My Top Favorite Sources of Plant-Based Protein

What do elephants, gorillas and Popeye the Sailorman all have in common? They are all 100% powered by plants!

Gorilla EatingIf I had a penny for every time someone asked me where I got my protein over the 20 years that I’ve been a vegetarian, I’d be a rich woman. It’s as if I might shrivel up and die if I don’t get “enough protein,” implying that you can only get protein from eating meat.

In all my years of studying nutrition, I’ve only heard of 1 person being protein deficient. In fact, as a culture we’re actually over-consuming protein, which can cause a slew of medical conditions. And this is especially concerning given the latest fad suggests that if you want to build muscle or lose weight you should consume a high protein diet.

Elephants, gorillas, horses and even rhinoceros are all herbivores, meaning they eat only plants. And they certainly do not lack any strength or muscle. So I figure if these powerhouses of strength can live on plants, well then, so can I. But personal preferences and protein grams aside, let’s take a closer look at this macronutrient.

Protein is made up of amino acids, also known as the building blocks of protein – but more on these guys in a second. Our body needs proteins to build new cells and to maintain healthy tissues. We also need proteins for healthy hair, strong nails and most of our body’s basic functions.

So what then are the best sources of protein?

Well, the answer to that depends on the person. When Jo and I created the Conscious Cleanse we had very different nutritional profiles. I was on a 100% raw food kick and Jo was eating animal protein 3 times a day.

Today, we both take a much more moderate approach, tuning into our bodies and our needs on any given day.

But one thing we know for sure is that eating animal protein requires your body to work harder. Remember, those building blocks of protein? Well, when you eat protein from an animal source, your body has to break it down into a string of amino acid parts, and then reorganize it into amino acids before the body can actually utilize it.

When we eat plant-based sources of protein – things like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and even dark leafy greens – we ingest the amino acids directly, skipping the step where your body has to work harder.

The results? Extra energy and easier digestion!

So back to the original question, “where do you get your protein?” Below are my top favorite plant-based sources of protein.

My Top Favorite Sources of Plant-Based Protein

  • Dark Leafy Greens and Other Vegetables – Spinach, watercress, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, cauliflower and cabbage provide some of the highest available proteins.
  • Nuts and seeds – Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, chia seeds and hemp seeds. I also love nut butters like almond butter, cashew butter, sunbutter.
  • Spirulina and Chlorella – Providing up to 65% protein, these forms of green algaes are a must if you are minimizing, or trying to lessen the amount of animal protein in your diet. High in chlorophyll, containing all the essential amino acids, these superfoods are great for active athletes and those of us who are on the go a lot. They are helpful for fending off energy slumps and can help satisfy your hunger.
  • Beans and Legumes – High in dietary fiber and protein, beans and legumes are generally inexpensive and provide long-lasting energy. They are a great source of calcium and other vitamins and minerals.
  • Quinoa Quinoa is technically a seed but it masquerades as a grain. It’s also a superfood! Hailing from South America, this Pervuian seed/grain is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 8 essential amino acids. It’s earthy and nutty and goes great with steamed veggies.

What are your thoughts on proteins? Do you thrive on plants or are you a die-hard meat eater? What would happen if you reduced your animal protein consumption by 50%? How might you feel better? Leave me a comment below!


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Showing 23 comments
  • Kathy Bacon

    I feel great Jules – so happy and excited to really pay attention. I can’r believe the stuff I was eating before the cleanse. I believe for me I will continue on the vegetarian path with some fish – I guess that would make me a pescetarian. I am super happy and everyrthing you entioned for protein will work for me…….love quinoa

  • Renae Redick

    If I had a nickle for every I was asked that question! I have been eating a vegan diet for a little over a year now and that is the number one question I get. People just refuse to believe that (a) you don’t need as much as you think, and (b) that yes, I can get all my needs from leafy greens, nuts and beans!
    I have been feeling like I need a little something more lately though…I’m a runner and currently training for a marathon. I don’t feel like I’m nourished enough/have the energy for some of the tougher speed training runs at times. As such, I’ve been considering adding eggs back in my diet because I know they don’t upset my stomach when eaten before a run or a long strength workout at the gym.
    This probably isn’t the proper place to tell you this but I have to say how much I love, love, LOVE your book! I Initially bought the kindle version a week and a half ago but found I was going back to it so often for recipes and daily food ideas that I had to have the print copy as well. It arrived yesterday to a jumping up and down me! I’ve made a smoothie from your book daily since downloading the kindle edition! Today I had the Hemptastic Smoothie after the gym then I made the Spicy Zucchini Hummus to snack on with some veggies (SO good!) and I just finished preparing the Sunny Sunflower Dressing for my dinner salad. Oh and did I mention I made the Protein-Packed Almond Butter Balls today as well? YUM! My kids have never seen so much kitchen activity….not sure they believe it’s their mom! I’m spreading the word about your book to anyone who will listen. Thank you so much!!

    • Julie Peláez

      Renae, That is awesome! You might try the spirulina if you are wanting to avoid eggs. It rocks for long-lasting energy!

      • Renae

        Thanks for the tip…I’ll pick some up for sure!!

  • Becky O'Brien

    It was very comforting and validating to read this. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and this topic comes up all the time. I have a close friend who is a doctor whose athlete teenage son decided to become vegetarian. She was freaking out about the protein issue. I asked her point blank, “do you know how much protein he even needs?” She had no idea. And she’s an intelligent woman in the medical field. She just had this vague sense of “ack, protein deficiency” based on absolutely nothing. And she also had no idea how much protein was in everything else he was eating. Thanks for this great piece!

  • Katy Ward

    Hey Jules! I agree with all of the above! A few years back I was a pescatarian; I am thinking of now trying to go full veggie :) since, due to overfishing, I can never tell what fish I should eat anyway. Soy is too scary and though I was introduced to Quinoa a few years ago and do like it, I have been upset by this latest article

    I also hear a lot about body-typing and the two tests I have done do say my body responds best to high amounts of protien, sooooo, I feel stuck. Not sure which food to eat, soy out, and quinoa makes me feel like I am pillaging a country that needs it–what else can I use to give “high” amounts of protien!! ( or do I just stick with limited healthy organic meats??)

    • Julie Peláez

      Hey Katy, Thanks for the article. I had no idea. My approach to food and eating is to be flexible, to not follow any strict ways or dogma. And with that to not eat too much of a good thing, just because it’s a good thing. It all comes down to personal choice. If your body thrives on animal protein, then you should eat it. I would watch for what the tests or other people tell you about what you should eat. Put it (whatever it is) in your body and see how you feel. That’s the true test. Good luck!

  • Lisa Fierer

    I am thrilled with the results of the Conscious Cleanse! As a prior bodybuilder, animal protein has been the biggest staple in my diet. Following the Conscious Cleanse, I chose an emphasis on utilizing the suggested plant proteins for the majority of the cleanse, and am amazed at how I feel and look. I used to believe I needed animal protein to maintain my musculature, but have discovered just the opposite! Thank you Jules and Jo! I am eternally grateful for your wisdom, support, and expertise.

    • Julie Peláez

      That is fantastic, Lisa! Glad to have you in our Conscious Cleanse community! xo

  • Tony

    I’m amazed about having no cravings for meat, dairy, or pastries. That said, someone is making money from all the kale chips I’m buying.

    • Julie Peláez

      That is hilarious, Tony!

  • Gina Griffin

    I did a 21 day veggie/fruit cleanse and decided to eliminate chicken and beef and only eat seafood. so far it feels great. No bloating or sluggish feeling at all.

  • Nancy DArezzo

    Good Morning,
    I love this blog but I’m still a little confused. I am a “wanna be” body builder. I weight train and although I don’t necessarily want to enter a body building show, my goal is to have a lean, fit body and I’m currently working toward 12% body fat. (If I want to enter a show I have to be at 6-8%…I’m currently at 19%). Weight training does not build muscle; it tears the muscle down and we need good, quality protein which builds muscle. It has always been my understanding that animal protein is the best thing for building muscle. Do you believe that we don’t need animal protein to accomplish this? And you mention 8 amino acids; I thought there were 10 and the difference between plant based protein and animal protein is the amino acid profile. I currently eat lean protein, always going for organic and/or grass fed, and fish and eggs, but it’s sometimes difficult and expensive to find. I would like to cut back on my animal protein intake and incorporate more plant based foods.
    Nancy :)

  • Nancy DArezzo

    I forgot to mention that I am a student at IIN and will graduate in March. I am also a Personal Trainer and I want to be able to guide my clients and give them the right information regarding their nutrition and their health goals. Thanks!!! :)

    • Julie Peláez

      Hey Nancy! Go IIN! That is fantastic. I am not a body builder or a meat eater so I can’t speak with any authority there. I do know there are many strong, successful high level athletes who thrive on a vegan diet. As with anything, I believe in moderation and doing what feels best in your body! Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

  • Kim McCormack

    I notice the sluggishness when I eat meat, less so with fish. I mostly stick to turkey,eggs and fish when I do eat animal protein but I shifting more and more to the vegan lifestyle with a lot of it raw. The problem is that my hubby likes meat and thrives on it much more than I do, I am the cook of the house, and he eats whatever I make but I know he really likes it when I throw in a meat dish a couple/few times a week.

  • Jaime

    Love this article, Jules! Vegetables are my favorite, more than any other food. When we have friends or family over for dinner, I always prepare a vegetable-heavy to show them how good they can be!

    I am even more excited about today, where only one of the items I’m making for the Superbowl contains meat!! I can’t wait to share good, healthy food with the people who want to start making a change in their diets.

    • Julie Peláez

      That’s awesome Jaime!

  • D. Gilbo

    I am beginning the cleanse next week and am excited to do so. I am more than ready to get my health back. I am new to this idea and have been working on getting myself ready for the cleanse. But… I am always hungry. Nothing seems to fill me up. I am concerned that if I feel like this I will not be able to sustain this lifestyle. I am diabetic, asthmatic, and have multiple health issues. Help!

    • Julie Peláez

      On the cleanse you will eat real food and be nourishing your body in a whole new way. Be open to the miraculous and let us know how it goes. Congrats on starting the journey. We believe in you!

  • Bridget A. Guila

    Hello Julie, Bridget here. I absolutely love the part in conscious cleanse in regards to “feeling hungry”. Tweeking our perspective on hunger. It’s not such a bad thing to feel hungry. Our body is simply communicating with us. Can you elaborate on that?

    • Jules Peláez

      Hi Bridget, Thanks for your comment. Yea, feeling hungry has gotten a bad wrap (and let me clarify that I am speaking about those of us in the developed world that have the resources the we need for basic survival). I know I’ve had issues in the past with having blood sugar crashes, and gotten irritable and grabby and that’s never any fun. But as a result of that fear based mentality (which is pervasive in our country) we stuff food in our mouth at the very first thought (note: thought, not feeling) of being hungry. So in some ways we don’t even feel hunger any more, we’ve lost that connection with our body. I could write an entire blog post about this topic but I’m curious to hear others’ insights too. :)

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