We all know that getting enough protein is an important part of any balanced diet, whether you're following a plant-based lifestyle or not. But it goes without saying, if you're avoiding animal products altogether, you're also eliminating various concentrated protein sources. But don't fret, it turns out there is no lack of protein in the plant kingdom if you know where to look.
Before diving into the best plant proteins around, it's important to understand what protein is and how our body breaks it down and utilizes it.
What Is Protein?
When we talk about protein we're actually talking about a combination of amino acids, some of which need to be eaten through our diet (essential amino acids) and some of which our body actually produces on its own (nonessential amino acids). If you see the term "complete protein", this means the protein contains an adequate amount of all 9 essential amino acids that the body doesn't produce on its own.
Protein does much more than just build healthy, strong body tissue and muscles - it also plays a role in the production of hormones, enzymes, antibodies, and even things you may not think about like the lens of your eyes. Proteins transport oxygen and they build, maintain, and regenerate tissues throughout the body.
The proteins found in animal products - whether its meat, eggs, or cheese - are complete proteins because the animal has already done the work of combining all of the amino acids for its own body's use. Single plant sources of protein are more likely to be incomplete, meaning you have to eat a wider variety of different plants to get all 9 essential amino acids. Does that make plant proteins inferior? Not necessarily. For one, even animal protein must be broken down into amino acids through our digestive process in order for the human body to utilize it. Our body also does an excellent job of assembling the amino acids needed to build complete proteins from plants, as long as we're eating a variety of different protein sources on a regular basis.
Great Sources of Plant Protein (not complete)
Dark green leafy veggies - just one more reason to eat your greens! Not only are they chock full of minerals, vitamins, fiber, and chlorophyll, but they also have plentiful amino acids to help your body assemble protein and build healthy tissue.
Sprouts - think lentil, mung bean, broccoli, alfalfa, and sunflower greens. Sprouts are bursting with nutrients and make an incredible protein source that's very easy to digest.
Raw nuts and seeds -one of the healthiest snacks around! Nuts and seeds are low in sugar and high in fiber and protein making them a great snack to have on hand for keeping blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. By choosing raw nuts and seeds over roasted you'll be getting more nutrients, with less of a risk for oxidized oils.
Raw nut butter - versatile and always so delicious and satisfying, nut butter is a fantastic protein-rich pantry staple. Don't forget to think beyond the peanut butter jar - there's an entire world of nut butter flavors to explore.
Pulses and legumes - given that they're easily accessible and affordable, delicious, and packed with protein, it's easy to see why beans, and various pulses like lentils and peas, are a staple on a plant-based diet. If you find that legumes are hard to digest, try soaking them and rinsing thoroughly prior to cooking which will unlock a good amount of the phytic acid - an antidigestive compound.
Oats - heart-healthy, great for the gut, full of complex carbs to fuel an active body, and rich in protein too! Whether you're making overnight oats or oatmeal in the morning, your body will thank you for all of the nutrition oats deliver.
Complete Plant Protein
Chia Seeds - chia may be small but they pack a mighty punch of protein with all 9 essential amino acids. Try making chia pudding by soaking them in nut milk, blend them right into smoothies (they make a great thickener!), or add a sprinkling on top of your oatmeal or smoothie bowls.
Hemp Seeds - these chewy, flavorful seeds come from cannabis, aka hemp, a plant that provides so many nutritional and therapeutic benefits to the human body. Try some on your next salad or soup as a delicious, protein-rich garnish.
Goji berries - when you think of protein, fruit might not be the first thing to come to mind. But goji berries are not your average fruit. Not only are they one of the best sources of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals on the planet, but they are also a complete protein source.
Buckwheat - Buckwheat, despite what its name suggests, is not a type of wheat at all but rather a seed. Raw buckwheat groats can be soaked and sprouted, then dehydrated or lightly toasted to make the base for crunchy homemade buckwheat granola. Or use buckwheat flour in your next pancake or waffle recipe.
Spirulina and Chlorella - these ultra-green superfood algae powders are two of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet. Not only do they offer all 9 essential amino acids but they are also an incredible source of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and phytonutrients. Try sneaking them into your daily smoothies or sprinkle them on a salad.
Quinoa - the next time you're planning on making rice for dinner - try quinoa instead for a more protein-rich option that's lighter on the tummy and lower in carbs. Quinoa may be able to stand-in for rice in recipes, but it is technically a seed, not a grain.