There seems to be a common misconception that people who eat plant-based have to be super careful about their protein intake. This leads people to believe that they need to be downing protein shakes, inhaling protein bars and adding protein powder to everything they can. I’m here to tell you that none of that is necessary. You can get all of your protein needs met with simple plant foods and it doesn’t require any special combining or supplementation. So, before you spend a fortune on a tub of powder full of questionable ingredients, let’s go over 12 foods that you can eat or add to your smoothie, instead of protein powder.
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are delicious little green seeds found in pumpkins and different kinds of squash. These tasty little seeds are full of fibre and iron. One-third of a cup will net you 15 grams of protein and 30% of your daily recommended intake of iron, making them an excellent alternative to protein powder. They are also a fantastic source of other minerals like magnesium and zinc. With a high tryptophan content, they may also help boost your mood by increasing serotonin production. Not too shabby!
There are lots of easy ways to incorporate these little gems into your diet. You can toss some pumpkin seeds into your smoothie, or just eat them as a snack. They also make a great addition to smoothie or oatmeal bowls, salads, soups, granola or trail mix. You can even soak them and blend with some water to make pepita milk.
If you haven’t heard of it before, tempeh is made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a block. The resulting texture is firm and meaty, which makes it an excellent substitute for meat in many dishes. The bonus is, it’s high in fibre, whereas meat has none, so you’re already winning. It’s also high in protein, about 16 grams per half-cup serving, which makes it an excellent substitute for protein powder.
Tempeh cooks up really quickly too. Marinate or flavour it however you like, slice it up and it can be sautéed in a few minutes per side, or baked in the oven. Add it to salads, bowls, sandwiches, wraps, or even stews. The sky is the limit.
Hemp hearts are shelled hemp seeds and these little seeds are packed with good nutrition. Three tablespoons offer up 10 grams of protein as well as other vital minerals like iron and magnesium. They also contain a great ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, at about 3.5:1. (Remember, the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4:1 or less). Their omega-3 content is beneficial for both the brain and heart and can help fight inflammation in the body.
Hemp hearts are also very easy to incorporate into your diet. They have a mild, slightly nutty flavour so they can be added to smoothies, in place of protein powder. They’re also great sprinkled on salad, made into hemp milk or incorporated into dressings, sauces and baked goods.
Tofu is another protein-rich plant food. With about 10 grams of protein in every half-cup serving, this is a great addition for anyone concerned about their protein intake. I know some people seem to be afraid of soy products, but there’s no need to be, especially those that aren’t highly processed (like soy-based protein powders). Soy products, like soybeans, tofu, soy milk etc. are actually linked to better survival rates and lower recurrence rates for women with breast cancer. Generally speaking, the only people who need to avoid eating soy products are those who are allergic to soy.
Tofu is highly versatile and comes in a number of different types and textures. This makes it really easy to incorporate in any way you wish. Soft or silken tofu can be used in desserts and smoothies, while firm or extra-firm varieties can be cooked in a number of pleasing ways. Tofu scramble, tofu crumble, baked tofu and more.
Lentils are easily one of my favourite plant proteins. Like other legumes, they help control changes in blood sugar caused by the meal they are eaten with, and the next meal as well. So, if you were to follow up your lentil soup with a big slice of cake, the spike in your blood sugar from the cake would be blunted by the lentils. (The same is true for beans as well). They contain about 9 grams of protein per half-cup serving, but that’s not all. They’re also high in fibre, iron and other important minerals.
The nice thing about lentils is they are a great starting point for those who don’t like beans. They are smaller, and some varieties are even split, which makes a good entry point for those who struggle with the texture of larger beans. Lentils can be enjoyed in a number of ways. Toss them in a grain bowl, sprinkle them over a salad, add them to a soup or get creative and make them into ‘meat’ balls or lentil loaf.
Ditch that highly processed mystery powder and try these healthy plant-based alternatives instead.
Tofu and tempeh both made the list, so it’s no surprise that edamame does as well. Edamame is just immature soybeans. You can snack on them on their own, toss them into bowls or salads and even blend them up to make a dip from. With roughly 8.5 grams of protein per ½ cup, they definitely fit the bill as a great alternative to protein powder.
Soy Milk & Yogurt
While we’re on the topic of soy-based foods, I’ll make a quick mention here of soy milk. While not as high in protein as some of the other items on the list, 1 cup contains about 8 grams. So, if you were to make that post-workout smoothie with a cup of soy milk as the base, you’d have the beginnings of a very protein-rich drink. Toss in some of the other items on the list and you’re good to go! Who needs protein powder?
Soy yogurt is another great add-in. Not only does it contain 5 grams of protein per half-cup serving, but it also contains probiotics to help out your healthy gut bacteria. Just check the label on the brand you choose. Some contain lots of sugar. It’s always suggested to get an unsweetened variety and add some fruit for sweetness if you so desire.
Have you tried nutritional yeast yet? If not, you’re missing out. Nutritional yeast or ‘nooch’ is a deactivated yeast that is commonly used in plant-based cooking. It has a slightly cheesy flavour that makes it a great topping for pizza and other meals. It’s also a common ingredient in nut-based cheeses or sauces.
With 8 grams of protein for every 1.5 tablespoons, nooch is a great sub for protein powder. Sprinkle it over your meals, or mix it into soups and sauces to add some depth of flavour. Easy peasy.
Nut & Seed Butters
Who doesn’t love a creamy and delicious nut butter? A staple for the young kids, a good ole PB&J is actually a pretty protein-rich choice for the picky crowd. Most nut and seed butters contain a good amount of protein, though the exact amounts vary by nut.
To give you an idea, two tablespoons of peanut butter contain about 8 grams of protein. Tahini and sunflower butter (great for those allergic to nuts) come in at about 7 grams and almond butter contains about 6 grams for every 2 tablespoons. These are always easy to incorporate in your diet, whether on a slice of whole grain toast, blended into your smoothie or in dressings and sauces. Or, if you’d prefer, noshing on the nuts and seeds themselves.
Beans, beans the magical fruit…. Known for their ability to produce gaseous emissions in humans, these little gems are protein and mineral rich. They’re also high in fibre, which acts as a pre-biotic to our healthy gut bacteria. When those good bacteria flourish, we experience great digestion.
Beans and legumes, in general, have been linked to all kinds of health benefits like lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, improving blood sugar control and even slimming down. It’s no wonder that it’s recommended to consume beans, not weekly, not daily, but with every meal!
They’re all a little different nutritionally, but they generally contain 7-8g of protein in every half-cup. Toss some on your salad, roll some up in your burrito, blend some up into hummus or even toss some into your smoothie. It’s not hard to incorporate these healthy legumes in your diet.
Here’s one you may not have expected. Most people know that oats are high in fibre, but they also contain ample amounts of protein. Oats are well known for their soluble fibre content. Soluble fibre is the kind that forms a gel in water and works to help remove excess cholesterol from your bloodstream. Gotta love food that takes care of you, right?
With 6 grams of protein per half-cup serving, oats make a great post-workout meal. Have some oatmeal with a splash of soy milk and a sprinkling of hemp hearts and you’ve got a protein-rich meal. Not feeling oatmeal? No problem. You can also toss some oats into your smoothie and call it a day.
Chia seeds pack a ton of nutrition in a tiny little seed. These beauties are high in fibre and protein, and also a good source of calcium and omega-3s. But that is not where the benefits end. Chia seeds are also high in antioxidants, which help fight free-radical damage in the body. That’s a lot to pack into these tiny little seeds. Three tablespoons will net you about 5 grams of protein.
Chia seeds don’t have much flavour, which makes them really easy to incorporate into your diet. Toss them into your smoothie or bowl of oats. You can also make chia seed puddings with them, as they will thicken in liquid. This thickening also makes them a great substitute for eggs in baking. Just mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water and let sit for a few minutes until it forms a gel. Then add to your batter and continue as the recipe directs.
The Bottom Line
Despite what many believe, there is tons of protein in plant-based foods. So there is no need to supplement with expensive and highly refined protein powders, even if your goal is to bulk up. The problem with a lot of these supplements and powders is that they don’t behave in the body the same way that whole foods do. The packaging will be selling you on the health benefits of the whole food, even when those benefits often aren’t seen when ingesting a highly processed form. When it comes to nutrition, nature is queen. Eating as close to nature as possible will ensure you reap all the health benefits associated with those foods. Plus, let’s be real here, most protein powders taste terrible and need to be doctored up with other things to make them even remotely drinkable. So, save yourself the money and incorporate some of these protein-rich plants instead.
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