For a considerable period of time, vegan protein and vegetarian protein diets were shunned by fitness professionals and nutritionists. Indeed, if you know anything about fitness, then you’re probably aware of how important protein is.
As the fabled macronutrient of body builders and professional athletes alike, eating high protein foods has a number of benefits for active bodies.
Ever wondered why gym-goers eat so much chicken?
That’ll be down to it being one of many high protein foods. Protein itself produces energy for the body (through its conversion to ATP) and is difficult for the body to convert to stored fat. It is made up of amino acids, nine of which are considered “essential” because the body can’t produce them by itself. This means they must be consumed, which is why eating high protein foods is seen as essential for most fitness professionals – but more on that later.
Your body is largely made up of protein: it is in every cell, as well as being a chief component of skin, muscles, tendons, and organs. As well as this, when you hear people refer to protein as the “building blocks” of muscle, they are referring to protein’s ability to repair broken down tissue.
Ever heard the terms “positive” and “negative nitrogen balance”?
Having a positive nitrogen balance is where your body has enough protein available to be able to both function and build muscle. A negative nitrogen balance, on the other hand, is where your body lacks that protein supply. It is critical for athletes and body builders to avoid a negative nitrogen balance, as it can lead to the body entering a catabolic state.
Hence the chicken and abundance of high protein foods.
Crash course in protein over, there are some commonly accepted precepts to protein intake that prospective fitness-enthusiasts should take note of.
The Institute of Medicine, for example, tells us that 10-35% of our calories per day should come from protein. We are also told that, in order to avoid a negative nitrogen balance, we need to watch how often we eat, as well as how much.
Most recent research seems to indicate that eating protein every 3-4 hours (as opposed to the previously outlined 5-6 hours) promotes healthy muscle growth. This is why you’ll see bodybuilders eating five or six meals in a day.
If regular meals and calculating your protein all sounds a little too complex, there's a load of amazing resources online that will help you figure out how much you protein need to consume in order to maintain muscle mass. One of our favourites is this handy protein calculator for vegans over at Fitness Savvy.
Which brings us nicely onto...
What vegan protein options are there for people on plant-based diets?
Okay, perhaps we’ve overdone the whole chicken thing…
With a growing number of people choosing to live vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, more and more people are looking for viable vegan protein alternatives to meat. In fact the number of vegans has risen by more than 360% in the last decade, with over half a million people aged fifteen or over adopting a plant-based diet.
This societal shift towards veganism has occurred alongside reports that 28% of Britons have cut back their meat consumption over the last six months of 2017. Within this sample, weight management and diet change were cited most frequently as the cause of this change (29% of the time).
What does this mean for traditional protein guidelines?
As it turns out, the stereotype of the body builder clutching his or her tupperware box of meat-based high protein foods may not be so accurate anymore. With the rapid increase in veganism has come an explosion of people eating a high protein vegan diet.
This, in turn, means there are more high protein vegan foods available from supermarket chains.
In fact, the choice is now so wide and varied that it can be hard to tell which products and ingredients are the highest value in their vegan protein, and which of those should be seriously considered as viable alternatives.
One easy indicator, is to look at the Biological Value (BV) of certain goods.
BV is the measurement of the ability of the body to make use of amino acids in foods and is one of the measures by which protein quality is considered.
The higher the BV of a vegan protein source, the greater the capacity for the body to make use of the amino acids.
However, we do understand that research can be arduous and (let’s be honest) unrealistic, especially if you’re hungry.
Not to worry! As always, OriGym has you covered.
We’ve compiled our list of the 18 best, vegan protein foods that should be staples in your plant-based diet. We’ve also accompanied our list with some of the best recipes we could find online, so you can immediately kick-start your vegan protein diet. (Note that some foods on this list are vegetarian but not vegan).
The Best Vegan Protein, and Vegetarian Protein Foods
Protein Value: 6.2g per egg.
Why you should eat them: We start with eggs because they are, of course, among the high protein foods that are staples for those of us not following a strict vegan diet. They pack a whopping 6.2g of protein per egg, and are one of the most versatile vegetarian ingredients around. They also have a complete amino acid profile, meaning they contain every essential amino acid that we need to consume to maintain a healthy protein balanced diet. For those wanting to boost their metabolism and lose weight, eggs are an essential ingredient.
Suggested Recipe: An old family saying in my house is that as long as you have an egg and a pinch of salt, you can make a meal. And it’s true, you can do any number of things with an egg. However, we suggest trying Cookie and Kate’s delicious Huevos Rancheros, packed with protein rich eggs and black beans.
Protein Value: 2g per 10g serving (Goat’s cheese).
Why you should eat them: Cheese is perhaps not everyone’s first thought when it comes to weight loss and nutritional ingredients. However, raw cheeses like goat and feta pack a hefty proportion of protein, and can also help boost energy levels. They are also easier to digest than their cow’s milk counterparts.
Suggested Recipe: If you’re crazy about your raw cheese and want to find a protein rich recipe to accompany it, you’d struggle to find much better than Midlife Croissant’s baked eggs in tomatoes, with lentils and whipped goat’s cheese. The recipe is packed with high protein foods helping you maximise your gym gains, while also enjoying your meals!
Protein Value: 10g per 100g (average from 2% fat options)
Why you should eat it: Greek yogurt is perhaps best known for its creamy and luxurious texture. However, you should also seriously consider integrating it into your diet, as it can help with weight loss and is a great vegetarian protein option. Yogurt also contains a wealth of probiotics which aid with digestion, meaning certain yogurts are commonly referred to as ‘superfoods’.
Suggested Recipe: Similar to eggs, you can do any number of things with yogurt. A staple breakfast is yogurt with fruit and a handful of granola. However, if you were looking for some creative inspiration, check out jeanetteshealthyliving.com’s Greek yogurt recipes.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Protein value: 4g per 100g
Why you should eat them: How is it that the humble garden pea, a stalwart of kitchens worldwide, is also the king of the legume family? I’ll tell you why: protein. Though small in size, peas are among the more surprising vegan protein foods, containing an abundance of essential nutrients. For example, one serving contains almost all of the Vitamin C you need in a day.
Suggested Recipe: With such a reputation, peas deserve more than their status as the sidekick of evening meals. Why not try Wallflower Kitchen’s vegan baked green pea fritters, for a healthy, protein-packed alternative to meat.
Protein Value: 8g per 100g
Why you should eat them: There are few better ways for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone looking to avoid meat, getting their protein than eating a diet that is filled with lentils. As far as vegan foods high in protein go, they are top tier. And it doesn’t stop there: lentils are packed with nutrients that help with digestion, regulate blood sugar and boost cardiovascular health. And they’re easy to cook with, just throw them into your favourite soup!
Suggested Recipe: Speaking of soup, why not try Chow Hound’s basic lentil soup as a tasty midweek lunch. Basic by name, not by flavour.
Protein Value: 1g per 100g
Why you should eat it: Poor quinoa. The perennially mispronounced grain of the twenty-first century world. A point of mockery and ridicule by those that don’t understand its versatility and vegan protein potential. Packed with unsaturated fats, and a great way of keep satiated throughout the day through its reserves of fibre, Quinoa also promotes muscle gain. As if that wasn’t enough, it contains all nine essential amino acids the body needs. Perhaps then, quinoa is not so ridiculous after all.
Suggested Recipe: Knowing about the benefits of quinoa is one thing, but actually knowing what to do with the stuff is an entirely different story. Why not start with this vegetarian Greek quinoa salad from The Spruce.
Protein Value: 2g per 100g.
Why you should eat them: Everyone loves to snack, don’t they? Unfortunately, our bodies don’t necessarily agree with those foods we love to snack on. Think crisps, pastries, sweets: all containing little nutritional value and are high in saturated fats. Almonds, however, are up there with the best high protein foods (check out their protein value!). As a nut, they contain healthy fats, important for anyone on a vegan diet. They also have more surprising health benefits, like protecting your heart from disease and improving cognitive function. Quite the clever nut, after all!
Suggested Recipe: These Chipotle roasted almonds from Paleo Running Momma are a fantastic alternative to just eating them raw. We highly suggested giving them a go to help you through the void between meals.
Peanut Butter (and other Nut Butters)
Protein Value: 4g per 1tbsp (Whole earth smooth peanut butter)
Why you should eat it: Surely we have all seen how popular peanut butter has become? Once a national staple of America, nut butters have exploded in popularity across the globe, alongside the cultural shift towards veganism and vegetarianism. Eating too much can, of course, result in negative effects on your body. However, a tablespoon or two on some Ezekiel bread is a fantastic pre-gym snack, packed with protein and healthy fats.
Suggested Recipe: Well, I’ve already mentioned the standard fare of peanut butter on toast… Why not take your peanut butter craving to the next level? Treat yourself with these vegan friendly, double peanut butter chocolate chip cookies from Minimalist Baker. Of course, we’d advise exercising moderation here…if you have the restraint.
Protein value: 6g per 100g.
Why you should eat them: A little like quinoa, chia seeds are often ridiculed for being a “fad food” that will quickly fall out of fashion. However, part of the lasting appeal over the last few years is the versatility with which they can be employed. Chia seeds are as comfortable being sprinkled over a warm salad, as they are being stirred into yoghurt. As well as being an excellent vegan protein option, they also help keep you full and aid digestion. They are another source of protein that contain all nine essential amino acids, and research has found they have a significant impact in terms of reducing heart disease.
Suggested Recipe: Chia seeds are most commonly employed as a pudding. Stirring them into yogurts gives them a luxurious, creamy texture. Check out Simply Veganista’s vanilla chia pudding recipe to enjoy some high protein foods as a dessert!
Protein value: 5g per 100g
Why you should eat it: In terms of our list so far, Guava aren’t packed with protein. It is however, when compared to other tropical fruit, full of protein, while also containing fibre and being low in calories. It is also pretty tasty, and can be an unusual addition to many people’s diets.
Suggested Recipe: Guava by itself is an absolute treat, but if you did want to be a little more creative, try this vegan guava buttercream from Thirsty for Tea – a perfect addition to any cakes or puddings you were planning.
Protein Value: 3g per 100g
Why you should eat it: Now my bias may shine through here, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I love spinach. As far as greens go, it is an essential ingredient, easily combined with other vegan protein foods. It also has a great number of benefits, including being low in saturated fat, very low in cholesterol, and a great source of dietary fibre. Steaming or boiling spinach will maximise its nutritional value, but there’s so much more that you can do…
Suggested Recipes: One of my personal favourites is to throw it in a curry. But remember, a whole bag can quickly wilt to nothing, so be generous with your portions. A fantastic, protein filled, no meat recipe for Spanish Spinach with Chickpeas can also be found over on the Simple Vegan Blog.
Protein Value: 9g per 100g
Why you should eat them: Another from the legume family, chickpeas are high in fibre and are popular among high protein foods. As an added bonus, they are also low in calories. Like most other vegan proteins from the legume family, chickpeas also help to increase fullness, and can have a significant impact on weight management and weight loss.
Suggested Recipe: Chickpeas are as comfortable in a main meal - in a stew or curry, for example - as they are dried and used as a snack. Why not make the most of their versatility and try these spiced chickpeas over at Running on Real Food.
Protein Value: 20g per serving.
Why you should eat it: Seitan is probably the closest thing to a direct substitute for meat so far on this list. One of a number of vegan proteins made from wheat gluten, it is often compared in texture to lean meats. In terms of protein, it also measures up, containing more protein per serving than its more widely known tofu and tempeh contemporaries.
Suggested Recipe: Having risen in popularity in the last few years, there are a great number of blogs out there for seitan recipes. One of our favourites is this seitan meatloaf over at Brand New Vegan.
Protein Value: 10.3g per 100g.
Why you should eat it: Seitan, in the above post, is made from soy. If you would, however, prefer your soy in its natural state, then edamame is for you. It is a good source of dietary fibre and protein, as well as being a very good source of Vitamin K which is essential for responding to injuries.
Suggested Recipe: Like almonds, many choose to eat their edamame as a snack without any accompaniments. However, we like this garlic edamame recipe over at Pinch Of Yum when we’re tucking into some of this super soy.
Protein Value: 4g per slice.
Why should you eat it: Ezekiel bread contains a whopping 18 amino acids, including all of the nine essential amino acids that the body can’t produce by itself. At 4g per slice, you are also getting a whole load of protein for your loaf. It contains no preservatives and no artificial ingredients, and is widely considered to be the best bread option by those seeking out vegan protein foods.
Suggested Recipe: An easy (and obvious) vegan recipe is a generous helping of two-ingredient peanut butter, slathered over some freshly baked Ezekiel bread. However, vegetarians and egg-enthusiasts might want to try this Ezekiel Bread French Toast recipe over at The Living Fit Girls.
Protein Value: 1g per 100g.
Why should you eat it: Perhaps the ingredient on this list most synonymous with vegetarians and those on a meat free diet, tofu is also a fantastic vegan protein option. Another ingredient made from soybeans, tofu is also low in cholesterol and is a good source of calcium and iron, helping for muscle growth and strength.
Suggested Recipe: People can sometimes get a little psyched out by the idea of tofu: what exactly do I do with it. If you’re new to tofu, try this sun dried tomato, mushroom, and tofu quiche at Oh She Glows.
Protein Value: 18.5g per 100g
Why should you eat it: The last of our soy-based, meat substitutes, tempeh is low in cholesterol and is a great source of vegan protein. It is another popular option among vegetarians and vegans, alongside tofu and seitan.
Suggested Recipe: Try this teriyaki tempeh from VNutrition and Wellness, as an easy, high protein, meat free meal!
Sun Dried Tomato
Protein Value: 1g per 100g
Why you should eat it: We end on a familiar ingredient for many. Sun dried tomatoes, you may be surprised to hear, are often an overlooked high protein food. Great for lunches and small snacks, they are low in saturated fats, a great source of dietary fibre, and include good amounts of vitamin C and K.
Suggested Recipe: Again, you can do lots with this ingredient, from soups to salads and sauces. For a great addition to your fridge, try Blissful Basil’s creamy sundried tomato & avocado pesto.
Visit Fitness Savy for their protein calculator so you can work out how much protein is within every meal.
If you enjoyed our list of the best high protein foods for vegetarians and vegans, check out some of our other articles on the OriGym Blog!