Why plant-based protein?
Eating more plant-based foods and following a carefully planned vegetarian diet can supply all the essential nutrients you need for your age, gender and activity levels, and has countless other benefits.
A varied, whole food vegetarian diet typically contains less saturated fat and more folate, fibre and vitamins C and E. Most vegetarians comfortably meet their five-a-day, and many exceed this recommended amount of fruit and vegetables. Plant-based diets also use fewer natural resources and, as such, are associated with less environmental damage.
Which plant-based foods are a good source of protein?
Protein is one of the nutrients that those starting a plant-based diet are often concerned about. However, there are plenty of valuable plant sources.
You may have heard some plant proteins referred to as being ‘incomplete’; this is because they are short of one or more of the essential building blocks – amino acids – that we need for growth and repair. Eating a varied diet that incorporates different sources of plant proteins will ensure you obtain all the amino acids you need. It’s also comforting to know that there is no evidence to suggest those following a varied plant-based diet are likely to be deficient in this vital macronutrient.
We’ve assessed the protein content of a range of plant foods, both for their comparative protein content and the amount they contribute in a typical serving – this means you can pick and choose from our list with confidence.
Our top 20 plant-based proteins are:
Made from fermented soya beans, tempeh is rich in protein. In fact, weight for weight, it’s denser in protein than tofu, with a 100g portion providing 20g.
Soya provides all nine of the essential amino acids we need for growth, repair and functions like immunity, making it a useful inclusion for those following a plant-based diet.
Never cooked with tempeh before? We recommend you roast or stir-fry it with plenty of spices to create a delicious depth of flavour – try our sticky tempeh, mango & lime noodle salad or tempeh traybake.
Budget-friendly, quick and easy to prepare, lentils add 'meaty' substance to meals and work well in dishes such as vegan lasagne or vegan sweet potato cottage pie. As much as a third of the calories from lentils come from protein, which makes this legume one of the highest in protein by weight.
Pulses such as lentils contain approximately twice the amount of protein of wholegrains including oats, wheat, barley and rice. Combine the two and you have the perfect mixture, with one compensating for the other in terms of their contribution of essential amino acids. Add just 3 heaped tbsp of cooked lentils to your meal and you’ll get about 9g of protein as well as fibre, folate and potassium.
3. Edamame beans (soya beans)
Beans are among the best plant-based protein sources, and edamame are up there with the best of them – an 80g cooked serving of these versatile beans provides 8.7g protein.
Try our delicious edamame falafel wraps that combine the benefits of edamame with those of chickpeas.
Made from cultured soya milk, a 100g portion of tofu provides about 8.1g protein. Available in different forms, including silken, firm and marinated, this soya product is incredibly versatile – use it to make tofu brekkie pancakes or create a Japanese-inspired salad.
New to tofu? Learn how to cook it.
Peanuts are not actually a nut, but a member of the legume family, along with soya beans, lentils and garden peas. Also known as groundnuts, peanuts develop in pods grown along the ground rather than on trees.
More like this
A small handful of peanuts or 2 tbsp of peanut butter provides about 8g protein. Add peanuts to vegan curry or make your own peanut butter that you can add to porridge or a smoothie for a protein power boost.
6. Pumpkin seeds
A 30g serving of pumpkin seeds provides an impressive 7.3g protein and contributes useful sources of zinc and iron.
With a healthy mixture of protein and fibre, chickpeas are filling as well as good for you. Don’t restrict them to hummus – enjoy them in a curry like our chole with cumin rice raita or savoury bowl, like our chickpea, spinach & almond butter bowl. These delicious recipes combine chickpeas with grains or nuts to deliver all the amino acids you need.
An 80g portion of chickpeas (cooked) provides 6g of protein.
Almonds are a great source of bone-friendly minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Their naturally sweet flavour makes them a versatile ingredient – enjoy for breakfast in our almond crêpes with avocado & nectarines or as a tasty addition to our linguine with watercress & almond pesto.
A 30g serving (roughly a small cupped handful) provides 6g of protein.
9. Sunflower seeds
A tasty addition to a granola, seed mix or salad – such as our broccoli pasta salad with eggs & sunflower seeds – just a small handful (30g) of sunflower seeds provides a useful 5.9g of protein. Loaded with selenium, sunflower seeds may also help support your immune defences and thyroid function.
10. Kidney beans
Packed with heart-friendly nutrients including potassium, folate and fibre, it’s not just their protein contribution you’ll benefit from when you add kidney beans to your plate.
11. Garden peas
Not a vegetable but a small, edible legume, peas actually belong to the same family as lentils, chickpeas, beans and peanuts. They are a useful vegan source of iron and B vitamins, which are of particular importance for women of reproductive age as well as growing children.
A popular ingredient in desserts and puddings, these delicious nuts add an intriguing colour to dishes thanks to the colourful pigments that have protective properties. Compared to most other nuts, pistachios have a lower fat and calorie content, and contain the highest amount of potassium.
Just a 30g serving of pistachios provides an impressive 5.4g protein. Don’t reserve them for sweet dishes – add them to side dishes like our sizzled sprouts with pistachio & pomegranate or herb salad with pomegranate & pistachio.
Adding just 30g (roughly a cupped handful) of cashews will provide 5.3g of protein. Cashews are a useful source of iron and zinc, and make a delicious snack as part of our curried cashew dip. They also add nuttiness to our roasted cauliflower with a tomato & cashew sauce.
14. Wild rice
Richer in protein that regular rice and contributing more potassium, phosphorus and folate, a 100g portion of boiled wild rice provides 5.3g of protein.
15. Black beans
As well as being a good source of protein – an 80g serving provides 4.8g – black beans are packed with heart-friendly nutrients including folate, potassium and fibre.
Although typically used as a grain, quinoa is in fact a seed. Unlike grains, it's also a complete source of protein, providing all nine essential amino acids. Gluten-free and incredibly versatile, you can enjoy quinoa for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
A 100g portion of cooked quinoa provides 4.4g of protein.
18. Broad beans
Rich in fibre and protein, broad beans are a satisfying component of any meal. An 80g portion (boiled) provides 4.1g of protein. Try our barley & broad bean risotto, or make our tasty twist on an all-time favourite: pea & broad bean hummus.
This is the nutritious centre of the wheat grain, which is typically removed from most white refined wheat products. Rich in protein, fibre and healthy fats, wheatgerm is also packed with magnesium, zinc and folate.
Often added to cereals such as our high-fibre muesli, wheatgerm makes a nutritious addition.
Just 1 tbsp (15g) provides 4.1g of protein.
20. Hemp seeds
Exceptionally nutritious, with more than 20% of their calorie content derived from protein and a source of unsaturated, healthy fats, these little seeds make a nourishing addition to cereals, bakes and snacks.
We like to add them to our nut & seed granola or apricot & seed protein bars. With just 1 tbsp (10g) providing 3.2g of protein as well as a number of vitamins (like vitamin E) and minerals (including magnesium, iron and zinc), they are well worth adding to your storecupboard.
Like this? Try...
Have you a favourite plant-based protein? Leave a comment below.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.