Protein! It is the buzzword of the health and fitness industry and a massive focus for most regarding eating a balanced and healthy diet.
We all know the benefits – protein keeps you fuller for longer and is essential for muscle development and brain function.
What’s less commonly known (and something that surprised me when I first went vegan) is that it’s almost impossible to have a protein deficiency unless you are calorie deficient. For this reason, many vegan groups and individuals online suggest that you don’t need to focus on protein-rich foods as all foods contain some protein.
I used to think this was the right approach, but after being vegan for four years, my stance has changed.
A protein focus is not critical for people who are not very active. But if you have fitness goals, live an active lifestyle and work regularly (like many of us do), your protein requirements are much higher – nearly double!
How much protein do vegans need?
For those of us on a plant-based diet, our protein requirements are 10-20% higher than the general population’s. This is because the body absorbs animal proteins more readily than plant proteins.
A general guide to daily protein requirements on a plant-based diet:
• If you’re not very active – approx. 1g per kilo of body weight per day
• If you’re active or workout regularly – approx. 1.6g – 2.2g per kilo bodyweight per day
Luckily, many vegan protein sources taste great and are usually much cheaper than an animal-based alternative.
Please remember, if you have specific health questions or concerns, please get in touch with your doctor or an accredited nutritionist.
My top 10 plant-based protein sources!
Ranked based on:
- Protein content
- Value for money
Cost: AUD 7.80 / kg
The original mock meat! Tofu has been around for thousands of years; originating in China around 179-122 BC, it was eaten as a cheaper alternative to beef.
Derived from soybeans, tofu is high in protein and low in fat. It is made by straining and pressing the curds from soy milk (the process is very similar to making dairy cheese).
Tofu gets first spot on this list because it’s widely available, affordable, and can be made to taste almost anything.
Sometimes, tofu gets a bad rap for being bland. Still, I think of tofu as a blank canvas or a nutritionally dense sponge (seriously). It has all the building blocks of a balanced meal and is ready for you to get creative!
You must press out the excess water and soak it in whatever delicious marinade your heart desires. Curry? No problem. Scrambled eggs? Yup. Feta Cheese? Sure! Smokey maple bacon? Done. Fry it, bake it, crumb it, marinate it, throw it in a curry – the possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.
If you are allergic to soy, you can also try making your tofu at home using other legumes! I love this recipe for Chickpea Tofu by Veggie Anh.
Cost: AUD 15 / kg
Tempeh is another soy-based product and comes in a block similar to tofu. However, unlike tofu, which is quite bland on its own, tempeh has a mildly nutty, savory flavor and dense texture, which makes it super satisfying and an ideal meat replacement. I love it as “bacon” in my Avocado BLT Salad.
Tempeh is less processed than tofu and is made from whole fermented soybeans, making it easier to digest. It’s familiar and can be found in most major supermarkets in Australia. It is cheaper than tofu but significantly more affordable than mock meats.
Tempeh was nearly my number one choice, but it’s not as versatile as tofu and is a bit more expensive, so it comes in as a close number two.
Cost: AUD 1.90 / 1kg
Hands down, my favorite legume! And if you’re a hummus lover (who isn’t?), they’re your favorite too.
Chickpeas aren’t THE richest protein source, but they made it into my top three for their taste and versatility. Chickpeas’ creamy texture and mild flavor make them great for many dishes. Canned chickpeas are convenient, and unlike some other canned legumes, they retain their shape and texture well. They’re perfect for curries, salads, and homemade burgers.
Chickpeas are also a good source of fiber and folate, and some studies have shown they can reduce cholesterol and improve gut health.
Cost: AUD 1.90 / kg
These round little legumes rank fourth on my list for versatility and affordability. There are several different varieties, and they’re used in a wide range of cuisines from Indian to French, to Ethiopian, and even Peruvian. Each variety is other, but generally speaking, they are all high in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and a good source of iron.
Most varieties are available in dried form, and some are accessible in canned form. The typical canned variety in Australia is brown lentils, which have a mild earthy flavor but are great for convenience as they’re pre-cooked (perfect for a mince-meat substitute to make a quick bolognese sauce).
Suppose you have a little time, buying dried means. In that case, you can save money, get a suitable variety for your dish, and cook them to your desired consistency (the canned kinds are too soft for some dishes, like salad). You can purchase split-dried red and yellow lentils, and there’s no need to soak them before cooking – you can make them into a creamy Indian dhal curry in just 45 minutes.
5. Black Beans
Cost: AUD 1.90 / kg
Black beans are small kidney beans, a Central and South American cuisine staple. They’re dense, smooth, creamy, and absorb salt and spices well during cooking.
They taste delicious when served over rice or in burritos and tacos. My favorite recipe is Cuban-style Frijoles Negros by Ana Sofia Peláez.
It’s a long process to cook dried black beans, as they need to be soaked overnight, but the depth of flavor is worth it! If you get into your beans, you can buy a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking process.
Canned black beans are a convenient alternative, but you don’t get the same richness. Make sure to give them a thorough rinse before cooking.
6. TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein)
Protein: 51.4g / 100g dried, 16g / 100g prepared
Cost: AUD 15 / kg dried, $7.50 / kg prepared
Believe it or not, if you’ve ever eaten a cheap burger, hotdog, sausage, or canned chili… you’ve eaten TVP!
TVP is a high-protein, low-fat meat substitute made by extruding soy, wheat, or pea protein isolate into different shapes and sizes. It’s dehydrated and most commonly sold as a granule. When rehydrated, the granules have the texture and appearance of cooked minced meat.
TVP was initially developed in the 1960s as a filler to extend canned chili and other low-cost meat products. Dehydrated, it’s about 50% protein; once rehydrated, it works out to be about 16% protein, similar to meat, but without the fat.
Overall, I love TVP – it’s hands down the most affordable way to buy mock meat. One of my favorite easy lunch options with TVP is the viral Healthy Instant Noodle Soup.
To prepare TVP, soak it in hot water for about 10 minutes, add some flavor, and then cook it as you would meat. I rehydrate mine with vegan beef stock and use it for bolognese or chili.
Overall, TVP is an excellent, high-protein, affordable meat substitute. You can buy it online, or if you’re in Australia, it’s available in the health food aisle at Woolworths and at many Asian grocers.
Cost: AUD 6.25 / kg
If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you’ve likely enjoyed an appetizer of Edamame.
Edamame are whole young soybeans, green in color, with a mild nutty flavor and a hint of sweetness – their subtle taste makes them a great palate-warmer before a main meal or a protein addition to a salad, like my Satay Salad.
Most supermarkets typically sell them frozen. They can be heated in the microwave, boiled, or left out to thaw. They often have a light coating of oil and salt for extra flavor (as they’d be served at a restaurant). Still, for a healthier version, you can also buy them podded, which usually has no added salt or oil.
They have excellent protein content (around 12%), plenty of fiber, and vitamins; studies suggest they may even reduce cancer risk.
Edamame is an affordable and tasty snack to add extra protein to your day.
8. Chia Seeds
Cost: AUD 17.10 / kg
Chia seeds are an easy way to add extra protein to your breakfast and are rich in omegas and healthy fats.
Chia seeds are unique as they can hold up to 10 times their weight in liquid by absorbing moisture into the outer husk. By simply adding chia seeds to liquid, you can make chia pudding! This gelatinous quality also makes them useful as a binding agent/egg substitute in vegan baking.
If you’re curious – you must try my viral Chocolate Chia Mousse recipe – it tastes like dessert but is very good for you! The recipe is such a hit that it got 1.6m views on Instagram and over 33,000 likes 😱
Some other easy ways to try chia seeds are simply sprinkling them onto your cereal or smoothie bowl or adding them to your baked goods.
Cost: AUD 15 / kg
Seitan is a mock-meat product widely available in the US but not so common in Australia.
Many people use seitan as a substitute for dense deli-style sliced meats, steak, meat strips, or meatloaf.
It is made using vital wheat gluten (also called gluten flour), a high gluten and very high protein (75%) wheat flour that forms strong gluten strands when mixed with liquid, making a stringy, meaty texture.
To make seitan, gluten flour is mixed with spices, water, and other inclusions (sometimes beans), then shaped into a log, baked, steamed, or boiled. The different cooking methods affect the final texture – boiling keeps it firm but light and chewy, burning is softer and more pillowy, and baking makes a very dense loaf that can be shaved or sliced thinly.
Seitan is seriously MEATY in texture and taste (assuming it’s been seasoned well) and very high in protein. At the time of writing this, no seitan products were available in major supermarkets in Australia. You only see seitan available at vegan cafés, usually as a mock meat in sandwiches.
If you’re curious, let’s have a go at making it yourself. You can buy gluten flour online relatively cheaply (around AUD 12.50 / kg) or in health food stores (but the price is generally much higher).
Seitan has excellent value; you get much out of it compared to what you’d pay for mock or real meat.
10. Soy milk
Cost: AUD $1.70 / Litre
Last but not least – soy milk!
This seems odd to include on a predominantly meat-replacement list. Still, soy milk is a great way to add extra protein to your day, especially at breakfast, which can be pretty carb-heavy.
Soy milk’s nutritional content is comparable to cow’s milk – high in protein and healthy fats, and many brands are fortified to have the equivalent calcium content of dairy. Just one serving of regular soy milk (250ml) will give you around 6-8g of protein, about 15% of your recommended intake.
Have it in your morning coffee, cereal, or smoothie; it’ll keep you feeling full. It’s available almost everywhere and is typically the cheapest plant-based milk.
Make sure the soy milk is fortified by checking the nutrition label. As of 2023, here is a list of brands in the USA and Australia that strengthen their products:
- So Good
Another way to enjoy soy milk is by making homemade yogurt – easy, affordable, and delicious! Get experimenting with my 3 Ingredient Soy Yogurt recipe.
- Costs included in this article are an approximation based on readily available entry-level products at Australian retailers.
- I am not a dietician or nutritionist – these are my favorites from personal trial and research 🙂
- Please always double the nutrition labels of the products recommended, as formulations can change.
- Check out the USDA calculator here to calculate your daily requirement and other macro and micronutrients. Keep in mind that this will indicate the *minimum*, not necessarily the optimum amount.