Protein from Plants

March 7, 2011

By Jo Bartell

We should all know that protein is an important nutrient our body needs for its everyday functions like growing, strengthening, and repairing body tissue. All together, our bodies need twenty-two amino acids, protein building blocks, thirteen of which our bodies can make on their own. For the other nine amino acids, which are called “essential amino acids,” our body relies on the food we eat. Many people think of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs as the best and most “complete” sources of high quality protein since each of these foods contain all nine essential amino acids. However, some animal products are too high in saturated fat and too low in fiber, which makes them less than ideal as the main source of protein in the diet.

If you are a vegetarian, or if you just feel like taking a break from eating meat for a meal or two, you’ll be pleased to find out that there are many great sources of protein that come solely from plants such as dark green vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, and seeds. What is important to know, is that some of these plant foods are “incomplete proteins,” so they do not supply all of the nine essential amino acids our body needs. Luckily, different plant foods provide different amino acids, so by eating a variety of whole plant foods throughout the day you can create complete proteins.

Here are a few nutritious and delicious plant foods with their protein contents:


  • Lentils (cooked): 1 cup, 18 grams
  • Black Beans (cooked): 1 cup, 15 grams
  • Tofu (firm): 4 ounces, 11 grams

Nuts and Seeds

  • Peanut Butter: 2 tbsp, 8 grams
  • Almonds: 1/4 cup, 8 grams
  • Sunflower Seeds: 1/4 cup, 6 grams
quinoa recipe
California Plum & Quinoa Salad


  • Quinoa* (cooked): 1 cup, 9 grams
  • Brown Rice (cooked): 1 cup, 5 grams
  • Whole Wheat Bread: 1 slice, 3 grams

*Interesting fact: Quinoa is the only grain that is a complete protein!


  • Broccoli (cooked): 1 cup, 4 grams
  • Spinach (cooked): 1 cup, 5 grams
  • Asparagus (raw): 1 cup, 3 grams

Get creative and think about these plant based protein options when you want to skip the fish, poultry, dairy, and meat but still eat enough of the high quality protein your body needs every day.

What is your favorite way to enjoy a protein-rich meal without meat, poultry, dairy, or fish?

Photo Credit: California Tree Fruit Agreement

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  1. Great post! One of my favorite meals is a spin on southwestern food. It is essentially a “quinoa bowl” with quinoa as the base. Then I add black beans, chopped tomato, cooked spinach, salsa, spices, and top with sliced avocado! Mmm it’s quick, healthy, protein packed, and delicious : )

  2. Great article and good food idea from Janet. In learning a lot about how meat proteins often aren’t absorbed and that the conventional wisdom that we can’t get all of our protein unless we have meat is not really true. This article helps highlight some great plant based sources!

    1. Ed, you are correct. Technically quinoa is not a grain. It is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its seeds. It is referred to as a grain, and more specifically an ancient grain, because it is usually prepared like a grain.