15 Simple, Affordable, and Protein Rich Combinations of Plant Foods
August 14, 2015

Plant Based Protein Combinations 2

No matter how often vegans are instructed not to worry about protein, it’s an issue that tends to come up again and again. It can be tempting to laugh the protein question off, because plant-based diets do provide all of the protein that folks need.

But I think it’s important to keep the dialog about protein going. For one thing, there are a lot of conflicting opinions about how much protein is necessary, both for everyday needs and also to support fitness goals. It’s also one thing to hear an estimate of how much protein is advisable, and quite another to actually go about sourcing that protein with real, everyday meals.

If plant based eating is new to you, then it can be an additional challenge to translate what you know about protein already over to a new eating paradigm. Perhaps you know exactly how much protein is in Greek yogurt or tuna or chicken, but you’re not really sure about the protein in legumes or grains or nuts.

This is an issue that surfaces often with my clients. It’s not that they’re all nervous Nellies about protein; it’s simply that they’re new to plant based eating, and they’re not entirely sure where protein should come from and how much of it their favorite plant foods contain. Is hummus a good source of protein? What about nuts? Is it necessary to use protein powder? Are complete proteins something to worry about? These are questions I often talk through with my clients, and once we do, the issue becomes a lot clearer.

So, how much protein should we get each day? Dietary reference intakes put forward by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, suggest 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight for adult men and women (in other words, protein needs are proportional to weight, and not to total energy intake) (1, 2). Plant protein can be slightly more difficult to absorb than animal protein, so some vegan dietitians suggest getting 0.9 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (3). This comes to about 0.41 grams per pound. For a 150-pound woman, this would mean about 61.5 grams daily.

The USDA’s Choose My Plate site, which provides nutrition information to industry professionals and consumers, frames the issue a little differently. That site’s recommendation is in ounce equivalents per day. The recommendation for women age 19-30 is 5.5 ounce equivalents per day. For women 31-50, it’s 5 ounce equivalents per day, and the same is true for 51+. For men aged 31-50, it’s 6 ounce equivalents per day.

If you’re curious about how “ounce equivalents” work, here’s a short list of foods that are equal to one or two ounce equivalents, taken directly from the USDA resources:

Nuts and Seeds

1/2 ounce of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves)
1/2 ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)
1 Tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter
1 ounce of nuts of seeds = 2 ounce equivalents

Beans and Peas

1/4 cup of cooked beans (such as black, kidney, pinto, or white beans)
1/4 cup of cooked peas (such as chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, or split peas)
1/4 cup of baked beans, refried beans
1 falafel patty (2 1/4″, 4 oz)
2 Tablespoons hummus

Soy Foods

1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu
1 ox. tempeh, cooked
1/4 cup roasted soybeans

Soups and Burgers

1 cup split pea soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 cup lentil soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 cup bean soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 soy or bean burger patty = 2 ounce equivalents

OK, so how to make sense of this?

Personally, I find it easier to think about protein in terms of a daily recommendation in grams, rather than ounce equivalents. I think all of the 1-ounce equivalents listed above are easy to source on a vegan diet, but for whatever reason, I find the gram system a little more intuitive. If you’re navigating your own protein needs, you can go by the system that feels sensible to you.

If we’re aiming for, say, 60 grams of protein daily (as per the above example), the next challenge becomes distributing that amount of protein through one’s daily diet. Let’s say you’re having 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily: that would probably break down to 15 or so grams of protein with each meal, and 5 with each snack — give or take, because of course it’s fine to have a little more protein with one meal or snack than with another.

The next step is familiarizing yourself with protein quantities in your favorite foods. When I sit down with a new client, I often provide him or her with a short list of protein counts for some common plant foods. Here’s a sampling:

Tempeh, 3 ounces: 17 grams
Tofu, 4 ounces: 12 grams
Edamame, ½ cup, shelled and steamed: 9 grams
Quinoa, 1 cup, cooked: 8 grams
Buckwheat, 1 cup, cooked: 5 grams
Oat bran, 1 cup, cooked: 7 grams
Rolled oats, ½ cup, cooked or raw: 5 grams
Sprouted grain bread, 2 slices: 8 grams
Almonds, 1 ounce (about ¼ cup), raw: 6 grams
Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons: 7 grams
Hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds), 3 tablespoons: 10 grams
Nutritional yeast, 2 tablespoons: 8 grams
Lentils, ½ cup, cooked: 9 grams
Chickpeas, ½ cup, cooked: 7 grams
Black beans, ½ cup, cooked: 8 grams
Seitan, 1/3 cup, cooked: 21 grams
Broccoli, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
Kale, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
Collard greens, 1 cup, steamed: 5 grams
Hummus, ¼ cup = 5 grams
Beyond Meat chicken strips, 6 strips = 20 grams
Butler Soy Curls, 30 grams = 10 grams

I’m often asked whether or not it’s necessary to get a “complete” protein with each meal. Complete proteins contain all of the amino acids that human beings need to source from food. It was once thought that vegetarians and vegans had to get complete proteins with each meal, either through a single food that’s a complete protein on its own, like tofu or quinoa, or through a combinations of foods (rice and beans is a well known example). Recent nutrition research suggests that a complete protein with each meal isn’t necessary; so long as one gets all of the amino acids overall, day in and day out, the body can assemble complete proteins efficiently.

Nevertheless, I think it can be limiting to think about protein only in terms of single ingredients and what they provide. So, I often give my clients the following list of protein rich food combinations. Check it out. You may be surprised at how simple, accessible, and appealing these combinations are. You may be eating a lot of them on you own already!

Plant Based Protein Combinations 7

1 cup cooked rolled oats +  2 tablespoons peanut butter = 12 grams
4 ounces tofu + 1 cup steamed kale = 15 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 1

½ cup lentils + 1 cup steamed broccoli = 12 grams
3 ounces tempeh + 1 cup cooked collard greens = 22 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 3

1 cup cooked buckwheat + 1 ounce almonds = 11 grams
1/3 cup seitan + 1 cup steamed kale = 24 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 2

1 cup cooked quinoa + 3 tablespoons hemp hearts = 18 grams
2 slices sprouted grain bread + ¼ cup hummus = 13 grams
1/2 cup roasted chickpeas + 1 ounce almonds + 2 tablespoons raisins (inspired by my favorite homemade trail mix) = 14 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 5

2 slices sprouted grain bread + 2 tablespoons peanut butter = 15 grams
1/2 cup cooked lentils + 1 cup cooked quinoa = 17 grams
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds + 1 cup cooked broccoli = 12 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 6
1 cup cooked quinoa + ½ cup cooked black beans = 16 grams
½ cup edamame + 1 cup cooked quinoa = 21 grams
1 cup cooked steel cut oats + 1/2 ounce almonds + 1/2 ounce goji berries = 10 grams

Plant Based Protein Combinations 4

1 cup cooked oat bran + 1 ounce almonds = 13 grams

Of course, when it comes to protein–as with any other nutrition question–individual needs can vary quite dramatically. While the Institute of Medicine and USDA guidelines are reasonable for most people, and while I’ve found them to be successful for most clients, protein needs can certainly shift around with activity level, health circumstances, and other unique factors.

Sometimes a person simply feels better when he or she exceeds the “standard” amount of recommended protein–which is also fine. If you believe that more protein works better for your body, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get an extra ounce equivalent or some extra grams daily. The point of this post is not to suggest that one size fits all, but rather to show you that getting a reasonable amount of protein is perfectly achievable with simple combinations of plant-based foods.

You’ll notice that I didn’t include protein powders on the list. This isn’t because I have anything against them, but rather because I think it’s important for folks to realize that they’re not 100% necessary for plant-based eaters (or for anyone who’s being mindful of protein). They certainly have a place: for example, they can be convenient during travel, or during busy periods of time in which balanced eating is a challenge. And they’re great for an extra boost. Just know that there are a lot of ways to source protein with simple, affordable foods that you probably have sitting in your pantry, or marinating in a grain salad in the fridge 🙂

I hope this post is helpful! Questions, comments, and personal experiences are welcome, as are suggestions based on your own favorite high protein plant food combinations.

On that note, I’m visiting family this weekend, so it’s time to get back to catch up time. I wish you all a lovely Friday, and I’ll see you on Sunday for some weekend reading.

xo

1. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

2. Donald K Layman. Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2009; 6: 12.

3. Messina, Virginia, and Norris, Jack. Vegan for Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books, July 12, 2011.

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    34 Comments
  1. I recently decided to stop eating animal based foods. Amazingly enough it has been pretty easy. I am over a week now. My concern is how to mix veggies with beers, rice, nuts to get enough protein. I read what you wrote and find it very useful.
    So I will make a list and learn it. I also know that if I eat more protein is OK.
    Thanks a lot for the post.

    PD: what about barley? Did not see it listed any place.

  2. Hello,

    What can I eat with hemp protein powder and also pumpkin protein powders to make them complete proteins? Say for 30 grams of each powder how many grams of what foods?

  3. Hey Gena! I’m an RD and was looking online for a good compilation of vegetarian protein sources for a client. I’ve read your blog for years and I came upon this post. So great–thank you for making this! How are your nutrition courses going?

  4. Thank you for breaking the foods into grams, I just started counting macros and this will make my life easier. Is eating too much soy really that bad? I limit my soy options to tofu and tempeh (occasionally mock meats), but I’m afraid to eat soy. What do you recommend? I don’t have allergies, I’m just cautious.

    • I think that soy is an incredibly healthful and important food within the plant based paradigm, Adie. Research points to many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties, cholesterol lowering associations, easily assimilated protein, loads of calcium (in fortified brands), and a preventive effect against several cancers.

      Of course, it’s wiser to seek out tofu, tempeh, edamame, and other high quality soy foods in lieu of the soy by-products that tend to pervade processed foods, but I also enjoy soy milk, soy yogurt, and Beyond Meat strips.

      There is no determined recommendation on servings per week, but several excellent and well researched papers have suggested up to two servings daily can provide health benefits. For the sake of variety among different types of legumes, I’d suggest something closer to 4-6 servings weekly, but that certainly would not be a hard recommendation.

  5. I really do appreciate this post. I think the “where do you get your protein?” question is an entirely legitimate one, and yet, it’s one I learned to scoff at when I got into raw foods some years ago. It’s not hard to get protein on an omnivorous diet, so I do think it behooves vegans, while making the case against eating animals, to tell folks what to eat instead. Because the “detox” version of the vegan diet (no soy, no legumes, no nuts/nut butter, no grains) is ridiculously low in protein and I was keeling over after a few years of it (despite never being very strict about it :-)). Only when I added in protein powder and cooked legumes – both of which I started to crave as soon as I added them back – a sign, I think, that I was missing something they offered – did I regain any sense of normalcy. And now I’m eating oatmeal too, and higher protein nrg bars (one by Go Macro that I like).

    The thing is, you do feel initially do much better on the detox diet – because digestion improves so much – that you don’t notice when it stops working and you’re wasting away – you almost don’t believe your own symptoms. At least that was my case. I’m a bit older too, and I think you just don’t get away with eating badly when you’re older like you do when you’re younger. I also ended up deficient in B12 (which I corrected with Now Foods liquid B12 in less than a year), vitamin D (harder to build back, so still supplementing it) and iron. My ferritin levels were 9 (not kidding – and I was never 100% vegan – always included some dairy). I’m taking a supplement called MegaFood Blood Builder about which I can’t say enough good things. The only supplement I’ve every taken where I could feel the difference, almost immediately. Not surprised at all to discover it’s MegaFood’s most popular product.

    I still have to pay attention to make sure I”m getting enough protein because if I just eat the way I’m inclined (smoothie, juice or tonic in the AM, some kind of energy bar with tea or fruit for lunch, salad for dinner, I don’t get enough. And I do feel it.

    • Thank you for your suggestions. I will purchase the MegaFoods product. My platelet count is low, so I’m hoping it might help.

  6. Gena, Thanks so much for posting this! I’m a CrossFit Level 1 trainer and I often get questions from athletes that are vegan or vegetarian and trying to figure out what their protein options are. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I practice a plant based diet, as well. This was great info! I’ll be passing this on to my clients, and using this info in my home kitchen too!

  7. I’m glad I found your blog through Food 52. I am A nutritional therapist student and a new plant based water. All these informations are very helpful. Good luck with the upcoming book

  8. This was a great post, Gena! Thank you for the combination ideas as well as having the science to back all of it up. I really enjoy reading posts like these because I can immediately incorporate them into my life and diet! Thank you!

  9. Hey Gena,

    This is soo helpful. Such a simple but actually innovative way of presenting this info to people.

    I was wondering what the situation is for underweight people – should one eat protein for one’s actual weight or for the roughly-bmi-20 weight?
    xxxxxxxxx

    • Hannah, the common recommendation is that underweight individuals emphasize protein, so aiming for an appropriate amount for a BMI of 20 is probably sound. I’ve seen recommendations for underweight people as high as 1.5-2 g / kg body weight, though there is some conflicting opinion on whether or not this amount is necessary or advisable. Glad you like the post!

  10. Thanks for this Gena! I’m going to share it with a WFPB Facebook group that I’m part of. There are quite a few people that are new to plant-based eating there and the protein question comes up a LOT.

    Could you write a post on women and anemia? Because I’m vegan, the automatic assumption is that my iron levels would be fine if I “just ate a steak”. Thanks in advance!

    • I think anemia is a great topic for another post, Terri!

      And thanks for sharing the post with your group. I hope it’s useful.

  11. Hey! Great and informative post.You mentioned that plant based proteins are more difficult to absorb than animal proteins, I believe this is called bioavailability, Could you make a top 3-5 plant proteins that have the highest bioavailability? Thanks! 🙂

    • Bianca, I’m not actually sure about precise foods and how they stack up to others. I’ll look into it, though.

  12. Good post, Gena–I always like learning new factoids, and somehow it has escaped me till now what a powerhouse of protein edamame is–wow–thanks! And I totally agree protein powders are fine, but not at all essential to getting enough protein. Thanks! xo

  13. Gena, this is really helpful ! The combinations make sense recipe-wise as well. I have a few questions though !
    1) (and this one might seem stupid but I really don’t know how to cook) For cooked grains, does it mean it’s half the amount dry ?
    2) What research have you found about consuming protein immediately after working out – is it really imperative to say, have a protein shake or legumes within 30 minutes or is that just more health BS I’ve read from the internet ? I’m just curious if you’ve stumbled upon any discussion about that.
    3) I’ve also heard that your body cannot process too much protein at once…is that true ? Sometimes I’ll make a vegan shake with Vega powder for instance and it could easily be 35-40 grams (including PB, flax, etc) !

    • Hi Hannah!

      1. The amount of grains is cooked grains, though I’m sorry that I was confusing in photographing dry grains 🙂
      2. I don’t really have a strong opinion about protein consumption after workouts — I tend to think that if you’re consuming adequate amounts overall, the timing isn’t super crucial. A fitness coach or RD with a specialty in sports might have much stronger opinions than me, though.
      3. I’ve heard that as well, though haven’t done too much reading on it. Intuitively, that’s one of the things that doesn’t feel totally sensible about heavy reliance on protein powders — you can get so much more at once than you’d get through food — but again, I certainly don’t have a problem with them so long as there’s balance. I wouldn’t worry about your shakes — sounds as though they’re full of some great ingredients.

      Hope this helps, lady!

      x