
Although nutrition is vital for muscle-building, nothing happens without a training stimulus. To build muscle, you must challenge the muscles beyond what they are currently capable of.
This forces adaptation. To do this, follow a progressive overload resistance training program that allows you to do more work over time.
4) Take steps to maximize recovery.
Last but not least, you need to maximize muscle recovery to grow. Sleep 7 to 9 hours per night, take 1-3 rest days per week, and try to minimize external stress as much as possible.
Sample Day of Eating Using Plant-Based High Protein Vegetables
Below is a sample day of eating using plant-based high-protein foods. Feel free to adjust the plan with different foods from the above list.
For example, rather than having a scoop of protein powder with oats and soy milk for breakfast, you could use the scoop of protein powder in your coffee to make a delicious, take-on-the-go, protein coffee.
The following meal plan, packed with high protein vegetarian meals, is not something you need to follow 100% every day. It is to provide an idea of what a good day of eating high protein vegetables could look like.
Breakfast / Meal 1:
- One scoop of plant-based protein powder
- 8oz soy milk
- 80g oats
- One medium banana
Meal 1 Nutrition Info: 39g protein, 92g carbohydrates, 12.5g fat [636.5 calories]
Lunch / Meal 2:
- One can of Lentil Soup
- 28g Pumpkin Seeds
Meal 2 Nutrition Info: 29g protein, 53g carbohydrates, 16g fat [472 calories]
Snack / Meal 3:
- One scoop of plant-based protein powder
- 8oz soy milk
- Two slices whole grain bread
- 32g peanut butter
Meal 3 Nutrition Info: 46g protein, 52g carbohydrates, 25.5g fat [619.5 calories]
Dinner / Meal 4:
- 145g rice
- 100g black beans
- 6oz tofu
- 100g broccoli
Meal 4 Nutrition Info: 41g protein, 93g carbohydrates, 9g fat [617 calories]
Total daily nutrition breakdown:
- Calories: 2347
- Protein: 155g
- Carbohydrates: 290g
- Fat: 63g
A High Protein Plant Based Diet Is Possible
Despite what you may have heard, you can consume enough protein from plant-based sources to reach your fitness goals. This article covered sixteen high protein veggies, but that is only a start.
The options are vast when following a plant based diet. It just comes down to getting creative. You have what you need to get started. All that is left is to put the information to use. Good luck!
Author: Kyle Hunt, Hunt Fitness
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