10 Powerful Sources of Plant-Based Proteins – A Guide to Healthy Eating

As the trend towards healthier, sustainable diets continues accelerating, plant-based proteins are increasingly at the forefront. These proteins are derived from various plant sources such as legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and offer a great alternative to animal-based proteins. 

From decoding the protein content of various plants to understanding the potential health benefits and environmental impacts, we aspire to provide a well-rounded perspective on plant-based proteins. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast, a conscientious eater, or someone looking to diversify their protein sources, this guide is meant for you.

What is Plant-Based Protein?

Plant-based protein is simply a protein that is derived from plant sources. As opposed to animal proteins, such as those found in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy, plant-based proteins come from sources like beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, and certain grains.

Plant-based and animal-based proteins differ in the composition and proportion of these essential amino acids. Most animal proteins are ‘complete’ proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids in the proportions that our bodies need. On the other hand, many plant proteins are ‘incomplete’ proteins, as they may be low in one or more essential amino acids.

Examples of plant-based protein sources include:

  1. Black Beans

Versatile, nutrient-dense legumes rich in plant-based protein, fibre, and vitamins. Beans may help manage diabetes and reduce heart disease risk. 

  1. Tofu

Tofu, also known as bean curd, is a soy-based product made by coagulating soy milk and pressing it into blocks. 

  1. Chickpeas

Chickpeas are round, beige legumes with a nutty flavour and a slightly crunchy texture. Dr Michael Greger says, “I recommend at least three daily servings of beans a day, which comprise all the different kinds of beans, including soybeans, split peas, lentils, and chickpeas.”

  1. Edamame

Edamame are immature, usually harvested before they harden. These bright green beans are rich in protein, fibre, and essential nutrients like iron, magnesium, and vitamin C. 

  1. Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a creamy, nutritious spread made from roasted and ground peanuts. It is high in protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals. “Regular nut consumption, including peanuts and peanut butter, may lower the risk of heart disease and improve overall health, ” Dr Walter Willett says.

  1. Quinoa

Quinoa is a small, gluten-free seed with a fluffy, slightly crunchy texture and a nutty flavour. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, and is rich in fibre, vitamins, and minerals. 

  1. Oats

Oats are a whole grain that is a good source of plant-based protein, fibre, and essential nutrients such as magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus. 

  1. Lentils

Lentils are small, lens-shaped legumes in various colours, including green, brown, and red. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends incorporating lentils into your diet to improve heart health, digestion, and blood sugar control.

  1. Vital Wheat Gluten

Vital wheat gluten is a concentrated form of wheat protein obtained by washing wheat flour to remove starch. It has a high protein content and a chewy, elastic texture, making it a popular ingredient in vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes like seitan. 

  1. Pea Protein Powder

Pea protein powder is a plant-based protein supplement made from ground yellow split10. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, and is a popular alternative to whey or soy protein powders.

Here’s a comparative table of different plant-based proteins:

Plant-based proteinServing sizeCaloriesProteinFatCarbohydratesFibreSodium
Black beans½ c.1147.5 g0.5 g20 g15 g0.5 mg
Tofu (extra-firm)3.5 oz.9410.6 g4.7 g3.5 g1.2 g18 mg
Chickpeas½ c.1056 g2.3 g16.2 g5.3 g158 mg
Edamame½ c.949.2 g4 g7 g4 g4 mg
Peanut butter2 Tbsp.1917.1 g16.4 g7.1 g1.4 g5 mg
Quinoa1 c.2228.1 g3.5 g39.4 g5.1 g13 mg
Oats½ c.1535.3 g2.5 g25 g4 g3 mg
Lentils½ c.1159 g0.4 g20 g8 g2 mg
Vital wheat gluten (seitan)¼ c.10421 g0.5 g4 g0.2 g10 mg
Pea protein powder1 scoop (22 g)10019 g2 g1 g0 g260 mg

The Science Behind Plant-Based Protein

A long-held belief in nutrition is the necessity for “complete” proteins in our diet. These proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce and must be obtained from food. Some worry that plant-based proteins don’t provide all essential amino acids, prompting the need to combine specific vegetarian foods to achieve a balanced diet.

However, recent research asserts that a well-balanced plant-based diet can indeed supply all 20 amino acids, both essential and non-essential. A 2019 study on people following vegan and vegetarian diets found that they received more-than-adequate protein and amino acids, even going as far as stating that the concept of amino acid deficiency has been “substantially overstated.”

One nutrient where plant-based proteins can’t quite compete with animal proteins is vitamin B12. According to the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board, this vitamin is crucial for proper brain function and red blood cell formation. If you opt for a fully vegan diet, you’ll likely need to supplement your nutrient intake.

Health Implications of Plant-Based Proteins

Adopting plant proteins over animal ones can lead to numerous positive health effects. Studies have linked plant-based diets with healthy weight maintenance, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and even increased longevity.

However, a few caveats exist. Some plant-based protein foods, such as meats and cheeses, are highly processed, which may have health implications. Christine Milmine, RDN, founder of Plant-Powered You, noted, “Depending on the type, the sodium and saturated fat content could be comparable or even higher than meat.”. She advises checking nutrition facts panels and being mindful of ultra-processed plant-based foods.

People with soy or nut allergies may find a diet high in plant-based protein challenging. Additionally, those with digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome might need to monitor the higher fibre content of many plant-based foods.

The health effects of soy have been a contentious issue, but recent studies show that moderate consumption of soy foods is safe for most people and may offer health benefits, including heart health and weight loss support. 

Environmental Benefits of Plant-Based Protein

Opting for plant-based proteins over animal-based ones has more implications than just our health—it also carries significant potential for environmental sustainability. 

Reduced Carbon Emissions

Plant-based proteins’ first major environmental benefit is their role in minimising carbon emissions. According to FAO, livestock farming contributes to approximately 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These emissions primarily come from methane produced by ruminants, such as cattle, during digestion.

A study in Science stated that producing plant-based foods, including protein sources like beans, lentils, and nuts, results in 10-50 times lower GHG emissions than producing equivalent animal-based foods. Opting for plant-based proteins, therefore, contributes to a diet with a lower carbon footprint, mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

Water Conservation

Water usage is another critical environmental aspect when discussing plant and animal proteins. Livestock farming is notably water-intensive, as it includes the water animals drink and the water used to grow feed crops. Producing 1 kg of beef requires about 15,415 litres of water. Rebecca Smithers says, “The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) blames the “staggering” new figures in its analysis on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practises”, inadequate infrastructure and poor storage facilities.”

Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, require far less water to produce. For example, producing 1 kg of lentils, a potent source of plant-based protein, only requires about 2,500 litres of water. Thus, choosing plant-based proteins helps conserve water, a valuable and often scarce resource.

United Nations Support for Reducing Animal Protein Consumption

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocates for a shift towards a more plant-based diet as a crucial action to combat climate change. In a 2019 report, the IPCC noted that balanced diets featuring plant-based foods present significant opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating co-benefits in human health.

Plant-based proteins align with this recommendation, contributing to a sustainable diet that respects planetary boundaries.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Want to learn more about plant-based protein? Let’s dive into the details below.

Who should be mindful when opting for plant-based protein sources?

Even though everyone can and should enjoy plant-based foods as part of a balanced diet, certain groups of people need to be extra cautious. Those following a diet low in sodium or fats should pay attention to the labels of highly processed plant-based foods, like vegan cheeses and meat substitutes. Dietitian Jessica Levinson points out, “These plant-based alternatives can be high in sodium and fats, so you need to ensure you are reading labels carefully.”

People with allergies to plant foods like nuts or soy should also check ingredient lists meticulously to avoid these allergens. U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises that when choosing plant-based proteins if you have allergies to foods such as nuts or soy, it is imperative to read ingredient lists.

And if you are trying to limit your fibre intake, some choices might be better. Dr Jami Cooley, RN, and Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant notes, “Soy milk and tofu are examples of plant-based proteins that provide a high amount of protein with minimal fibre.”

How does plant-based protein powder stand up against whey protein powder?

The comparison of plant-based protein powders and whey protein powders has long been a subject of interest among nutrition enthusiasts. Both types are touted for their roles in muscle development and weight loss. Registered dietitian nutritionist Natalie Rizzo states, “While plant-based protein powders and whey protein powders both contribute to muscle development and weight loss, plant-based ones may not always contain complete proteins and may have fewer grams of protein per scoop.”

However, some people find plant-based powders easier on the stomach as they don’t contain lactose, which can cause digestive issues in those with lactose intolerance. Rizzo adds, “If you are vegan or lactose-intolerant, plant-based protein powders, which do not contain lactose, could be a better choice for you, as whey protein is derived from cow’s milk.”

What are the best-tasting plant-based protein powders on the market?

Flavour preferences can vary significantly, but some plant-based protein powders have emerged as customer favourites based on online reviews. For example, Orgain’s Organic Superfood Powder in vanilla bean flavour has gained positive reviews from over 40,000 Amazon users, with 77 per cent rating it five stars. There are numerous other flavours and brands available, and with a little personal taste testing, you’re likely to find a powder that pleases your palate.

Where can I find mouth-watering plant-based protein recipes?

The internet is a goldmine of ideas if you want to include more plant-based proteins in your meals. Start your day with a protein-packed quinoa and fruit breakfast bowl or a savoury tofu scramble to satisfy you all morning.

For lunch, consider options like smoky barbecue chickpea wraps or a simple yet delicious bowl of broccoli-peanut noodles for a high-protein meal. And when dinner rolls around, dishes like a hearty black bean and spinach enchilada casserole, seitan piccata, or a vegetable-packed lentil soup could be just what you need.

What are the health benefits of choosing plant-based over animal protein?

Choosing plant-based protein over animal protein comes with several health benefits. Dr Scott Stoll, co-founder of the Plantrician Project, emphasises, “A diet rich in plant-based proteins, as compared to animal proteins, can help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.”

Moreover, plant proteins come with extra dietary fibre, which is beneficial for digestive health. Dr Stoll mentions, “Animal protein lacks fibre, a nutrient associated with a lower risk of many chronic diseases and essential for a healthy gut.”

How can athletes and bodybuilders benefit from plant-based proteins?

Plant-based proteins can be just as effective for muscle building and recovery as animal proteins, making them a viable option for athletes and bodybuilders. Nutritionist Nancy Clark, mentions, “Plants can offer everything you need to build and maintain strong muscles. Some plant proteins, like soy, are complete proteins, meaning they contain all essential amino acids necessary for muscle recovery and growth.”

Is it possible to meet the daily protein requirements solely with plant-based proteins?

Yes, it’s possible to meet your daily protein requirements with only plant-based proteins. Dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix says, “Eating a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day can easily add up to meet your protein needs without any animal protein.” She adds, “Half a cup of cooked beans has about 7 grams of protein, one cup of cooked quinoa contains approximately 8 grams, and just one ounce of almonds (about 23 kernels) can provide 6 grams of protein.”

Green Protein Revolution

Including plant-based proteins in your diet can promote health benefits, support weight maintenance, lower your risk of chronic diseases, and help reduce your environmental impact. While certain considerations like allergies, food sensitivities, and the need for B12 supplementation are crucial, a well-planned diet incorporating plant proteins can be nutritionally complete. So, explore the selections, from beans and lentils to tofu and quinoa, and experiment with new recipes to find the combinations you enjoy most!