You probably think of meat, poultry, eggs, and Greek yogurt when you hear “protein.” But plants also provide the muscle-building macronutrient—with added benefits. “Plant protein is kind of a three-for-one,” says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., R.D.N., author of Nutrition & You and a clinical associate professor at Boston University. “Not only is it low in saturated fat, which can increase your risk of heart disease, it also provides blood cholesterol–lowering soluble fiber. And it’s much cheaper per pound than animal protein.”
To help you put more plant-based foods onto your plate without sacrificing gains, here’s a half dozen of the most protein-packed options.
PLANT FOOD: Lentils
PROTEIN: 18 grams per 1 cup
PREP: Though all lentils are quick-cooking, the red ones are the speediest. They shine in soups because they fall apart, so you get a purée-like consistency without having to dirty a blender. Black (or beluga), green (a.k.a. French or Puy), and brown lentils, meanwhile, tend to hold their shape. Warm and cold salads are no-brainers, but you can also use lentils to make vegetarian meatballs, bolognese, and burgers.
PLANT FOOD: Edamame
PROTEIN: 18 grams per 1 cup
PREP: Though tofu and tempeh, which are made from fermented soybeans, have more protein per serving, edamame are the least processed form of soybeans you can buy. And they’re dead-simple to prepare: just boil or steam them in their pods or buy the shelled kind (you’ll find both in the frozen-food aisle); stir into a black-rice salad; toss with whole-grain pasta, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and Parmesan; or whir in a food processor with olive oil and lemon juice to make a dairy-free dip.
PLANT FOOD: Pumpkin seeds
PROTEIN: 9 grams per ounce
PREP: Also called pepitas, pumpkin seeds are available either raw or roasted and (usually) salted. Mix the former into homemade granola, sprinkle them over whole-grain apple or pumpkin muffins before baking, or sub them for pine nuts in pesto. Roasted pumpkin seeds, which are much crunchier, make a great snack or salad topping.
PLANT FOOD: Pinto beans
PROTEIN: 16 grams per 1 cup
PREP: A medium-size variety of kidney bean that’s used to make refried beans, pintos come canned and dried (you’ll just need to rinse them, soak them overnight, then simmer them for about two hours with some aromatics, such as onion and bay leaf, or cook them in a pressure cooker). Either way, they work well in chili, vegetable stews, and tacos.
PLANT FOOD: Spinach
PROTEIN: 5 grams per 1 cup, cooked
PREP: You’d have to eat heaps of raw spinach to make a dent in your protein needs. Luckily, this leafy green cooks down considerably. Sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, spinach can stand alone as a side dish, or as an add-in to a brown rice bowl or pasta dish. The baby kind requires very little prep, as does frozen spinach, which comes blanched, chopped, and ready for use in lasagna, dips, and even smoothies.
PLANT FOOD: Kamut
PROTEIN: 10 grams per 1 cup cooked
PREP: Kamut is a kind of large-kernel, ancient wheat, meaning it’s been relatively unchanged by farmers since people first started eating it. Sometimes sold as “kamut berries” or “Khorasan wheat,” kamut can often stand in for wheat berries or farro. Try it in a grain bowl; with cucumbers, tomato, and feta in a salad; or simmered with a little maple syrup and served with a splash of milk and fruit for breakfast.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.