Eating a plant-based diet comes with many benefits, such as a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, just to name a few. But no matter how well-known the pros of eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are, the epic question of how to get enough protein still comes up among those interested in pursuing a plant-based diet.
First and foremost, it’s important to know too much protein in the diet isn’t actually optimal; people often eat far more protein than they actually need. Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. All foods contain amino acids, although they may not contain all 23 amino acids and may not be high in total grams of protein. Fruits are examples of good-for-you foods that are low in protein.
There are nine amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own, and these are known as essential amino acids. Foods that contain all essential amino acids are known as complete protein sources. Hemp seeds and tofu great examples of a plant-based food that contain all essential amino acids making hemp seeds a complete protein.
We’ve been taught to believe that if a food doesn’t have all nine essential amino acids that we need to pair it with another food that has the amino acids it is lacking. Rice and beans are a classic combination that is often recommended for vegans or vegetarians to eat to make sure they’re getting enough protein, but the truth is, it’s a myth that our bodies have to have special combinations of foods to meet our protein needs.
We don’t have to only consume foods that are complete proteins to get enough protein, nor do we have to be concerned about combining different foods at each meal in order to eat complete protein sources. Our bodies can actually use the amino acids we eat at each meal and form complete proteins from the foods we eat when we eat whole plant foods. Still, it is important to get the right foods into your diet each day so you can be sure to meet your nutritional needs, including for protein.
See the following five tips for how to make sure you get a balanced intake of nutrients so you can be sure you’re getting enough complete protein on a healthy, plant-based diet.
The most important thing to do for optimal nutrition and optimal protein intake is to make it a priority to consume a whole food plant-based diet with a nice variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts/seeds or legumes.
In other words, living off of vegan junk food or eating a high sugar diet isn’t the way to approach a plant-based diet. Focus on eating real whole plant foods that have the building blocks of protein in the complete packages you need, and be sure to consume enough calories for your body’s needs and activity levels each day.
If you’re still concerned about meeting your protein goals, simply include a few servings of more protein-rich foods found in the plant-based kingdom. Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils are rich in amino acids, and some of the best sources of protein since they are also rich in iron and other nutrients (like zinc!) typically found in animal products. See these 15 protein-rich recipes that use legumes for plenty of recipe ideas!
Nuts and seeds are also great sources of plant-based proteins, although they are richer in healthy fats than legumes. Hemp seeds and chia seeds are two popular nutritious seeds that are complete sources of protein and are easy to include in your daily diet, such as in chia pudding, a smoothie, and in oatmeal/porridge. They can be used in raw desserts or snacks, and they can even be incorporated into baked goods. If you have a nut allergy, be sure to include a few servings of seeds in your diet, such as flax, chia, and hemp seeds along with sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.
See the Top 5 Seeds to Pair With Greens for a High Protein Meal here, 6 Ways to Add Clean Protein to Your Smoothie Without Using Powder, and The Perfect Seed: Why Everyone Should Add Pumpkin Seeds to Their Diet for more tips on eating nuts and seeds for plant-based protein.
Whole grains have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer. They also happen to be excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, along with amino acids that help contribute to our daily protein needs.
The important issue with whole grains that we should focus on for optimal health is to be sure and consume true whole grains, such as oats, barley, rye, farro, spelt, quinoa, millet, and sorghum. Opt for whole forms over eating highly processed foods made with whole grains, such as boxed cereal and crackers. You’ll likely notice the difference between how your body fills when you eat whole grains in their natural form versus how you feel after eating highly processed iterations.
See The Healthiest Whole Grains to Include In Your Diet here, and check out these 30 Delicious, Nutritious, and Filling Recipes With Whole Grains for plenty of recipe ideas!
Greens are a phenomenal food because they include vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll, fiber, and yes, they even contain protein too! While kale and spinach may not appear protein-rich or have a large number of grams of protein per serving, the truth is, per ounce, they’re some of the richest sources of protein on the planet.
Add greens to your smoothies, such as with these 11 Awesome Green Monster Smoothies, or give greens a try in this Green Protein Bowl With Garlicky Dressing. You might also like to see our hearty salads for more ways to use greens. Try to sneak a few servings of leafy greens into your day each day, and choose between romaine, kale, spinach, arugula, watercress, or even green powders such as spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass, and more.
Eating a variety of veggies each day is also a great way to add protein to your diet. Some of the best sources of protein among veggies are asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens (see above), and even starchy veggies such as potatoes, pumpkin, and squash which also contain protein. Turn your veggies into burgers with these 10 Vegetables You Can Make Burgers With and see 7 Tips for Cooking Vegetables So They Taste Delicious if you need some creative inspiration!
Including a variety of veggies along with whole grains, legumes and/or nuts and seeds, and fruit each day is a great way to add a variety of amino acids to your day that your body can use to give you all the protein you need. If you are more comfortable with tracking your macros to be sure, however, feel free to input all of your nutrition content into Cronometer, which is a free food journal database that will track all of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients in the foods you eat each day. You might just be surprised at how much protein you’re actually eating!
For more tips on being sure you get enough protein on a plant-based diet, see How to Tell if You’re Getting Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet, 10 Simple Ways to Eat at Least 10 Grams of Protein Per Meal Without Meat, 7 of the Cleanest Sources of Vegan Protein, and How Much Protein Do We Really Need?
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Balsamic Grilled Tofu Crostini