Protein is an essential macronutrient necessary for building muscle and sustaining growth. It’s found throughout the body in virtually every tissue and is made from twenty building blocks called amino acids. Nine of these amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) are considered essential. The body cannot make enough, so they must be obtained through food.

Complete & Complementary Proteins

Critics tote that plant-based diets lack sufficient protein given animal proteins like meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs contain all the essential amino acids, while most plant sources are too low or missing at least one of the nine. However, two or more plant-based protein sources that complement each other's amino acid profiles can be consumed together to create complete protein pairings:

[Beans] or [Lentils] or [Peas] + [Whole Grains] or [Nuts] or [Seeds]

There are also some plant-based proteins that are considered complete with all nine essential amino acids. The following list highlights protein-rich plant foods, their completeness, and ways to incorporate them into your diet.

1. Soy

Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week. Soy is one of the few plant-based proteins that is a complete protein. The protein content of soy-based foods varies based on the type of soy product. For tofu, the protein can range depending on the firmness.

Soy Protein Serving
Tofu 20-40 grams 1 cup
Tempeh 30 grams 1 cup
Edamame (cooked, shelled) 18 grams 1 cup

Tofu is very versatile and can be used to make a tofu scramble or baked in cubes or slices and added to a salad or wrap. Silken tofu can also be added to smoothies or desserts like pudding or mousse for a boost of protein. Tempeh provides a nutty flavor and firm texture that can be grilled, baked, or pan fried and used in stir fries, curries, or salads. Edamame is often served steamed or boiled alongside sushi but can also be consumed on its own or deshelled in a slaw or salad. Dry roasted edamame makes for a crunchy protein-packed snack.

2. Seitan

Seitan, which has been consumed for centuries in Asian cuisine, is a protein made from gluten, the main protein in wheat. Seitan is often called “wheat meat” given its ability to mimic the texture of meat while providing high protein content. Just 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of seitan provides 25 grams of protein, making it an excellent source of protein for those following a plant-based diet. Seitan is incredibly versatile and can be prepared in many ways including grilled, sautéed, stir-fried, air-fried, or added to stews, curries, tacos, sandwiches, and salads. Seitan is an incomplete protein on its own but preparing it with soy sauce makes it a complete protein.

3. Beans

Beans including black beans, chickpeas or garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, and others, are legumes rich in soluble fiber, which may help to lower cholesterol levels, regulate blood sugar levels, and improve digestive health. Most types provide 15 grams of protein per 1 cup of cooked beans. Beans are not considered a complete protein and must be combined with whole grains, nuts, seeds, or other complete proteins to provide all 9 essential amino acids. Try adding black beans to your next burrito bowl with rice. Try adding chickpeas to a salad or create a vegetarian version of a classic chicken or tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat bread or wrap. Try incorporating kidney, pinto, or navy beans into soups, stews, or chilis.

4. Lentils

Lentils are another type of legume. They come in a variety of colors (brown, red, green) and contain protein, high amounts of soluble fiber, and important micronutrients, including iron and potassium. Lentils of all colors provide approximately 18 grams of protein per 1 cup when cooked. Lentils are not a complete protein and need to be combined with whole grains, nuts, seeds, or other complete proteins. Lentils can be added to soups, stews, curries, or salads for a boost of protein.

5. Seeds

Seeds are not only protein-rich, but they also provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which are beneficial for heart health. Hemp and chia seeds are considered complete proteins, while other types of seeds should be combined with legumes to form a complete protein.

Seed Protein Serving
Hemp seeds 7 grams 2 tbsp
Chia seeds 5 grams 2 tbsp
Pumpkin seeds 5 grams 2 tbsp
Flax seeds 4 grams 2 tbsp
Sesame seeds 4 grams 2 tbsp
Sunflower seeds 3 grams 2 tbsp

Seeds can be added to oatmeal, baked into granolas or crackers, blended into smoothies, or sprinkled on top of a salad or grain bowl. Ground flaxseed is recommended over whole flaxseed for improved digestion and absorption of the nutrients. Other seeds can be consumed without being ground.

6. Nuts & Nut Butters

The protein content of nuts varies by the type. In addition to protein, nuts provide healthy fats as well as soluble and insoluble fibers.

Nut Protein Serving
Peanuts 9 grams 1/4 cup
Almonds 8 grams 1/4 cup
Pistaschios 6 grams 1/4 cup
Cashews 5 grams 1/4 cup
Walnuts 5 grams 1/4 cup
Hazelnuts 5 grams 1/4 cup
Brazil nuts 5 grams 1/4 cup
Macademia nuts 4 grams 1/4 cup
Pecans 3 grams 1/4 cup

Although included in this chart, peanuts are technically a legume and can be a complementary protein to nuts and seeds in the form of a trail mix. Slivered almonds or walnut pieces can make a great addition to a salad or a yogurt bowl. Nut butters, such as peanut butter or almond butter, pair well spread on toast or with fruit such as apples or bananas. Nuts butters can also be added to smoothies or as a topping on oatmeal.

7. Whole Grains

Quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth are complete proteins, while other whole grains are incomplete proteins and can be combined with beans, lentils, or peas to form complete proteins. The amount of protein provided varies by the type of whole grain.

Whole Grain Protein Serving
Sorghum 10 grams 1 cup
Amaranth 9 grams 1 cup
Quinoa 8 grams 1 cup
Farro 8 grams 1 cup
Wild rice 7 grams 1 cup
Oats 6 grams 1 cup
Buckwheat 6 grams 1 cup
Millet 6 grams 1 cup
Barley 4 grams 1 cup

Consider making salad or grains bowls that incorporate whole grains, vegetables, beans, and seeds. Ezekiel bread is a type of bread made from the whole grains wheat, barley, millet, as well as soy and lentils to provide a complete protein source.

8. Nutritional Yeast

Nutrition yeast, also known as “nooch” is deactivated yeast that is considered a complete protein. The protein content may vary slightly by brand, but on average 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast provides 8-9 grams of protein. It’s often fortified with vitamins and minerals including B vitamins such as vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast adds a cheesy umami flavor to dishes and can be sprinkled on popcorn, salads, pasta or used as an ingredient in vegan cheese sauces.

9. Spirulina

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that is often consumed as a dietary supplement. It is considered a complete protein that provides 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Spirulina is a bit more difficult to incorporate into the diet given its strong taste and powder or tablet form. It’s best to start small and mask the taste in something like a smoothie. Be mindful that spirulina is a dietary supplement, which means there’s no guarantee the product you buy will be safe, contaminant-free, or contain the amount of spirulina listed on the label. If you choose to use spirulina, please let your health provider know, as it could interact with other medication you may be taking.

What About Meat Substitutes?

While plant-based proteins are likely to provide health benefits when eaten in place of red and processed meats, it’s important to remember plant-based burgers, sausages, and nuggets are highly processed compared to the one-ingredient plant-based proteins mentioned above. When choosing a convenient meat substitute, be sure to check the nutrition facts label for sodium and saturated fat contents. Much of the high fiber benefits of plant-based proteins can also be absent in meat substitutes, so consider adding some high fiber sides or toppings to complete the meal.


Despite concerns over not being able to get adequate protein on a plant-based diet, there are many high-protein plant-based foods and an appropriately planned plant-based diet can be nutritionally adequate.

In addition to their protein content, these plant-based foods offer other health benefits such as being lower in saturated fat compared to animal proteins, being rich in dietary fiber, and containing various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants essential for overall health. Whether you identify as a vegan, vegetarian or neither, almost everyone can benefit from incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet.