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OK, so if you haven’t already jumped on the plant-based eating bandwagon, I’m sure you’re thinking about it. It’s no surprise that it’s blowing up these days. And that’s not just because it’s better for our environment but also because it has tons of health benefits like decreasing our waistline and risk of heart disease. But when it comes to eating more plants, you know it’s not as simple as just eating some veggies and calling it a day.
Protein is one nutrient that needs more attention because not all plant sources contain adequate amounts of plant protein. And because exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein, consuming enough from foods helps ensure we get all the amino acids needed to repair and rebuild these proteins — along with synthesizing new muscle tissue. So if you’re wondering what plant sources will give you the biggest muscle-building payoff, look no further as I’ve broken down the top eight protein-packed plant sources.
Did you know that a peanut isn’t even a nut? It’s actually a legume, which puts it in the same family as beans and lentils. So of course it’s no surprise that peanuts also share the same high-protein content, with almost 19 grams per ½-cup serving. They’re also rich in the B vitamin thiamine, which is needed to break down carbs and make energy.
Try it: Unsalted peanuts are great as snacks, with one small handful, or roughly 28 peanuts being one serving. They’re easy to toss into your favorite salad or stir-fry. But let’s be real, the best way to eat peanuts is in butter form, which you can easily make at home by pulsing peanuts in a powerful blender.
You’ve probably heard of quinoa being called a “super food.” That’s because it’s a nutrient powerhouse. It’s high in protein and fiber and loaded with tons of vitamins and minerals. And it’s actually a whole protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. This includes the three muscle-building branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. Just 1 cup of this edible seed contains 7.5 g of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 58 percent of your daily manganese needs, which is a cofactor needed for enzymes involved in energy metabolism.
Try it: Use it in place of rice in any of your beloved dishes at home, or toss it into salads, soups and wraps for added texture and nutty flavor. If you’re looking for something offbeat, use it in place of oatmeal in your breakfast bowls or as the base in a veggie-burger patty.
Pepitas aren’t just a trendy name for pumpkin seeds, they’re actually harvested from a specific hull-less pumpkin variety known as an oil seed or Styrian pumpkin. And while these green seeds are smaller in size than the typical white jack-o’-lantern seed, they sure don’t lack in protein. Just a ½ cup provides 19.5 grams of protein, which is more than two glasses of cow’s milk.
Try it: Mix them into your prized granola or protein bar recipe. They’re also delish roasted: Toss 1 to 2 cups with a little bit of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, and place on a baking sheet in a preheated oven at 350 F for about 10 to 15 minutes, and voilà — you’ve got yourself a delicious and protein-rich treat.
4. Chia Seeds
Don’t be fooled by their size. These tiny seeds pack a lot of punch. Just a ½ cup provides more than 15 grams of protein, which is more than two hard-boiled eggs. They’re also rich in antioxidants, which protect your cells from oxidative stress. And they contain those good-for-you omega-3 fats, which act as a vasodilator, helping to move oxygen into your muscles during exercise.
Try it: These little bad boys are super versatile. You can easily add them to your cereals, smoothies or salads, but for more fun, you can use them in your vegan baking. Sub an egg with 1 tablespoon of chia seeds mixed with 3 tablespoons of water, letting the mixture sit for about 15 to 20 minutes before use.
Popular in Indonesia, this nutritious food is made from fermenting soybeans. And although it hasn’t gained a ton of traction in North America yet, I’m sure that’s about to change. One cup contains a whopping 33 grams of protein — that’s more than a standard 3-ounce chicken breast. It’s also a good source of phosphorus, calcium and manganese, all of which help keep your bones healthy and strong.
Try it: Tempeh is naturally pretty bland, but it takes well to any marinade like peanut butter or low-sodium soy sauce. This gives it endless uses in soups, salads or stir-fries. Try it blackened: Cut into strips and toss with some blackening spices, then sear on medium heat for a few minutes on each side before adding to your bowl or salad.
Ahhh, the dreaded tofu. It’s one of those things that you either love or hate. Those who despise it probably didn’t make it right the first time. It’s basically just condensed soy milk that’s pressed into white blocks. So it’s naturally flavorless but can absorb the spice or taste of just about anything. And because it’s made from soybeans, it’s high in plant-based protein, containing 20 grams in 1 cup, of which 1.8 grams is leucine — a BCAA that directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
Try it: Use it in place of eggs in a breakfast scramble or in place of meat in any of your usual dishes. It’s great when added to a veggie-rich noodle or rice-based stir-fry. And if you’ve never tried the soft versions, blend with some fruit and fluid for a high-protein postworkout smoothie.
I’m sure it’s no surprise that almonds made the list. These nutrient-dense seeds from the almond tree get a lot of respect from fitness lovers. And how could they not? They’re an excellent source of plant-based protein, packing packing 14 grams in a ½ cup. They’re also rich in the antioxidant vitamin E and loaded with magnesium, which helps to maintain normal nerve and muscle function — along with being vital in energy production and storage.
Try it: You can buy them whole, slivered, flaked, chopped, as butter or even milled as flour. There’s endless ways to reap the benefits, so try tossing them into your baking, cereals, stir-fries or pasta dishes. But be wary of the milk version because it doesn’t contain the same protein punch — it’s only got 1 gram per cup.
8. Black Beans
Yes, these little black beans may give you some gas, but in exchange, they’ll gift you with an impressive 16 grams of protein in 1 cup. Another bonus: They’ve got a great protein-carbohydrate combination, which is important for fueling your cells and repairing your muscle fibers after exercise. They’re also low in fat with tons of vitamins and minerals, including being a good source of folate, which is crucial for red blood cell production.
Try it: Add them to your favorite salad or soup, or use them as your base ingredient in a burrito. For an easy weeknight meal, place a drained and rinsed can of black beans in a small pot on the stove and heat to medium. Add in chopped tomatoes, green peppers, chilies and lime juice, along with whatever other spices or veggies you desire, and cook 5 to 10 minutes. Serve warm over cooked quinoa, which you now know will give you even more protein.