I’m an RD and These Are the 8 Best Sources of Plant-Based Protein for Your Body

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
We all know that consuming enough protein is vital for our health, and quite honestly, this macronutrient couldn’t be more trendy. But when it comes to protein choices, we don’t always have to seek out the meat department. Whether it be for health, the environment, animal welfare, or otherwise, there’s no shortage of reasons why more and more people are opting for plant-based protein sources.

But do these foods provide us with the same nutritional value as that of animal-based sources? Are there potential downsides to choosing plant-based proteins? You’ll find the answers to these questions below, as well as a list of the best plant-based protein sources.

Experts In This Article

The importance of protein

Protein is one of the three major macronutrients, alongside fat and carbohydrates. Virtually every body system is positively impacted by protein intake—thanks to the fact that it’s the building block of every vital structure. Protein leads the charge when it comes to the formation of our cells, blood, organs, skin, hair, nails…the list goes on. Plus, this nutrient is also critical in tissue repair, wound healing, and muscle contraction and formation.

Protein needs will vary from person to person depending on a variety of factors like age, and there are different calculations that can be used to determine one’s needs. However, the best way to get this individualized information is to meet with a qualified health-care professional, like a registered dietitian, for an assessment.

Why plant-based protein sources are becoming so popular

Well, on the health front, plant-based proteins not only tend to offer a more varied array of vitamins and minerals, but they also deliver on fiber—a rare find in animal-based sources. Fiber is so important as it can help to lower cholesterol levels to boost heart health, slow digestion to improve blood sugar regulation and satiety, and feed our healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome for more optimal digestive, immune, and brain health. Plus, eating plant-based foods may increase your longevity and reduce your risk of developing heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and bone disorders.

But beyond that, plant-based protein sources are typically low or completely devoid of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol—unlike many of their animal-based counterparts. This is important because high intakes of these nutrients over long periods of time have been linked to increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. And while budding research is finding that saturated fat and cholesterol may not be as directly correlated to full-blown heart disease as once thought, other researchers have found just the opposite in their investigations. So, despite the conflicting research, it’s best practice to try and limit these nutrients as much as possible to reduce the risk that your blood lipid panel may be negatively impacted.

On the environmental side of things, nearly one-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, comes from livestock production. It contributes at least 14.5 percent of all GHGs globally and poultry is not much better. Plus, outside of these emissions, the intensive farming operations that pump out these animals are notorious polluters of surrounding air and water sources. This seriously impacts neighboring ecosystems and communities in negative ways.

And finally, when it comes to animal welfare, a disheartening 80-plus billion animals are slaughtered every year to meet global demand for animal-based food products. This fact alone has many reaching for plant-based alternatives.

But what about complete protein?

One of the main arguments against opting for plants is that many of the most popular plant-based sources are not “complete” proteins. But what does that actually mean?

Well, protein is made up of many different amino acids, or building blocks of this macronutrient. Of the 20 amino acids that exist, 11 can be made within the body. The remaining nine, however, cannot and thus must be consumed on a regular basis, earning them the esteemed title of “essential.” So, a complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids while an incomplete source will only contain some.

Ensuring we get all nine essential amino acids into our diet everyday guarantees that we’ll reap all the important benefits of the protein we’re eating. All animal-based protein sources will be complete proteins, whereas this is not the case for all plant-based sources. And while there are many plant-based complete protein sources (that we’ll highlight soon), there are an equally large number of incomplete ones, like certain whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

If you’re choosing a variety of plant-based proteins on a daily basis, you don’t need to worry much about complete proteins or the notion of pairing. But those who have specific muscle-building goals, like bodybuilding, for example, may want to pair their incomplete proteins within a single meal to get all their essentials at the same time.

Here’s a brief rundown on how you would pair incomplete proteins

  • Whole grains with legumes: Rice and beans, whole wheat pita and hummus, whole grain pasta salad with lentil “bolognese”
  • Whole grains with nuts or seeds: Peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, whole wheat pasta with walnut pesto, oatmeal topped with almond butter
  • Legumes with nuts or seeds: Bean salad with slivered almonds, lentil soup sprinkled with pumpkin seeds

8 best plant-based protein sources

So, without further ado, here are some of the best plant-based proteins you can spring for—some complete and others incomplete.

Complete plant proteins


As one of the few whole-grain complete proteins, quinoa’s popularity has only continued to grow over recent years. One cup cooked offers eight grams of protein for the perfect addition to grain salads, pilafs, stuffed pepper filling, and even baked goods.

Chia seeds

There’s so many reasons why these tiny seeds are such a diet staple in Central and South America—one of them being their protein content. Two tablespoons of these popular seeds contains an impressive five grams of complete protein.


It may come as a shock to some to find seaweed on this list, but spirulina has certainly earned its spot. This blue-green algae has four grams of complete protein in a single tablespoon and is perfectly hidden in a smoothie.


Soy is another complete protein food with so many options to choose from including miso paste, tofu, and edamame. In a little less than half a cup of miso paste you’ll find 12 grams of protein, 10 grams in half a cup of tofu, and 17 grams in one cup of edamame.

Nutritional yeast

Finally we have nutritional yeast, which has so much more to offer than just seasoning your popcorn. This popular vegan ingredient boasts eight grams of complete protein in just two tablespoons, making it a more-than-worthy addition to your pantry.

Incomplete plant proteins


While it doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids, that doesn’t mean lentils don’t have a ton to offer in the protein department. In one cup of cooked lentils you’ll find a staggering 18 grams of protein! Dal, anyone?


All nuts will boast notable amounts of protein, and almonds are no different with a whopping 29 grams of incomplete protein in one cup, though many of us won’t eat that much in one sitting. These can easily be added to cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, salads, slaws, and more.


This hummus ingredient makes for the perfect snack or meal addition, partly due to its satisfying protein content. In fact, one cup of these legumes offers a mind-blowing 39 grams of incomplete protein.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...