Here's how to up your intake of plant-based foods without sacrificing protein.

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Despite what outdated nutrition advice tells us, vegan sources of protein are plentiful, delicious, and affordable. Unfortunately, most consumers still view plant protein as inferior to animal protein sources.

According to Reshma Shah, MD, and Brenda Davis, RD, authors of Nourish: The Definitive Plant-based Nutrition Guide for Families, the two most common myths about plant protein are that you can’t get enough protein from plants alone, and that plant sources of protein are incomplete or lacking in essential amino acids. 

To address the first myth, we need to consider how much protein we need, and how much people eating various dietary patterns consume. “The RDA for protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women,” explains Shah. (You’ll find the ideal amount of protein you should be eating here.) “But meat-eaters in industrialized countries average about 100 grams per day, compared to 62 to 82 grams per day for vegans.” According to Shah and Davis, excess protein is not necessarily an advantage, especially when it’s derived from animal sources. “Not only can we design a diet to provide plenty of plant protein, but studies consistently demonstrate increased longevity and reduced disease risk when protein comes from plants instead of animals.” The authors affirm that plants can provide both the quantity and quality of protein people of all ages require, and unlike animal sources of protein, they are low in saturated fat, cholesterol-free, and full of health-promoting fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.

“And as for the second myth, it comes as a bit of a surprise to many consumers that essential amino acids are made by plants, not animals,” Shah explains. “Animals provide essential amino acids because they acquired them from plants at some point along the food chain. So, it makes no sense to say we can’t get essential amino acids from plants—it’s where they come from.”

The key to meeting protein requirements is to ensure adequate quantity and variety of foods in your diet. Here are the seven best sources of plant-based protein, according to health and nutrition experts Shah and Davis.

Best Vegan Protein Sources

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Soy Foods Like Tofu, Edamame, and Tempeh

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Soy foods have an impressive history of use in long-lived populations and have some remarkable benefits. Not only do they provide a concentrated source of high-quality protein (about 15 to 20 grams per half cup serving), but they are also rich sources of iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, riboflavin, and essential fatty acids. Additionally, soy foods contain protective isoflavones (plant estrogens) which can help to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, protect against breast and prostate cancer, and reduce symptoms of menopause. 

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Legumes (Beans, Lentils, Dried Peas)

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Pulses are the protein powerhouses of the plant kingdom and are our principal sources of iron and zinc. They are also rich in B-vitamins, especially folate, and contribute significantly to our intakes of calcium and magnesium. Legumes, especially the more colorful varieties, deliver a wonderful complement of phytochemicals including flavonoids and phenolic acids. As our most concentrated sources of fiber, including resistant starch (prebiotics), they provide essential fuel for beneficial gut microbiota. Legumes provide about 14 to 18 grams of protein per cup cooked.

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Plant-Based “Meats” (Alt or Veggie Burgers, Chicken, Sausages, and So On)

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Alt meats provide easily digestible protein and can add convenience and enjoyment to the diet. They can help to boost protein in athletes, seniors, and others with higher protein requirements. However, as these foods are more highly processed, they are generally higher in fat and sodium than unprocessed legumes. Read labels. Select organic products, when possible. Vegetarian “meats” provide about 15 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving.

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Seeds

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Seeds not only provide protein but are also a great source of healthful fats (including essential fatty acids), trace minerals (e.g., iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and potassium), vitamin E, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Each seed has a unique nutrition profile so vary intake. The seeds that are most concentrated in protein are hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds. Seeds provide 6 to 13 grams of protein per quarter cup, with hemp seeds boasting 13 grams per quarter cup and pumpkin seeds 10 grams per quarter cup.

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Tree Nuts and Peanuts

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Though peanuts are technically legumes, we’ll call this category ‘nuts,’ as they have similar nutrition profiles and culinary uses to tree nuts. Nuts are wonderful sources of healthy fats, trace minerals (e.g., magnesium, copper, manganese, selenium, iron, and zinc), vitamin E, and antioxidants. Nuts help lower cholesterol and triglycerides and have strong anti-inflammatory properties. They have been shown to protect against heart disease and diabetes and increase longevity, too. Nuts provide about 5 to 8 grams of protein per quarter cup, and peanuts provide about 9 grams per quarter cup.

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Some Plant-Based Milks, Like Soy and Pea Milk

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These provide as much protein as a cup of whole milk (about 6 to 10 grams per cup). They can be enjoyed on their own, on cereal, in puddings or smoothies, and in place of cow’s milk in recipes. Plant-based milks are generally lower in fat than cow’s milk, and are cholesterol-fee. Select fortified non-dairy milks to ensure similar calcium, B12, and vitamin D as fortified cow’s milk. Unsweetened milks eliminate added sugar.

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Grains

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Grains are important sources of energy-boosting carbohydrates, but they are also valuable sources of protein. They provide about half the world’s protein and fiber! One cup of whole-grain pasta actually has more protein than a large egg and about as much protein as a cup of whole milk. Whole grains are rich in B vitamins (especially thiamin and niacin) and vitamin E. They’re solid sources of copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc, plus a variety of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Whole grains are consistently associated with reduced risk of many chronic diseases. Grains provide about 4 to 12 grams of protein per cup of cooked product. Spelt, kamut, and wheat lead the pack with approximately 12 grams per cup, with quinoa and amaranth providing about 8 to 10 grams per cup. At the lower end of the spectrum are rice and barley with about 4 grams per cup.