Derived from the Greek word “primary” or “first place”, protein has surely lived up to its name in recent years. Plant-based proteins, in particular, have gained widespread recognition as a healthy and sustainable option compared to traditional animal protein sources. And many experts agree that a well-planned, plant-based diet can provide you with all the essential amino acids (and other nutrients) your body needs to function properly. However, not all plant-based proteins are created equal. I eat about 80% plant-based, so I know firsthand that some plant proteins are much higher quality than others. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of the best and worst plant-based proteins so you can make the most of your plant-based diet—while meeting your daily protein needs.
The Best Plant-Based Proteins
With an astounding 20 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving, tempeh tops the list as the best plant-based protein of them all. If you are unfamiliar with this incredible protein source, tempeh is a fermented soybean product that is rich in gut-enhancing probiotics. Yes, you read that right—it’s a protein and probiotic all-in-one! In addition to supporting digestive health, tempeh is known for its ability to lower cholesterol, normalize blood sugar levels, improve bone health, and even reduce menopause symptoms. To reap these remarkable benefits, I always keep tempeh on hand.
Lentils don’t get the love they so rightfully deserve. But these tiny but mighty legumes are loaded with protein. Just one cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein, 16 grams of fiber, and nearly 7 milligrams of iron (that’s almost triple the amount of iron in 3 ounces of ground beef!). If that’s not impressive, lentils are also an excellent source of folate, zinc, and antioxidants. So, the next time you stroll down the legume aisle, don’t forget to grab a bag of lentils.
Tofu is a popular and versatile soy-based protein that is revered for its ability to absorb any flavor it is paired with. There are several different varieties of tofu, including silken, soft, medium, and firm. Of these different varieties, firm tofu has the highest protein content! Depending on the brand, one 3.5-ounce serving of calcium-set, firm tofu can contain up to 17 grams of protein, 683 milligrams of bone-boosting calcium, and 17 micrograms of thyroid-supporting selenium. Tofu is also an excellent source of isoflavones, which have been shown to improve heart health and protect against cancer.
Looking for an allergen-friendly tofu alternative that is still high in protein? Enter Pumfu! Just as the name implies, this delicious plant-based protein is made from two simple ingredients: organic pumpkin seeds and filtered water. And the best part is each serving contains 17 grams of protein. Pumfu is also rich in iron and magnesium. With a similar texture to firm tofu, it can be used in a wide variety of recipes from stir-fries to scrambles, curries—you name it.
5. White Beans
Although it’s hard to pick just one bean because they are all great, white beans stand out from the bunch as one of the highest sources of plant protein. A cup of cooked white beans contains a whopping 17 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, and 7 milligrams of iron. White beans are also a great source of potassium, making them one of the best proteins for lowering high blood pressure.
Related to tempeh and tofu, edamame are immature soybeans that have a distinctively bright green color and tender texture. With 12 grams of protein per 3.5 ounce serving, edamame is the perfect legume for snacking, salads, and stir-fries alike. Because they are a soy-based protein, edamame beans are also high in isoflavones, which have been shown to help prevent bone loss and stabilize blood sugar levels.
7. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds are a fantastic way to increase your plant protein intake in a pinch—literally! All you need is 3 tablespoons of hemp seeds to obtain 9 grams of protein. These nutritious seeds also have an ideal omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid ratio, which helps to combat inflammation and reduce chronic disease risk. The next time you prepare oatmeal, yogurt, salads, or smoothies, sprinkle a few tablespoons of hemp seeds on top for an added protein and omega boost.
Another popular protein-rich seed is quinoa. Although it’s often classified and used as a whole grain, quinoa is actually an ancient seed or “pseudo-grain” that is more closely related to beets and spinach than wheat. Neat, right? But, what sets it apart from its relatives is it contains 8 grams of protein per serving! Not to mention, it is completely gluten-free, so it is the perfect option for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
9. Peanut Butter
Whether you like it smooth, crunchy, or somewhere in between, peanut butter packs a ton of protein in just 2 tablespoons. One small serving contains an impressive 7 grams of protein! Peanut butter is also an excellent source of healthy fats, magnesium, and vitamin E. Just be sure to grab a brand with peanuts listed as the only ingredient to avoid unnecessary additives like sugar, hydrogenated oils, and excess sodium.
The Worst Plant-Based Proteins
10. Ultra-Processed Vegan Meat
When it comes to adopting a plant-based diet, many people start their journey by turning to processed meat alternatives that mimic the taste and mouthfeel of animal protein. Although many of the vegan meats on the market contain ample amounts of protein, they are often loaded with sodium, gums, artificial colors, and preservatives—offering very little nutritional or health value. Therefore, it is always best to opt for whole-food, plant-based proteins over their ultra-processed counterparts.
11. Highly Processed Vegan Cheese
The world of plant-based cheese has certainly expanded over the last several years. And while many vegan cheeses have improved in flavor, many still fall short in the protein department. Unfortunately, most brands only contain 0-3 grams of protein. In addition, some processed vegan cheeses are high in saturated fat, sodium, and starch. Try reaching for vegan cheese brands that contain whole-food ingredients like cashews over those that are predominately made from vegetable oils and synthetic ingredients.
12. Sugar-laden Vegan Yogurt
As you may have gathered from the heading above, many of the vegan yogurts (and non-vegan yogurts) on store shelves contain far more added sugar than protein. In fact, some plant-based yogurts contain more than 10 grams of added sugar, which is nearly half of the American Heart Association’s limit of 25 grams per day. Similar to vegan cheese, most brands of vegan yogurt contain roughly 0-5 grams of protein. However, you can always increase the protein content by topping them with nuts or seeds.
Instead of reaching for overly processed vegan meat and dairy alternatives to meet your protein needs, focus on consuming wholesome plant foods like tempeh, tofu, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds that are as rich in nutrients as they are in protein. If you’re interested in trying some nutrient-dense plant protein options but you’re not ready to commit to cooking it all yourself, sign up for my delivered S.O.U.P. Cleanse and we’ll do the work for you!