There are a lot of stigmas out there in the fitness world surrounding the muscle maintaining and building ability of a plant-based diet. While yes, it’s true that animal proteins deliver all of the essential amino acids in appropriate proportions that the human body can utilize, this doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet cannot provide close to the same benefits. We’ll go over the best sources of plant protein to include in your diet and build muscle in depth.
Best Sources Of Plant Protein To Build Muscle
Yes, you can still maintain and build muscle mass on a plant-based diet. Increasing calcium-rich foods (that aren’t dairy of course) while implementing adequate protein throughout the day will set you on the right track. One of the biggest challenges you may face with increasing protein on a plant-based diet is that you’re going to have to eat a bit more than you will with an animal-based diet, especially of our best sources of plant protein.
Comparatively speaking, animal protein sources deliver more essential amino acids per serving and per calorie than plant-based sources, but as you’ll learn, incorporating many incomplete proteins can build a foundation of amino acids for your body to use when building muscle.
The essential amino-acid density of plant-based protein sources is a bit lower than animal protein sources. Per calorie, animal sources provide more satiety per calorie which curb appetite, cravings, and leave a fuller feel. On the other hand, as long as you get more than 10% of your calories from protein, maintain a healthy/active lifestyle and eat a wide variety of foods rich in both macro and micronutrients, you should be able to achieve an appropriate amount of protein and branch chain amino acids to support muscular maintenance and development.
Complete Vs Incomplete Proteins: The Best Sources of Plant Protein
You’ve probably heard someone talking about complete or incomplete proteins, but do you know what that means? Including both in your diet contributes to positive overall health and wellness, but how do you know the difference? Finding complete proteins in a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle can be hard because most complete proteins in a single food come from animal products, like meat and fish. Incomplete proteins must be combined with another incomplete protein, to make a complete protein.
Check it out – when you hear someone say complete or incomplete, they’re referring to the kinds of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle, in a given food(s). Plant protein sources do not always contain all of the essential amino acids in the required proportions, making them incomplete proteins. They’re missing, or do not have enough of, one or more of the essential amino acids, causing the protein source to become imbalanced.
Most of the protein sources on this list, while high in protein, are considered to be incomplete protein. Meaning they must be combined with another protein to make it complete.
Do Complete And Incomplete Proteins Matter?
Simply put, some proteins are better sources than others. Animo acids and branched chain amino acids perform various, important functions in the human body, like breaking down food, supporting the body’s growth, and repairing tissues.
There are 20 amino acids in total, nine of which are considered “essential” because they are unable to be made by the human body. In other words, they have to be consumed in the diet. As long as you’re eating an adequate balance and amount of incomplete proteins on a regular basis, your body will be able to consume enough amino acids to build muscle and maintain sufficient function of important biological processes.
If you’re looking to build muscle mass, then we recommend eating a robust amount of complete and incomplete proteins from both animal and plant-based sources, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t eat animal protein. Just know, that the more incomplete protein sources that you include in your diet, the better. The more complete protein sources you include, the better you’re going to build muscle mass. The bottom line? Make sure you’re getting enough amino acids on a daily basis from the best sources of plant protein below
The 11 Best Sources of Plant Protein
Tofu makes an awesome, protein-packed substitute for meat-laden dishes, on it’s own, or for a little post-workout protein punch in your shake. The production of tofu dates far longer than most of us know, all the way into the Western Han period (220-22 BCE) in China! When soybeans are pressurized after being soaked in water, there’s a whitish liquid that comes out called the “milk”. Tofu is traditionally obtained by coagulating the “milk” using nigiri (a natural marine compound), magnesium chloride (extracted from nigiri), calcium sulfate (gypsum), magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) or acids (lemon juice/vinegar). While tofu has a pretty plain flavor, it’s easily enhanced with spices and sauces as it’s very absorbent.
Tofu is an exception. It is complete, though it’s not considered as high-quality as animal sources. Oddly enough, soybeans, from which tofu is made, are considered very high-quality protein; tofu, however, is made from only the curds of soybeans.
Lentils are a great source of plant-based protein, especially for their size. In just 1 cup of lentils, you receive 36% of your recommended daily protein intake. Bet you didn’t know that lentils are considered a legume of the pea family! They’re native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and are not often grown in the western hemisphere. They can also be used as a replacement for pasta or starchy carbs. They have a low caloric content, fiber, and protein, keeping you satisfied and full throughout your day.
Mixing small amounts of complete proteins with lentils will provide you with a complete source of amino acids
Some hail tempeh as a nutritional superhero and we’re right there with them. The history of tempeh dates back more than 2,000 years to Indonesia, where it’s fermentation process takes cracked, cooked soybeans, and turns them into a meat-like consistency, full of protein, dietary fiber, calcium, phytochemical (isoflavones), iron and potassium. While isoflavones are found in other plants, like chickpeas, only soy provides the body with appreciable amounts. In most individuals, tempeh doesn’t cause GI discomfort and indigestion like some other variations of plant-based protein do, like vegan protein powder supplements, for example.
While beans are generally low in the amino acid methionine, soy is a complete protein and thoroughly deserves its status as the go-to substitute for the meat-free. Tempeh and natto are made by fermenting the beans and provide ~18 grams of protein per 1 cup serving.
I bet you couldn’t guess this strange green “superfood” was going to top the list for protein dense plants! Although to be fair, spirulina is more of a supplement than a food, and it’s difficult to get a significant amount of protein from it.
Spirulina is actually classified as a type of bacteria found in blue-green algae and is consumed primarily in supplement form through powders, capsules, and packaged foods.
It is fairly protein dense and low calorie, plus it contains notable amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron.
One tablespoon of spirulina has:
- 25 calories
- 0.5 grams of fat
- 1 gram of carbs
- 4 grams of protein
To get the protein benefits of spirulina, try adding a scoop to your morning smoothie or in other recipes for a small protein boost.
Made primarily from vital wheat protein (aka gluten), seitan is rarely gluten-free.
While vital wheat protein as an ingredient sounds strange, it’s super easy to come by. Seitan is made by washing wheat flour with water until all of the starch is removed and just the sticky, protein-rich components remain. This protein is then seasoned a bit and “beefed” up with some flour or starch to add the right texture and then viola!
One 4-ounce serving of seitan will get you:
- 200 calories
- 3 grams of fat
- 14 grams of carbs
- 30 grams of protein
Just like tofu and most other vegan “meats”, seitan takes on added flavors easily and works in most recipes as a meat substitute. Personally, I like it pan-fried or oven-baked the best!
Nutritional yeast works as a great cheese alternative for vegans that also has a solid amount of protein.
When used as a topping alone it can be hard to get high amounts of protein from this food, but when used in recipes like vegan mac and cheese, stirred into cooked quinoa, or blended with a tofu scramble, it adds a bit more.
It’s also a tremendous source of B-vitamins and folate.
A hefty 1/4 cup portion of nutritional yeast contains:
- 60 calories
- 0.5 grams of fat
- 5 grams of carbs
- 8 grams of protein
Use nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute in your favorite high protein vegan recipes!
Made from soy, soy milk is a source of complete protein. It is also one of the few non-dairy milk options that provide protein – most nut and grain milk have less than one gram of protein per serving.
Opting for soy milk can add a small amount of protein to recipes or to your beverage choice.
One cup of light, unsweetened soy milk has:
- 60 calories
- 2 grams of fat
- 5 grams of carbs
- 6 grams of protein
Look for non-sweetened flavor options to cut back on added sugar and calories!
It’s not surprising that whole soybeans are a source of protein considering so many vegan products are made from them. You can eat them on their own in the pods with a little bit of sea salt as a great protein snack option or use them in a variety of recipes paired with other veggies and protein-containing grains.
A 1/2 cup serving of edamame has:
- 90 calories
- 4 grams of fat
- 7 grams of carbs
- 8.5 grams of protein
Edamame also packs some iron, magnesium, and vitamin C. Moreover, soy is a complete protein, so edamame and other soy-containing products provide all of your essential amino acids!
Broccoli is one of the most protein dense veggies around, but you have to eat a lot of it to get a significant source of protein overall. Thus, this badass little veggie is best used as an additional protein boost to meals not as a sole meat substitute.
1 cup of broccoli has:
- 29 calories
- 3 grams of fat
- 6 grams of carbs
- 2.4 grams of protein
Because broccoli is low in calories, fat, and carbs, it works as a great small protein boost to meals without compromising your overall macro balance!
Beans are an old-school vegan protein that still stacks up quite a few benefits. Naturally gluten-free and soy-free, you can use them in just about any recipe.
To help cut back on carbs, consider using beans in place of other grains or starchy foods and pair them with some low-carb veggies and perhaps other vegan proteins to help balance out the macros further.
A 1/2 cup portion of cooked black beans has:
- 228 calories
- 1 gram of fat
- 41 grams of carbs
- 14.5 grams of protein
Beans are also a source of healthy fiber, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Hemp seeds are considered a complete protein and a source of healthy fats. They also contain a decent amount of iron and fiber.
Three tablespoons of hemp seeds provide:
- 160 calories
- 12 grams of fat
- 3 grams of carbs
- 10 grams of protein
Easily add hemp seeds as a topping to salads, grain bowls, or toasts to give your dish a little protein boost.
Bridging The Gaps In a Plant-Based Diet
Following a high-protein diet powered by plants just requires a small amount of planning and getting to know the protein-rich options you enjoy eating most. And getting good vegan meal prep is a great way to ensure you are always staying on track of your nutrition.
Feeling overwhelmed with planning, prepping, and balancing your vegan meals? Why not opt for a meal prep delivery service that has done all the hard work for you. We’ll send you high protein vegan meals right to your door, all you need to do is enjoy them!
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