Whether you're trying to cut back on animal food sources for personal or health reasons, this list of easy-to-digest plant-based proteins will help you get started.
Worried you're not getting enough protein but aren't one to go HAM for, well, ham (or chicken or beef for that matter)? Trying to cut back on animal-based sources of protein for personal or health reasons? There's a lot of good reasons to start incorporating more plant-based protein into your diet. In fact, science says eating more fruits and vegetables can make you happier.
The idea that we need to dial it back on the meat and eat more protein that comes from the ground (which P.S., is how animals get their own protein intake) is nothing new—and there's plenty of research to support the benefits of a plant-based diet. But, lately, curiosity around plant-based diets seems to have hit its peak. (Just look at the buzz around the What the Health documentary.)
But even if you're ready and eager to begin incorporating more plant-based protein into your diet, it's important not to jump in blindly—making the switch slowly ensures that your body is really ready for it. While it's not a direct correlation, poor diet choices can cause leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which porous intestinal lining lets undigested food particles seep into the bloodstream, says Alisa Vitti, HHC, a functional nutritionist, author of Woman Code, and founder of FLO Living. "You might not have a good response using plant-based protein right away because your body is not working efficiently enough to digest them." Vitti recommends taking probiotics for a month before making any big dietary changes to make sure you reap the nutritional benefits of a plant-based protein diet without the upset stomach.
If you're already eating plant-based proteins like edamame, a protein superstar with 18 grams of protein per one cup serving and tofu, which has roughly 10 grams per half cup serving, it's a great start, but there is some debate around how much soy you should eat, and fermented versus unfermented soy products. Fermented soy can also be easier to digest for some people. Regardless, you're probably looking to switch things up, and luckily there are a ton of plant-based protein options you probably never thought about.
Ready to get going? Here are 10 plant-based proteins to start with for easy digestion—ranked from highest to lowest amount of protein.
Kimberly Snyder, nutritionist and best-selling author of the Beauty Detox book series and Radical Beauty, recommends tempeh because it's processed way less than grocery store soy products like soy milk and tofu burgers. "Because tempeh is fermented, the process increases the digestibility of soy and increases the nutrient absorption from soy," she says. Another perk of fermented tempeh, according to Vitti, is that it helps the body make more progesterone, which is what women need to keep a hormonal balance (especially during their periods). (Plus, there are plenty of delicious ways to cook with tempeh.)
Protein per serving: 16 grams (per 3 ounces)
"Chlorella is a form of green algae that's about 65 percent protein," says Snyder. As the name suggests, chlorella has high amounts of chlorophyll, so it helps carry oxygen around the body and promotes glowing skin. Opt for the powdered form of chlorella (as opposed to tablets) and sprinkle it in water, smoothies, salads, or yogurt to sneak this protein into your diet.
Protein per serving: 15 grams (per tablespoon)
Legumes and beans—like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas—are all great for stabilizing your blood sugar, Vitti says, but because they contain both protein and starch, Snyder warns they are often more difficult to digest. Lentils have 9 grams per half-cup serving, so opt for these over other beans and use them as a meat replacement in tacos, salads, and soups.
Protein per serving: 9 grams (per half-cup)
#4 Sacha Inchi
Sacha inchi, a seed that can also be found in powder form, is 60 percent protein. It's also a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids the body needs, says Vitti. Its nutty taste makes it a perfect ingredient to toss into a smoothie or even solo with some almond milk for an on-the-go protein drink.
Protein per serving: 6 grams (per tablespoon)
Raw nuts are a solid source of protein, and Snyder recommends almonds in particular because of their high protein content. (Walnuts are a close second at 5 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving, while hazelnuts have about 4 grams.) Nuts should be consumed in moderation but are are a great way to sneak some extra protein into your diet—just make sure your diet has lots of greens to help optimize your digestion, Synder says.
Protein per serving: 6 grams (per quarter cup)
#6 Bee Pollen
In addition to the protein, bee pollen is packed with amino acids, including choline and phenylalanine, which helps control hunger and appetite, says Snyder. A study published in the journal Nutrients showed that diets containing bee pollen have been linked to an increased metabolism and improved muscle mass, making this a protein powerhouse for anyone looking to manage their weight, too. You can swap nut butter for bee pollen in your smoothies, toss it into homemade granola as it's cooling, or use it as a topping for yogurt, cereal, or an açaí bowl.
Protein per serving: 3.6 grams (per tablespoon)
"Chia seeds are a complete source of protein while also offering antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals like calcium," says Snyder. They're also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are key in regulating inflammation in the body. Sprinkle chia on top of yogurt or go for the ground version for smoothies. Both Snyder and Vitti recommend other seeds in this category, such as sesame, pumpkin, and hemp seeds—with one word of caution. "Hemp is a great source of fiber, but if you have digestive issues it may not sit well with you," says Vitti.
Protein per serving: 3 grams (per 2 tablespoons)
This complete protein is also high in lysine. Snyder suggests this sprouted grain because it can help with repairing collagen and tissue. Its high fiber content helps with digestion, improves heart health, and helps stabilize blood sugar levels to prevent against diseases such as diabetes. It makes a perfect add-in for salads and in place of white pasta and rice.
Protein per serving: 3 grams (per half-cup)
"Naturally low in fat, mushrooms are high in protein, vitamin D, folate, and fiber," says Snyder. To get the maximum health benefits, don't eat mushrooms raw. Why? Cooking helps break down their tough cell walls so you can absorb the most nutrients like vitamins B and D, as well as the immunity-boosting and cancer-fighting properties that mushrooms boast.
Protein per serving: 2.2 grams (per cup of sliced mushrooms)
#10 Brussels Sprouts
Rich in sulfur-containing nutrients—which Snyder says help rid your body of toxins—Brussel sprouts are also loaded with fiber to keep your digestive system healthy. Best of all, a quarter of the calories from Brussels sprouts are from protein. For comparison, that's roughly four times the amount of protein you'll get from the same serving size of carrots, or double the amount of protein of zucchini. So not only is this veggie delicious and addicting, it's also serving up a lot of protein on your plate.
Protein per serving: 2 grams (per half-cup)