There’s no denying that our culture is obsessed with eating protein. So it should come as no surprise that vegans and vegetarians are constantly questioned about going meat-free—despite the fact that neither diet by definition is lacking in the muscle-building nutrient. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you know exactly what we’re talking about—and you’re tired of getting asked questions about the sources and quantity of your protein intake.
Here’s what you need to know: Incomplete proteins—like whole grains, nuts and produce—can join together and produce a complete protein, packed with all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, so as long as you consume various sources throughout the day, you’re all good!
To help you stay healthy and strong, we’ve compiled a list of the best vegetarian proteins for weight loss below. Incorporating them into your diet will ward off symptoms of protein deficiency—like low blood sugar and weakness—and fuel that flat belly fire!
Best Complete Protein Foods
These vegan protein sources are all animal-free and contain all nine essential amino acids.
1. Chia Seeds
Protein, per tablespoon: 2.5 grams
Though chia seeds don’t contain that much protein, they do contain all nine essential amino acids. Thanks to the seeds’ blood-sugar stabilizing ratio of satiating protein, fats and fiber, they’re the perfect hunger-busting addition to your diet, and can help you lose inches. But that’s not all: ALAs, the specific type of omega-3s found in chia seeds, can decrease the risk of heart disease, according to a Pennsylvania State University study.
Eat This! Add chia seeds to yogurt or a homemade vegan smoothie to keep your energy levels soaring all morning long—or try any of these 50 chia seed recipes for weight loss!
2. Soybeans & Soy Products
Protein, per ½ cup: 2-21 grams
- Steamed soybeans (4 g protein/0.5 cup)
- Tofu (10 g protein/0.5 cup)
- Soy milk (2 g protein/0.5 cup)
So many ways to eat soybeans, so little time! To get the most bang for your buck, make tempeh, a traditional Indonesian fermented soy product, part of your weekly lineup. A mere half-cup of the stuff packs in 21 grams of protein. Another solid bet: dry roasted soybeans. With a half-cup serving up a whopping 18 grams of protein, it’s one of the best snacks around. All soy products provide a solid hit of complete proteins and magnesium, a mineral that’s essential to muscle development, energy production and carb metabolism
Eat This! Eat roasted soybeans solo as an on-the-go snack, or add them to homemade trail mixes. Slice and pan-fry tempeh and use it in lieu of meat on a sandwich, order edamame (steamed soybeans) as an appetizer next time you’re at a Japanese restaurant, or add soy milk to your oatmeal.
3. Hemp Seed
Protein, per tablespoon: 3.3 grams
The hemp seed — marijuana’s edible, non-intoxicating cousin — is gaining recognition as a nutritional rock star—and for good reason. Studies suggest that hemp seeds can fight heart disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, likely because they’re rich in fiber and omega-3s.
Eat This! Simply sprinkle the hemp seeds into salads and cereals, or add hemp protein powder to your post-workout shake.
Protein, per ½ cup: 4 grams
With more than 1,400 quinoa products currently on the market, it’s safe to say that the ancient grain is here to stay. Quinoa is higher in protein than most other grains, packs a hefty dose of heart-healthy unsaturated fats and is also a great source of fiber, a nutrient that can help you feel fuller, longer. It gets better: The mild-tasting grain is also a good source of the amino acid L-arginine, which has been shown to promote muscle over fat gain in animal studies, explains Gina Consalvo, RD, LDN, Eat Well with Gina. Though we can’t be sure findings will hold true in people, it can’t hurt to add more of this healthy grain to your plate.
Eat This! Give quinoa bowls a try or pair the ancient grain with veggies beans to create a well-balanced meal, use the grain to make a veggie burger or up the flavor and nutrient content of a green salad with a scoop.
5. Ezekiel Bread
Protein, per slice: 4 grams
“Made with sprouted grains, wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt, [Food for Life’s] Ezekiel Bread contains 18 amino acids—including all of the nine essential amino acids,” says Consalvo. That’s something most other bread products can’t claim. Making this your go-to sandwich base ensures you get at least 8 grams of complete proteins every time you sit down to lunch.
Eat This! Use Ezekiel Bread any way you’d use traditional bread; it’s extremely versatile. (That’s just one of the reasons why we named it one of our favorite healthy breads.)
Protein, per ½ cup: 4.67 grams
Quinoa isn’t the only “ancient grain” that comes loaded with health perks. Amaranth, a naturally gluten-free seed, is a good source of digestion-aiding fiber, as well as calcium and bicep-building iron.
Eat This! Amaranth takes on a porridge-like texture when cooked, making it a great alternative breakfast option. Whip up a batch and be sure to top off your bowl with some tasty, nutrient-packed oatmeal toppings—they work well in all types of hot cereals, including porridge.
The Best Vegan Protein Sources
The following vegan protein foods are not complete proteins, but they are good sources of protein.
Protein, per tablespoon: 1.1 grams
“Garbanzo beans are high in lysine, and tahini is a rich source of the amino acid methionine. Individually these foods are incomplete proteins, but when you combine the two together to make hummus, they create a complete protein,” explains Consalvo. Just be aware that not all store-bought hummus brands contain tahini. One that does: Pacific Foods Organic Classic Hummus. It’s not only tahini-infused, but also shelf-stable, making it ideal for on-the-go snacking.
Eat This! Spread hummus onto sandwiches in lieu of mustard, mayo and other spreads, or use it as a dip for raw veggies.
Protein, per ½ cup, cooked: 3 grams
Every half-cup serving of this gluten-free seed packs three grams of protein, two grams of belly-flattening fiber (which is more than you’ll find in oatmeal) and half the day’s magnesium, a mineral that’s essential to muscle development and carb metabolism. What’s more, a 2013 study in the Journal of Nutritionfound that higher magnesium intake was associated with lower levels of fasting glucose and insulin, markers related to fat and weight gain. Fill up your plate with the nutritional powerhouse to maintain your flat stomach.
Eat This! Add buckwheat-based Japanese soba noodles to stir-fries or whip up these savory buckwheat pancakes—the tomato avocado salsa with which it’s paired is overflowing with flavors you’re sure to love.
Protein per cup, cooked: 5 grams
One cup of spinach has almost as much protein as a hard-boiled egg—for half the calories! Maximize its nutrition by steaming spinach instead of eating it raw: That helps retain vitamins, facilitate absorption of calcium and wards off the veggie’s bloating effects.
Eat This! Add spinach to your salads, stir-fries and omelets. It’s super versatile.
10. Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Protein per cup: 6 grams
Tomatoes are brimming with lycopene, an antioxidant which studies show can decrease your risk of bladder, lung, prostate, skin, and stomach cancers, and reduce your chances of developing coronary artery disease. They’re also rich in fiber and contain ¾ of your RDA of potassium, which is essential for heart health and tissue repair.
Eat This! Throw ’em onto sandwiches and burgers or add them to a homemade salsa.
Protein per cup: 4.2 grams
The tropical highest-protein fruit, guava packs more than 4 grams per cup, along with 9 grams of fiber and only 112 calories. With 600% of your DV of Vitamin C per cup — the equivalent of more than seven medium oranges! — it should merengue its way into your shopping cart ASAP.
Eat This! Add guava to your morning fruit salad or enjoy it solo as a snack.
Protein per medium vegetable: 4.2 grams
Eating foods high in protein and fiber are key to turning off your body’s hunger hormones. The artichoke is a double winner: It has almost twice as much fiber as kale (10.3 g per medium artichoke, or 40% of the daily fiber the average woman needs) and one of the highest protein counts among vegetables.
Protein per cup: 8 grams
It’s enough to make Popeye do a spit take: Peas might seem wimpy, but one cup contains eight times the protein of a cup of spinach. And with almost 100% of your daily value of vitamin C in a single cup, they’ll help keep your immune system in tip-top shape.
Eat This! Add peas, onion, garlic and some low-sodium chicken stock to a greased saute pan and season with salt and pepper. Cook until veggies are wilted and warm and serve as a side dish.
Protein per 1/2 cup: 7-10 grams
Not only are beans rich in protein and nutrients that benefit your heart, brain and muscles, they digest slowly, helping you feel fuller longer. They’re a superfood you should eat daily.
Eat This! Beans make a great addition to salad and homemade veggie burgers.
Protein per cup: 18 grams
If you’re an anti-meathead, you should warm up to lentils ASAP. One cup has the protein of three eggs, with less than one gram of fat! Their high fiber content makes them extremely satiating, and studies have shown that they speed fat loss: Spanish researchers found that people whose diets included four weekly servings of legumes lost more weight and improved their cholesterol more than people who didn’t.
Eat This! Toss ’em into a soup—we’ve got some awesome, high protein recipes you’re sure to love.
16. Peanut Butter
Protein per 2 tablespoons: 7 grams
Although eating too much peanut butter can widen your waist, a standard two-tablespoon serving provides a solid dose of muscle-building protein and healthy fats. According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming peanuts can prevent both cardiovascular and coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart condition. Look for the unsalted, no sugar added varieties without hydrogenated oils to reap the most benefits.
Eat This! Add PB into your go-to weight loss smoothies for a creamy treat.
Protein per 1/4 cup: 7 grams
This obscure grain is ready for its close-up, and it’ll help your beach body get there too. It’s rich in essential amino acids, calcium and vitamin C—a nutrient not typically found in grains.
Eat This! To reap the benefits, trade your morning oatmeal in for a protein-packed teff porridge, or cook it up as a side dish anytime you’d usually go for quinoa or rice.
Protein per 1/4 cup: 6 grams
While you may have never heard of this hearty whole grain before, it may become your new favorite. This wheat-rye hybrid packs 12 grams of protein per half cup and is also rich in brain-boosting iron, bloat-busting potassium, magnesium and heart-healthy fiber.
Eat This! Use triticale berries in place of rice and mix it with soy sauce, fresh ginger, cloves, shiitake mushrooms and edamame to make a healthy, Asian-inspired dish. If you prefer to firing up the oven to using the stove, use triticale flour in place of traditional flour in your baking.
19. Shelled Pumpkin Seeds
Protein per oz: 9 grams
If you only think of pumpkin seeds as gourd guts, you’re in for a literal treat. They contain energy-boosting magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. And surprise, surprise, they’re filled with protein.
Eat This! Throw them into salads and rice dishes or eat them raw. You can also try one of these healthy pumpkin recipes to mix things up!
Protein per oz: 6 grams
Think of almonds as a natural weight-loss pill. A study of overweight and obese adults found that combined with a calorie-restricted diet, consuming a little more than a quarter-cup of the nuts can decrease weight more effectively than a snack of complex carbohydrates and safflower oil—after just two weeks! (And after 24 weeks, those who ate the nuts experienced a 62% greater reduction in weight and BMI!)
Eat This! Eat your daily serving before you hit the gym. Because they’re rich in the amino acid L-arginine, almonds can help you burn more fat and carbs during workouts, according to a study printed in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Protein per oz: 5 grams
You probably know that almonds are a great go-to snack, but you should mix cashews into the rotation. They’re a good source of magnesium—which helps your body relieve constipation, boosts the immune system and supports cognitive function—and biotin, which helps keep your hair and nails healthy.
22. Chickpea Pasta
Protein per 2 oz: 14 grams
This delicious pasta, made with chickpeas, has double the protein and half the carbs of traditional noodles. It also has 8 grams of fiber and 30% of your iron RDA per serving.
Eat This! Cook and eat the same way you’d enjoy “regular” pasta.
23. Vegan Protein Powder
Protein per scoop: 15 to 20 grams
Eating veggies—and supplementing with vegan protein powder shakes—is one of the best ways to burn fat. A study in Nutrition Journal found that “plant protein intakes may play a role in preventing obesity.” We love Vega One All-in-One Nutritional Shake, Vega Sport Performance Protein, and Sunwarrior Warrior Blend.
Drink This! Blend up one of these healthy protein shakes!
Best Vegetarian Sources of Protein
Unlike vegan protein sources, vegetarian protein sources can include dairy products as well as eggs.
Protein, per egg: 6 grams
With 6 grams of protein a pop, eggs are an ideal food for vegetarians and omnivores alike who want to stay swimsuit-ready all year round. Their protein fuels your muscles, boosts metabolism and keeps hunger under control, aiding weight loss. Eggs are also one of the most nutrient-filled vegetarian protein sources around. “Eggs contain a host of health-promoting and flat-belly nutrients including choline, a major fat-burning nutrient that also plays an important role in brain health,” says Consalvo.
Eat This! Eggs can anchor a breakfast, slide into a sandwich at lunch, beef up a dinnertime salad, or even serve as a protein-filled snack on their own.
25. 2% Greek Yogurt
Protein per 7 oz: 20 grams
If you’re looking to lose weight and/or build muscle, yogurt should be a staple in your diet. A study printed in the Journal of Nutrition found that probiotics like the ones found in yogurt helped obese women lose nearly twice the weight compared to those who did not consume probiotics. Choose wisely: Skip over low-fat and fat-free—they’re skimmed of nutrients and satiating power—and flavored yogurts, which can contain almost as much sugar as a dessert.
26. 1% Organic, Grass-Fed Milk
Protein per cup: 8 grams
Milk is one of the foods you should always buy organic. Organically raised cows aren’t given the same hormones and antibiotics that conventional cows are, and grass-fed cows have been shown to have higher levels of good omega-3 fatty acids and two to five times more lean muscle-building CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their corn- and grain-fed counterparts. Although skim milk is low-cal, many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means you’re cheating yourself out of their benefits unless you opt for at least 1%.