Protein is a super important macronutrient for all your bodily needs. Basically, it’s what fuels your brain (hello protein-packed breakfast!), it gives you enough energy to hit those HIIT workouts and just go about daily tasks, it repairs muscle damage after a sweat session, and it keeps your body in tip-top-shape, overall.
Yet, protein is most readily available and absorbed by the body in animal protein (think eggs, salmon, beef, chicken, and dairy). So, when you toss out those animal protein sources, which are super rich in grams per serving and can be maximized by the body for use, you might not be able to get enough protein in the day.
And that could lead to nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition, where you might not feel strong, mentally alert, or energized during the day and during your workouts. That feeling of physical lethargy and mental fatigue can totally drain you—making you unproductive, irritable, and just unwell, as it can lower immune system and set you up for illness, too.
So, if you are a vegan, and you’re ditching animal meat for meat-less meals and lots and lots of plants (hello greens!), then you need to make sure you are not just sitting around eating fresh fruit and veggies all day long without adequate protein from whole foods and even supplementation (like a protein powder made from plant sources, such as pea).
While eating greens, non-starchy and starchy veggies, and fruit is super good for providing vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, they aren’t naturally high in protein. So, that’s where vegan proteins come into play. And you should be planning each meal around a star plant protein and then adding in sides—that means those fruits and veggies!
Here are a few tips on meal planning with vegan proteins in mind and the best ones to choose from. All of these are pure in nature, high quality (not processed!), have great nutritional profiles, and adequate protein per serving. And you can combine a few to make more complete proteins, too, as well as more balanced meals.
A serving of three ounces has nine grams of protein, which is pretty good.
“Soy is one of the only plant-based complete proteins. That means it has all the essential amino acids that are not commonly found in many plant proteins,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD.
It’s also a good source of calcium, which is great for anyone who doesn’t consume dairy, as it strengthens bone density and aids in muscle repair.
“Tofu can be added to stir fries with basically any marinade, or you can pan fry it to make tofu croutons to add to a salad,” she suggests. Have some fun—it is super versatile and nutritious. You can also use soy protein as a protein powder for shakes.
A serving of three ounces has 16 grams of protein—that is a WHOLE lot. But what is tempeh?
“Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake that has plenty of plant-based protein a firmer texture than tofu,” says Rizzo. “The fermentation process used to create tempeh helps breed probiotics,” she says, so tempeh is considered good for gut health, too. And that means it’s great for keeping your immune system strong as well (goodbye winter sniffles!).
Tempeh can be crumbled and added to tacos or it can serve as the base for a veggie burger, says Rizzo. You can also marinate it and cook it in a pan for a few minutes.
A weird name, yes, but a 1/3 cup serving has 21 grams of protein—so it’s one of the highest sources of plant-based protein by far.
“Seitan is a textured wheat protein, so it’s not for anyone who it gluten-free,” says Rizzo, so if you can’t tolerate it well, avoid this one. “The texture resembles that of meat, so many people use it in place of ground meat in recipes,” she says. Think sandwiches, burgers and breakfast patties, meatballs, tacos, and more.
A one cup cooked serving of lentils has 18 grams of protein, which is great, and lentils are super versatile and easy to make in bulk to have on hand for weekly meals.
“Lentils are easy to cook and have a meaty texture, so they are a great stand-in for ground meat. I use lentils to make veggie meatballs or serve as the base for a grain bowl,” says Rizzo. Plus, lentils are a good source of plant-based iron.
These seeds are great for you! In just two tablespoons, you get 10 grams of protein.
“These tiny seeds have protein and omega-3 fatty acids and they have a soft texture with a slight crunchy, making them a great addition to salads, smoothies and oatmeal,” says Rizzo. The fats will lower inflammation and boost satiety further, and they also have some good fiber, too.
“In addition, hemp seeds have plenty of magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium,” she adds. The nutrition doesn’t stop!