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"Where do you get your protein?" is a question that should be banned from any conversation with a vegan. Only the most malnourished individuals ever suffer from a protein deficiency—if you're eating a well-rounded diet full of veggies, fruits, and grains, you'll never have to worry about it. No protein shakes necessary.
Beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy can all be excellent sources of protein—if you don't mind eating what was once a living being to do so. For those who choose a vegan lifestyle, that's a non-starter. Luckily for vegans and vegetarians, getting enough protein in your plant-based diet is easier than you may think.
If you want some quick answers to keep friends and family off your back, or if you're looking into strength training and building muscle, these are just a few options that you don't have to drink.
1. Tofu, Tempeh, and Soybeans
Soybeans are the most protein-rich legumes, with a whopping 10-15 grams of protein per serving. It also has the benefit of being a complete protein, so you don't have to pair it with anything to get the full effect.
What is a complete protein? Technically, what we call "protein" is actually an amalgamation of amino acids—your cells need twenty-one different kinds of amino acids to form a protein. Fortunately, your body produces twelve of them, which means you only have to supplement nine with diet, called "essential" amino acids. A food is considered a "complete protein" when it contains all of the nine essential amino acids needed to form a protein.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy this food. One can enjoy shelled edamame on its own, pan fry or bake tofu or tempeh into a meat entree substitute, or even blend a hunk of tofu into a smoothie for an added protein boost to your drink. Even soy milk contains a fairly high amount of protein per serving at 5 grams per 7 oz glass.
If you need inspiration, here are some great dishes to try with soy:
Don’t let the gluten-free crowd sway you: there is nothing wrong with this healthy protein.
As long as you don’t have celiac disease or another form of gluten intolerance, enjoy this excellent meat substitute, which is wheat gluten mixed with herbs before being boiled in a broth.
Chewy and meaty in texture, this can make an excellent base for a meaty sandwich, or even nuggets for some fried “chicken” nuggets. Make sure to boil in a soy sauce-rich broth to create a complete protein, and enjoy 21 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving. That’s more protein per cup than even chicken or beef!
Legumes like beans and lentils are popular among vegans and non-vegans alike as a good source of protein. Unlike animal-derived protein, however, legumes are high in fiber and low in fat.
While soybeans are a kind of legume, they are a complete protein, unlike most others. Pair these with some rice to create a perfect protein in your meal. Beans and lentils are incredibly versatile—they can be mashed and pureed into a dip, put in a soup or chili, made into a burger patty, mixed into a salad, or even used to make “tuna” salad.
Like soybeans, peas are technically legumes, but they are often treated differently than other kinds of legumes.
A cup of peas contains about 8 grams of protein, which is about as much as a cup of milk. These are delicious on their own or as a soup, but just like other legumes, you can use them in a few different ways. Try pureeing them along with basil, pine nuts, and olive oil for some protein-packed pesto, or mashing them and avocados into a fat-reduced guacamole.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are great additions to one’s diet, as they provide great polyunsaturated fats as well as fiber.
The protein count varies depending on the kind of nut or seed. Hemp seeds have the most protein per serving, at nine grams per ounce, but peanuts offer almost seven grams per ounce, and even macadamia nuts, which have the least amount of protein per ounce, still contain 2.2 grams.
Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of seeds into a bowl of oats or a smoothie, or snack on a handful of homemade trail mix. You can also puree these into a butter and spread them on your morning toast or bagel.
6. Quinoa and Other Whole Grains
Although most consider whole grains to be a great source of complex carbohydrates, they often contain a decent amount of protein as well.
Technically, kamut, or Khroasan wheat, has the most protein per cup at 9.8 grams, but quinoa ranks highly at 8.1 grams. That being said, any whole grain, such as brown rice, barley, oatmeal, and whole wheat pasta have a decent amount of protein. Try pairing with a legume, and you'll have a great meal full of protein.
These are six options that are higher in protein, but a lot of foods have a gram or two. Dark leafy greens have a pretty good amount of protein, as do broccoli, asparagus, and avocados. Even potatoes contain protein, and can even be a complete protein if you eat enough. As long as you're eating reasonably and enough, you shouldn't have any serious deficiencies.
Don't worry too much about your diet if you're just restricting animal products—the world's flora offer enough varied things to get you your protein.