Seeking vegetables high in protein? You’re are not alone!
Because our bodies are made of 20% protein, and yet we cannot store it as we do fat for energy, or even calcium in our bones, we have to get enough protein from our diets every day. Of course, the highest dietary sources of protein are from animal sources, but not only can you also gain protein from plant sources, some people will claim that plant protein is actually superior.
Animal vs. Plant Protein
So there’s protein that can be gained from eating meat and from eating vegetables, but what’s the difference? Is there a difference? If yes, is one of them better than the other? Here are the key points in the animal vs. plant protein debate.
The Amino Acid Profiles Are Different
When protein is broken down, it’s in the form of amino acids, which are used for nearly every metabolic process in the body. Animal proteins more often carry a good balance of our essential amino acids, while plant proteins are frequently low in tryptophan, methionine, lysine, and isoleucine. That means animal proteins tend to be complete proteins (with all nine of the amino acids we need from our diets), while plant proteins tend to be incomplete. That’s score one for animal proteins.
Foods with Animal Protein Are Higher in Some Nutrients
Vitamin B12 is found mostly in meat and dairy products. DHA, an essential omega-3 fat important for brain health, is mostly found in fish and hard to get from plant sources. Zinc is mostly found in meats like beef, lamb, and pork. That’s another score for animal proteins.
Eating Meat Comes with Some Extra Health Risks
Research shows that the consumption of red meat and processed meat correlates with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and premature death due to cardiovascular problems. While the risk does not come from fish or poultry meats, it’s not a concern that comes from vegetables at all. That’s a point for plants.
Plant Diets Are Linked to a Ton of Health Benefits
Vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower body weight. That comes along with a lower risk of heart disease and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. While the correlation may not be a direct link to a lack of meat in the diet (it could be because vegetarians tend to be more health-conscious overall), the correlation is there all the same, which is another point in favor of plant proteins.
Meat or Veg: the Choice Is Yours
Ultimately, the personal choice makes a difference. For meat eaters, striking a balance between meat and vegetables is key, as well as trying to avoid processed meats. For vegetarians and vegans, the challenge is getting enough amounts of the essential proteins from a plant diet alone.
Vegetables High In Protein (in Ascending Order)
The following list of vegetable sources of protein will start with those that have minimal amounts and progress to the highest protein providers by the end (so scroll to the bottom if you want to cut to the chase). Some high-protein leafy greens can have as many as 8 grams of protein per cup. Not necessarily impressive when compared to a single chicken breast perhaps, but the fiber contribution plants provide and the other vitamins and antioxidants? They’re not only more affordable foods than meat, they’re lower in cardiovascular risk, and can also make you feel fuller, which means it’s easier to stay at a healthy weight.
Caveat: we’ve included some botanically classified fruits here (like eggplant and bell pepper), but they’re on the list because people typically eat them as vegetables. There will also be beans and legumes on the list, because vegetables can come from many parts of the plant (leaves, seeds, roots, etc.), and beans are classified in the Protein Food Group and the Vegetable Food Group for the simple reason that they give you the benefits of both.
Without further ado, here’s the list!
- 1 chopped cup of watercress contains 0.8 grams of protein
While it’s the first and thus the lowest amount of protein per cup on this list, the protein watercress has accounts for 50% of its total calories. A single cup of watercress also contains 100% of of your recommended daily intake of vitamin K and has good amounts of B vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, vitamin A, and vitamin C as well. Watercress has also been shown to offer antioxidant protection and contains anti-cancer phenolic compounds. These are among the reasons why watercress is ranked number one on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables list.
It is recommended that you not boil watercress, as doing so will decrease its antioxidant concentration. Instead, you’re encouraged to eat raw watercress in salads, fold it into sandwiches, or blend it in smoothies with your other preferred healthy ingredients.
- 1 cup of eggplant contains 0.82 grams of protein
Another food on the lower side of protein content, the beautifully purple eggplant still contains anthocyanins (antioxidants), which provide neuroprotective benefits that can help bolster short-term memory. Its nutrients can also help lower blood pressure and reduce unhealthy inflammation. Eggplants have potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6, which all have the power to help lower the risk of heart disease. High in fiber and low in carbohydrates, eggplant may also help manage or prevent type 2 diabetes.
Bok Choy (Chinese Cabbage)
- 1 cup of shredded bok choy contains 1 gram of protein
Protein accounts for 28% of the calories in bok choy. A good source of calcium, potassium, folate, manganese, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K, bok choy also has antioxidants, and has been observed to have anti-inflammatory properties. An animal study showed that supplements of bok choy powder reduced the risk of liver cancer, and some studies suggest that an intake of Brassica vegetables like bok choy can decrease the risk of prostate cancer. Common in Asian recipes, bok choy can be used in kimchi, spring rolls, and wok dishes.
- 1 cup of chopped carrots contains 1.19 grams of protein
Though thought of as an orange vegetable, carrots can actually come in a variety of colors including purple, yellow, white, and red. The name “carrot” comes from the Greek karoton, meaning “horn,” and the average American eats 12 pounds of carrots each year, or roughly 1 cup per week. With a healthy dose of vitamin A good for fighting inflammation, studies have shown that diets high in foods with carotenoids provide a lower risk of heart disease. Carrots contain beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the liver, and eventually reaches the retina in the form of rhodopsin, a purple pigment needed for strong night vision.
- 1 cup of alfalfa sprouts contains 1.3 grams of protein
Alfalfa sprouts are the shoots from the alfalfa plant and contain a concentrated amount of calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin C. Vitamin K contributes to blood clotting and can help heal open wounds, while calcium helps you build strong bones. The iron content in alfalfa sprouts improves your blood circulation, the omega-3 fatty acids they provide keeps your hair healthy. These benefits along with their protein content make alfalfa sprouts a great addition to your diet.
Red Bell Pepper
- 1 cup of raw chopped bell peppers has 1.48 grams of protein
This vitamin-C-rich vegetable contains antioxidants and other nutrients that can improve eye health and reduce your risk of several chronic diseases. Red bell peppers are particularly singled out because the red ones stay on the vine the longest and bring you the highest number of dietary benefits.
- 1 cup of chopped mustard greens contains 1.5 grams of protein
The protein content in mustard greens accounts for 25% of its calories. Similar to kale and with a distinct mustard flavor, these Brassica greens can provide 348% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin K per cup. High in potassium, manganese, calcium, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin E, mustard greens also contain phenolic compounds and antioxidant properties. Whether boiled, steamed, sautéed, or eaten raw in salads, mustard greens may help reduce cholesterol levels as well as provide you with protein.
- 1 cup sliced and cooked zucchini contains 2.05 grams of protein
The most prominent nutrients in a zucchini are copper, which helps maintain our bones and tissues, and manganese, which helps to regulate blood sugar. It may be low in protein, but 2 grams of protein along with its fiber makes zucchini a valuable addition to this list. Cook it in olive oil for a side dish or dice it into a soup to gain these benefits.
- 1 cup of chopped cauliflower contains 2.28 grams of protein
With high amounts of vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant, cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. It makes a great low-carb pizza crust and can also replace mashed potatoes when properly prepared.
- 1 cup cooked cup of kale contains 2.47 grams of protein
Kale contains fiber, antioxidants, calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin C, along with iron and protein. Bake yourself some kale chips and know that kale increases bone health, has anti-inflammatory properties, and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- 1 cup of cubed avocado contains 3 grams of protein
Packed with potassium, dietary fiber, and fats, avocado is known to increase the “good” HDL (high-density lipoproteins) cholesterol and decrease the “bad” LDL (low-density lipoproteins). This makes it a great fat to include in your diet—slice it over toast to enjoy its buttery quality, or add its rich texture to a healthy smoothie to easily gain its protein content.
Broccoli Rabe (or Broccoli Raab)
- 1 cooked cup of broccoli rabe contains 3.26 grams of protein
Different from regular broccoli, broccoli rabe is full of vitamins A, C, and K, and minerals like calcium, folate, and iron. Broccoli rabe aids in digestion, helps you feel fuller longer, and supports healthy weight loss. Slightly bitter in taste, it’s nevertheless a high-protein vegetable that provides bone-protecting calcium and helps lower your risk for heart disease.
- 1 cup of sautéed beet greens contains 3.7 grams of protein
The leafy greens that crown your average beet, these beet greens provide good amounts of protein, zinc, phosphorus, and fiber. Packed with antioxidants, they are also high in vitamin B6, magnesium, copper, manganese, and potassium, while also being low in fat and cholesterol.
- 1 cup of broccoli contains 3.7 grams of protein
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable with vitamin K, vitamin C, folate (folic acid), and potassium. The vitamin C in broccoli can help build collagen and heal wounds, and serves as an antioxidant that protects the body from harmful free radicals.
- 1 cup of grilled portobello mushroom contains 3.97 grams of protein
Portobello mushrooms specifically are a good source of fiber and B vitamin benefits, and offer up a decent serving of protein. They are also one of the few non-animal-based sources of vitamin D, which boosts immunity and is important for bone health.
- 1 cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 3.98 grams of protein
Another cruciferous vegetable like broccoli and cabbage, Brussels sprouts are high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, with added health benefits like the potential to reduce the risk of cancer, decrease inflammation, and improve your blood sugar control.
- 1 cup of baked (with skin) sweet potato contains 4.02 grams of protein
Sweet potatoes are a great source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals like iron, calcium, and selenium. Rich in B vitamins and vitamin C, sweet potatoes also contain carotenoids, which are disease-fighting compounds that help improve the glow of your skin.
- 1 cup of sweet corn kernels contains 4.21 grams of protein
Full of lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that promote healthy vision, sweet corn adds insoluble fiber to your diet that feeds good bacteria in your gut and provides free-radical fighting antioxidants.
- 1 cup of cooked asparagus contains 4.32 grams of protein
Asparagus has a long list of benefits, including folate, fiber, vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as chromium, which aids the work of insulin. Besides being a great protein source, asparagus promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria and can even ease a hangover: the minerals and amino acids in asparagus extract may help protect your liver cells from the toxins in alcohol.
- 1 cup of cooked spinach contains 5.35 grams of protein
With an excellent protein punch, a single cup of cooked spinach also has over 5 grams of fiber, along with many other vitamins and minerals like potassium, magnesium, and vitamins B6, B9, and E. Spinach also has high amounts of carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, folic acid, and calcium. Be like Popeye and eat spinach for strength.
- 1 cup of cooked Hubbard squash contains 5.08 grams of protein
An excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, fiber, and copper, this winter squash is a good source of vitamin B2, folate, vitamin K, magnesium, and potassium. Hubbard squash seeds can also provide you with vitamin E when eaten.
- 1 cup of collard greens contains 5.15 grams of protein
Collard greens are a dark green leafy vegetable from the same cruciferous family as kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. A single cup of collard greens contains 230% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin K, along with helpings of calcium, dietary fiber, and folate. The B vitamins in collard greens help with the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that brings us the feeling of happiness and aids our energy levels, focus, and alertness. Collard greens have been linked to heart health, digestive support, and cancer prevention.
Steam cooking collard greens will retain the nutrients better, but whether steamed or sautéed, they’re a valuable contribution to your dinner plate.
- 1 cup of frozen then cooked green peas contains 8.24 grams of protein
Although peas are part of the legume family, green peas along with lima beans (next on the list) are similar to other starchy vegetables and are often grouped with them. With over 8 grams of protein, green peas contain vitamin K, thiamin, copper, vitamin C, and folate. Peas have a fantastic nutrition profile and are a great addition to any table as a side dish.
- 1 cup of lima beans contains 15 grams of protein
Along with a serious helping of protein, lima beans contain the amino acid leucine as well as molybdenum, dietary fiber, copper, manganese, folate, phosphorus, potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamin B1, and vitamin B6. These creamy and delicious seeds are a natural detoxifying food and are sometimes called butter beans in reference to their flavor.
- 1 cup of edamame contains 17 grams of protein
In addition to being a valuable source of soy protein, edamame also provides fiber, antioxidants, and a good deal of vitamin K, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease and improves healthy immune function.
- 1 cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein
A wonderful source of protein, lentils have been shown to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and stabilize blood sugar. Lentils can be mashed into veggie burgers, made into a hummus-like dip, and are a great source of folate and magnesium, two big contributors to heart health.
- 1 cup of black beans contains 39 grams of protein
Black beans have heart-healthy folate, fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, and a whopping 39 grams of protein in just a single cup, making them the highest addition to our list. If you’re looking for a protein-rich plant source, look no further: you’ve found it!
Valuable Vegetables and Plants High in Protein
There you have it: mix and match these vegetable sources of protein in your diet to get all the protein you need from plants and veggies.