13 Complete Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans
By Kelli McGrane
Despite what some people may think, there are many ways to get enough protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
However, not all plant-based proteins are complete proteins, meaning protein sources that contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. While your body can make some of them, nine have to be obtained through your diet. These are referred to as essential amino acids and include:
Animal products like beef, fish, dairy, and eggs contain enough of every one of these essential amino acids. Thus, they're considered complete proteins.
However, many plant sources of protein are too low in or missing one or more of these essential amino acids. They're considered incomplete protein sources.
Still, given that plant foods contain varying amounts of amino acids, you can manage to get enough of each essential amino acid throughout the day by eating a varied diet.
For example, grains like rice are too low in lysine to be considered a complete source of protein. Yet, by also eating lentils or beans, which are higher in lysine, throughout the day, you can be sure to obtain all nine essential amino acids.
Nevertheless, some people like knowing they're getting complete proteins in a particular meal.
Fortunately for vegans and vegetarians, several plant-based foods and combos contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Quinoa is an ancient grain that looks similar to couscous but has a crunchy texture and nutty flavor.
One cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa provides approximately 8 grams of protein.
In addition to being a complete protein, quinoa provides more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than many common grains.
You can use quinoa in place of rice in most recipes. It can also be simmered in an alternative milk for a creamy, protein-rich breakfast porridge.
Though most supermarkets have quinoa in stock, buying online may offer you a wider selection and possibly better prices.
Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that contains 8 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (185 grams). It's also a good source of several minerals, including magnesium, iron, and zinc.
2. Tofu, Tempeh, and Edamame
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all made from soybeans and make for excellent plant-based protein sources.
Tofu is made from coagulated soy milk that's pressed into white blocks and comes in a variety of textures, including silken, firm, and extra-firm. As it's quite bland, tofu tends to take on the flavor of the foods with which it is cooked.
Tempeh is much chewier and nuttier than tofu and made from fermented soybeans, which are often combined with other seeds and grains to form a firm, dense cake.
Meanwhile, edamame are whole, immature soybeans that are green and have a slightly sweet, grassy flavor. They're usually steamed or boiled and can be enjoyed on their own as a snack. Alternatively, they can be added to salads, soups, or grain bowls.
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all derived from whole soybeans and excellent sources of complete protein. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of edamame or tofu provides 8 grams of protein, while the same serving of tempeh has 11 grams.
Once considered a staple food in Incan, Myan, and Aztec cultures, it has become a popular gluten-free grain alternative.
Amaranth is a versatile grain that can be boiled for a side dish or porridge, or popped in a skillet to add texture to granola bars or salads. Similarly to quinoa, it has a delicate, nutty taste and retains its crunch even when cooked.
When ground into a flour, amaranth can also be used in gluten-free baking.
If you can't find amaranth locally, you can buy it online.
Amaranth is a gluten-free pseudocereal that provides 9 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (246 grams). It also provides more than 100% of the DV for manganese.
Nutty in flavor, the hulled kernels, or groats, can be cooked similarly to oatmeal or ground into a flour and used in baking. In Japanese cooking, buckwheat is most commonly consumed in the form of noodles, which are called soba.
You can buy buckwheat in specialty stores or online.
Buckwheat is another gluten-free grain that's a source of complete protein, with 6 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (168 grams).
5. Ezekiel Bread
Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes, including barley, soybeans, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt.
Unlike most breads, the combination of whole grains and legumes in Ezekiel bread provides all nine essential amino acids.
For an extra protein boost, use Ezekiel bread to make a vegan BLT sandwich with tempeh instead of bacon, or toast the bread and top it with peanut butter and chia seeds.
You can look for Ezekiel bread at your local supermarket or shop for it online.
Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes and contains all nine essential amino acids. Just two slices (68 grams) provide 8 grams of filling protein.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that's a popular supplement among those on vegan and vegetarian diets.
While it can be purchased as tablets, the powdered form of spirulina can be easily added to smoothies, granola bars, soups, and salads for a boost of nutrition.
If you would like to give spirulina a try, you can find it in specialty stores or online.
Spirulina, a supplement made from blue-green algae, is a source of complete protein. One tablespoon (7 grams) provides 4 grams of protein, as well as good amounts of B vitamins, copper, and iron.
7. Hemp Seeds
Coming from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are members of the same species as marijuana, but they contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana.
However, there is concern that hemp seeds could become contaminated with TCH from other parts of the plant during harvesting or storing. Therefore, it's important to purchase seeds from trusted brands that test for THC.
Technically a nut, the edible whites inside of hemp seeds are referred to as hemp hearts and incredibly nutritious.
Hemp hearts have a mild nutty flavor and can be sprinkled over yogurt or salads, added to smoothies, or included in homemade granola and energy bars.
These tasty seeds are widely available in stores and online.
Hemp seeds are often sold as hemp hearts and incredibly nutritious. In addition to providing 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons (30 grams), they're a good source of essential fatty acids, iron, potassium, and several other essential minerals.
8. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that are often black or white.
They're unique in that they can absorb liquid and form a gel-like substance. As a result, they can be used to make puddings and pectin-free jams. They're also commonly used as an egg substitute in vegan baking.
However, chia seeds can also be used raw as a topping for oatmeal or salads, mixed into baked goods, or added to smoothies.
If you would like to give chia seeds a try, stock up at your local supermarket or online.
Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that contain all nine essential amino acids. Two tablespoons (28 grams) contain 4 grams of protein, as well as good amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and several essential minerals.
9. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that's grown specifically to be a food product.
Commercially, nutritional yeast is sold as a yellow powder or flakes and has a distinctive umami flavor that can be used to add a cheese-like flavor to vegan dishes, such as popcorn, pasta, or mashed potatoes.
When fortified, nutritional yeast can also be an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and all the B vitamins, including B12.
You can shop for nutritional yeast locally or online.
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of yeast that imparts a cheesy, umami flavor to vegan dishes. Just 1/4 cup (15 grams) provides 8 grams of protein.
10. Rice and Beans
Rice and beans are a classic pairing that's a source of complete protein.
Both brown and white rice are low in lysine but high in methionine. In contrast, beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. As such, combining them allows you to get enough of each, as well as the remaining seven essential amino acids, to count as a complete protein.
While you can enjoy the mixture on its own, rice and beans can be topped with guacamole, salsa, and roasted vegetables for a simple, filling meal.
Together, rice and beans contain all nine essential amino acids to form a complete source of protein. Approximately 1 cup (239 grams) provides 12 grams of this nutrient.
11. Pita and Hummus
A delicious Middle Eastern classic, pita and hummus are another combination that provides all nine essential amino acids.
Similarly to rice, the wheat used to make pita is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein source. However, chickpeas — the main ingredient in hummus — are rich in lysine.
One medium-sized (57-gram) whole wheat pita with 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of hummus provides approximately 7 grams of protein.
In addition to serving as a snack, adding fried or baked ground chickpea balls known as falafel will further increase the protein content of your pita and hummus.
Pita and hummus is another classic combination that constitutes a complete protein source. One medium-sized (57-gram) pita with 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of hummus provides 7 grams of protein.
12. Peanut Butter Sandwich
A lunch box staple, natural peanut butter sandwiched between whole grain bread is another common combination that results in a complete protein source.
As mentioned earlier, wheat is low in lysine while pulses like peanuts make up for it by being high in lysine.
Two slices (62 grams) of whole wheat sandwich bread with 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of peanut butter provide approximately 14 grams of protein.
However, the exact amount of protein may vary depending on the brand of bread you buy.
When choosing a peanut butter, aim for a product with minimal ingredients, ideally only peanuts and maybe a bit of salt.
Wheat bread is low in lysine, but when combined with lysine-rich peanut butter, it becomes a complete protein source. One peanut butter sandwich provides approximately 14 grams of protein.
13. Mycoprotein (Quorn)
Mycoprotein is a meat substitute product that's marketed under the name Quorn.
Made from a naturally occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum, it's sometimes mixed with eggs or milk protein before being shaped into patties, cutlets, or strips. As a result, not all mycoprotein products are vegan.
Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency have determined that mycoprotein is safe enough to be sold to the public.
Still, as it's a rich source of essential amino acids and low in sodium, sugar, and fat, it's a popular option for those looking for a plant-based alternative to chicken.
While the amount of protein varies by product, one 75-gram Quorn Chik'N patty contains 9 grams of protein.
If you want to give mycoprotein a try, you can find many Quorn products in stores and online.
Mycoprotein, a popular meat alternative, is sold under the brand name Quorn. While the amount of protein varies by product, one Quorn Chik'N patty provides about 9 grams of complete protein.
The Bottom Line
Despite some concerns over being able to get adequate protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet, many high protein, plant-based foods are available.
Furthermore, several of these foods even provide all nine essential amino acids and are therefore considered complete proteins.
To ensure you're meeting your amino acid needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet, try incorporating more of these complete protein sources into a varied diet.
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