Despite the common misconception, you can get the protein your body needs from plants alone. This list will get you there.
My lunch for many years was an artichoke. This was back in grammar school, when I’d cart a single flowery orb rolling around in my metal lunch box to school every day. The love was so intense, I didn’t mind the looks from kids that said, “you’re a true nut job.” Of course, these days, we have a solid understanding of just how much plants love us back. The vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals (unique compounds that protect our DNA by reducing oxidative stress) that you get from plant sources are well-known, no-joke, life-optimizers. They boost immunity, maintain brain/skin/body health, prevent disease, improve gut microbiome, put us in happy moods…the list goes on. And on.
But while it’s clear plants benefit every aspect of our health, for many people, there’s still one big question: Do they give us protein, and could it possibly be enough for what our highly-demanding bodies require?
Understanding your protein needs
The nutrient essentially makes every single cell function properly. Protein grows and repairs muscles and tissues, serves as the building blocks of enzymes and hormones, which keep processes running smoothly in your body, acts as a fuel for energy, among other duties, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Another way protein works hard for you: it keeps you full. A review by researchers at Harvard report that eating more protein improves the satiety of meals.
How much you need daily depends. Are you very active? Figure out your number based on the following calculation, then bump it up a bit. Here’s the math: for every pound you weigh, you want about .36 grams of protein, according to Harvard Medical School. That works out to about 50 grams per day for a 140-pound woman, and 65 grams for a 180-pound man.
For every pound you weigh, you want about .36 grams of protein
You can cover your protein needs with plants
There are some stand out prime sources that many of us are aware of, like soy. A cup of tempeh has a whopping 31 grams. And beans! They had a meteoric rise in fame in 2020 pandemic cooking, and with good reason. A cup of cooked black beans gives you 15 grams; butter beans clock in at 14 grams. Plus, beans are packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. If you’re fully veg-based, beans are particularly important because they contain iron, a tricky nutrient to get enough of when you’re not consuming meat, according to the NIH.
But those aren’t the only key players—some plant-protein sources will really surprise you, and delight you, because they’re delicious. Good news that’s so relevant right now, considering over the past few years, the number of people opting to eat plant-based has jumped substantially: 1 in 4 Americans report eating more protein from plant sources today than they were just two years ago. And to note, those beloved artichokes pack in about 5 grams of protein per cup.
Surprising, and delicious, plant protein sources
A half cup of cooked oatmeal has about 6 grams of protein. And it’s a filling source of healthy grains, thanks to its fiber, specifically a type called beta-glucans, which is known to protect against heart disease and amp up the immune system by boosting chemicals that prevent infections, according to research published in Nutrition Reviews. Add to that, a variety of phytochemicals that provide a ton of antioxidants, according to the Journal of Food Science and Technology research.
But it’s not just about the oats; there’s the topping potential too. Seeds, nuts (we’ll get to these more specifically), nut butters, and plant milks can kick that protein number up even more, at the same time giving you healthy fats, which help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins. It’s easy to see how you can get to 10 grams of protein at breakfast with oatmeal as the foundation.
These little protein powerhouses add nice chewy-crunchy texture and a filling-factor to, really, any dish—your oatmeal, salads, smoothies, muffins. Those that get top billing are hemp (10 grams per ounce), pumpkin (9.3 grams per ounce), and flax (7 grams per ounce). They also provide essential nutrients like magnesium, calcium, vitamins, and fiber. Pro pointer: flaxseeds are better digested when they’re ground—just whir them in a coffee grinder before sprinkling them on your food.
These may just be the most convenient veggie for quick meals. Keep a bag in your freezer and throw them on top of quinoa, mix them into a stir fry, whip them into a smoothie, blend them with lemon, olive oil and herbs like tarragon for a dip…the possibilities are endless. And you’ll get 4 ½ grams of protein for a half cup.
This family favorite is a true gift to your immune system. For one, the veg is a really rich source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that actually increases the number of immune cells and their functions, according to research published in Kaiser Permanente. It also delivers on vitamin C, giving your body 108 percent of the RDA, which studies show helps stimulate production of white blood cells, most specifically those that attack foreign bacteria and viruses. Eat a cup, and you get 4 grams of protein. Similarly on the green front, brussels sprouts give you 4 grams of protein per cup and more vitamin C than an orange.
All nuts are extremely healthy and so worth tossing on anything and everything. Pistachios, in particular though, are real work-horses when it comes to protein and nutrition. They’re loaded with antioxidants that fight damaging free radicals and oxidative stress in the body. Plus, the little green guys are high in omega-3 fatty acids and they're anti-inflammatory. And when it comes to protein, they’re one of the highest, giving you almost 6 grams in an ounce. Also, a little callout to the none-nut that truly ponies up on protein: peanuts (they’re legumes disguised as nuts), which come in at 7.3 grams per ounce.
Yes, they’re carby, but so many also provide valuable protein. A cup of cooked brown rice gives you 5 grams, plus a high level of manganese, a mineral that fuels many important processes in the body, like bone development, muscle metabolism, and wound healing. Brown rice also supplies phenols and flavonoids, antioxidants that protect your body from oxidative stress, which leads to a number of health conditions. But the grainy train doesn’t stop there. Quinoa packs in 8 grams of protein per cup, and according to the USDA, it’s a source of complete protein, meaning you get all nine essential amino acids. There’s also Amaranth (9 grams of protein per cup), an ancient grain that has three times more fiber than traditional wheat; Kamut (10 grams per cup); and Teff (10 grams per cup), a gluten free variety that’s native to North Africa that may also have a positive impact on your gut microbiome, according to a study by scientists at Cornell University.
This is the answer to anyone who believes they can’t have Saturday morning pancakes without sacrificing protein and nutrition. This fruit seed (yup, it’s not wheat) packs 6 grams of protein per cup, is gluten-free, and delivers a wide range of minerals, like manganese, magnesium, and copper. Treat it like flour in your pancake recipe.
An aquatic algae, it’s loaded with micro nutrients like vitamin E, B vitamins, potassium and calcium, earning it the title of Superfood from the World Health Organization, according to a 2019 scientific review. It also contains phycocyanin (which gives it a blue-green color) and carotene, making spirulina a top antioxidant food, according to a 2016 scientific review. And for a tablespoon of the dried powder, you’ll get about 7 grams of protein, says the USDA.
Of course, short of carrying around a cheat sheet, remembering all these stats when you prep a meal is unrealistic, and thankfully, unnecessary. For the most part, as long as you’re eating a variety of plants, and making sure to include some of the heavy hitters like beans, soy, nuts, and seeds, throughout your day, you’re likely to reach your protein needs.
Isabel Burton is wellness editor, writer, and content strategist who has held executive positions at Shape, Self, Cosmo and other leading outlets.