You can get nearly complete dietary protein from plant sources like grains, seeds, and meat substitutes.
Despite what some people may think, there are many ways to get enough protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
However, not all plant-based proteins are complete proteins, meaning protein sources that contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. While your body can make some of them, nine must be obtained through your diet. These are referred to as essential amino acids and include:
Animal products like beef, fish, dairy, and eggs contain enough of every one of these essential amino acids. Thus, they’re considered complete proteins.
However, many plant sources of protein are too low in or missing one or more of these essential amino acids. They’re considered incomplete protein sources.
Still, given that plant foods contain varying amounts of amino acids, you can get enough of each essential amino acid throughout the day by eating a varied diet and combining complementary plant proteins.
For example, grains like rice are too low in lysine to be considered a complete source of protein. Yet, by eating lentils or beans, which are higher in lysine, throughout the day, you can obtain all nine essential amino acids.
Nevertheless, some people like knowing they get complete proteins in a meal.
Fortunately for vegans and vegetarians, several plant-based foods and combos contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Here are 13 nearly complete protein sources for vegetarians and vegans.
Quinoa is an ancient grain that looks similar to couscous but has a crunchy texture and nutty flavor.
It doesn’t grow from grasses like other cereals and grains, so it’s technically considered a pseudocereal and naturally gluten-free.
One cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa provides approximately 8 grams of protein.
In addition to being a complete protein, quinoa provides more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than many common grains.
You can use quinoa in place of rice in most recipes. It can also be simmered in a plant source milk for a creamy, protein-rich breakfast porridge.
Though most supermarkets have quinoa in stock, buying it online may offer you a wider selection and possibly better prices.
Summary: Quinoa is a gluten-free grain that contains 8 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (185 grams). It’s also a good source of minerals, including magnesium, iron, and zinc.
2. Tofu, tempeh, and edamame
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all made from soybeans and make for excellent plant-based protein sources.
Tofu is made from coagulated soy milk that’s pressed into white blocks and comes in various textures, including silken, firm, and extra-firm. As it’s quite bland, tofu tends to take on the flavor of the foods with which it’s cooked.
A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tofu provides approximately 8 grams of protein. It also offers 15% of the daily value for calcium and smaller amounts of potassium and iron.
Tempeh is much chewier and nuttier than tofu and made from fermented soybeans, which are often combined with other seeds and grains to form a firm, dense cake.
Meanwhile, edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans that are green and have a slightly sweet, grassy flavor. They’re usually steamed or boiled and can be enjoyed as a snack. Alternatively, they can be added to salads, soups, or grain bowls.
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Three ounces (85 grams) of tempeh contain 11 grams of protein. This serving is also a good source of fiber and iron and contains potassium and calcium.
A 1/2 cup (85 grams) of whole edamame provides 8 grams of protein and good fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin C.
Summary: Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all derived from whole soybeans and are excellent sources of complete protein. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of edamame or tofu provides 8 grams of protein, while the same serving of tempeh has 11 grams.
Amaranth is another pseudocereal that’s a complete source of protein.
Once considered a staple food in Incan, Mayan, and Aztec cultures, it has become a popular gluten-free grain alternative.
Amaranth is a versatile grain that can be boiled for a side dish or porridge or popped in a skillet to add texture to granola bars or salads. Similarly to quinoa, it has a delicate, nutty taste and retains its crunch even when cooked.
When ground into flour, amaranth can also be used in gluten-free baking.
One cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth provides approximately 9 grams of protein. It’s also an excellent manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron source.
1 cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth provides more than 100% of the daily value of manganese, an essential mineral for brain health.
Summary: Amaranth is a gluten-free pseudocereal that provides 9 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (246 grams). It also provides more than 100% of the daily value of manganese.
While it’s not as high in protein as quinoa or amaranth, buckwheat is another pseudocereal that’s a plant-based source of complete protein.
Nutty in flavor, the hulled kernels, or groats, can be cooked similarly to oatmeal or ground into flour and used in baking. In Japanese cooking, buckwheat is commonly consumed as noodles, called soba.
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One cup (168 grams) of cooked buckwheat groats provides approximately 6 grams of protein.
This pseudocereal is also a good source of many essential minerals, including phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Summary: Buckwheat is another gluten-free grain that’s a complete protein source, with 6 grams of protein per 1 cooked cup (168 grams).
5. Ezekiel bread
Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes, including barley, soybeans, wheat, lentils, millet, and spelt.
Two slices (68 grams) of the bread contain 8 grams of protein.
Unlike most bread, the combination of whole grains and legumes in Ezekiel bread provides all nine essential amino acids.
Plus, studies suggest that sprouting grains and legumes increase their amino acid content, especially their content of the amino acid lysine.
For an extra protein boost, use Ezekiel bread to make a vegan BLT sandwich with tempeh instead of bacon, or toast the bread and top it with peanut butter and chia seeds.
Summary: Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains and legumes and contains all nine essential amino acids. Just two slices (68 grams) provide 8 grams of filling protein.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that’s a popular supplement among those on vegan and vegetarian diets.
While it can be purchased as tablets, the powdered form of spirulina can be easily added to smoothies, granola bars, soups, and salads to boost nutrition.
Just 1 tablespoon (7 grams) of dried spirulina provides 4 grams of protein.
In addition to being a complete protein source, spirulina is rich in antioxidants and a good source of several B vitamins, copper, and iron.
Summary: Spirulina, a supplement made from blue-green algae, is a complete protein source. One tablespoon (7 grams) provides 4 grams of protein and good amounts of B vitamins, copper, and iron.
7. Hemp seeds
Coming from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, hemp seeds are members of the same species as marijuana, but they contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana.
As a result, hemp seeds are unlikely to contain enough THC to cause a high feeling or any other psychoactive effects associated with marijuana.
However, there is concern that hemp seeds could become contaminated with TCH from other parts of the plant during harvesting or storage. Therefore, purchasing seeds from trusted brands that test for THC is important.
Technically a nut, the edible whites inside hemp seeds are called hemp hearts and are incredibly nutritious.
In addition to being a complete protein source, hemp hearts are particularly rich in the essential fatty acids linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
Three tablespoons (30 grams) of raw, hulled hemp seeds boast an impressive 10 grams of protein and 15% of the DV for iron. They’re also a good source of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.
Hemp hearts have a mild nutty flavor and can be sprinkled over yogurt or salads, added to smoothies, or included in homemade granola and energy bars.
Summary: Hemp seeds are often sold as hemp hearts and are incredibly nutritious. In addition to providing 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons (30 grams), they’re a good source of essential fatty acids, iron, potassium, and several other essential minerals.
8. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that are often black or white.
They’re unique in absorbing liquid and forming a gel-like substance. As a result, they can be used to make puddings and pectin-free jams. They’re also commonly used as an egg substitute in vegan baking.
However, chia seeds can also be used raw as a topping for oatmeal or salads, mixed into baked goods, or added to smoothies.
Two tablespoons (28 grams) of chia seeds provide 4 grams of protein. They’re also a good source of omega-3s, iron, calcium, magnesium, and selenium.
Summary: Chia seeds are tiny round seeds that contain all nine essential amino acids. Two tablespoons (28 grams) contain 4 grams of protein, good amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and several essential minerals.
9. Nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae grown specifically as a food product.
Commercially, nutritional yeast is sold as a yellow powder or flakes and has a distinctive umami flavor that can be used to add a cheese-like flavor to vegan dishes, such as popcorn, pasta, or mashed potatoes.
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A 1/4 cup (15-gram) serving of nutritional yeast provides 8 grams of complete protein.
When fortified, nutritional yeast can also be an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and all the B vitamins, including B12.
Summary: Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of yeast that imparts a cheesy, umami flavor to vegan dishes. Just 1/4 cup (15 grams) provides 8 grams of protein.
10. Rice and beans
Rice and beans are a classic pairing source of complete protein.
Both brown and white rice are low in lysine but high in methionine. In contrast, beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. As such, combining them allows you to get enough of each, as well as the remaining seven essential amino acids, to count as a complete protein.
One cup (239 grams) of rice and beans provides 12 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.
While you can enjoy the mixture alone, rice and beans can be topped with guacamole, salsa, and roasted vegetables for a simple, filling meal.
Summary: Together, rice and beans contain all nine essential amino acids to form a complete source of protein. Approximately 1 cup (239 grams) provides 12 grams of this nutrient.
11. Pita and hummus
A delicious Middle Eastern classic, pita, and hummus are another combination that provides all nine essential amino acids.
Similarly to rice, the wheat used to make pita is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein source. However, chickpeas — the main ingredient in hummus — are rich in lysine.
One medium-sized (57-gram) whole wheat pita with 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of hummus provides approximately 7 grams of protein.
In addition to serving as a snack, adding fried or baked ground chickpea balls, known as falafel, will further increase the protein content of your pita and hummus.
Summary: Pita and hummus is another classic pairing that constitutes a complete protein source. One medium-sized (57-gram) pita with 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of hummus provides 7 grams of protein.
12. Peanut butter sandwich
A lunch box staple, natural peanut butter sandwiched between whole grain bread is another common combination that results in a complete protein source.
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As mentioned earlier, wheat is low in lysine, while pulses like peanuts make up for it by being high in lysine.
Two slices (62 grams) of whole wheat sandwich bread with 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of peanut butter provide approximately 14 grams of protein.
However, the exact amount of protein may vary depending on the brand of bread you buy.
When choosing peanut butter, aim for a product with minimal ingredients, ideally only peanuts and maybe some salt.
Summary: Wheat bread is low in lysine, but it becomes a complete protein source when combined with lysine-rich peanut butter. One peanut butter sandwich provides approximately 14 grams of protein.
13. Mycoprotein (Quorn)
Mycoprotein is a meat substitute product that’s marketed under the name Quorn.
Made from a naturally occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum, it’s sometimes mixed with eggs or milk protein before being shaped into patties, cutlets, or strips. As a result, not all mycoprotein products are vegan.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency have determined that mycoprotein is safe to sell to the public.
However, there are some concerns that its fungal ingredient can cause dangerous allergic reactions in some individuals.
Still, as it’s a rich source of essential amino acids and low in sodium, sugar, and fat, it’s a popular option for those looking for a plant-based alternative to chicken.
While the amount of protein varies by product, one 75-gram Quorn Chik’N patty contains 9 grams.
Summary: Mycoprotein, a popular meat alternative, is sold under the brand name Quorn. While the amount of protein varies by product, one Quorn Chik’N patty provides about 9 grams of complete protein.
Despite some concerns over getting adequate protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet, many high-protein, plant-based foods are available.
Furthermore, several of these foods even provide all nine essential amino acids and are therefore considered complete proteins.
To ensure you’re meeting your amino acid needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet, try incorporating a variety of these complete protein sources or combinations of nearly complete choices into your plant-based diet.