6 top sources of plant protein

Meat-free alternatives that pack protein to fuel and rebuild your muscles – without unhealthy fats.

by Jessica Girdwain

Runners need more protein than couch potatoes (obviously) and more even than strength-based athletes (surprisingly). ‘Protein is broken down into fuel during long runs and used to repair muscle damage after workouts,’ says nutritionist Dr Janet Brill. But if you’re vegetarian, packing your diet with protein can be problematic. And even if you’re not, with studies showing that the saturated fats and cholesterol in diets heavy in red and processed meat are associated with heart disease and cancer, lining up some go-to veggie protein sources is a smart move.

Plant-based diets can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. So runners, and even committed carnivores, should try to eat more veggie protein sources such as soya and legumes. This will also sneak in additional carbs, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Seeds and nuts

‘There’s good reason chia seeds are the new nutritional superstar,’ says Brill. They pack 6g of protein and 10g of fibre into two tablespoons. You also get 5g of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has been linked to reduced heart disease risk. Flaxseeds are also rich in ALA. And both are excellent sources of manganese, which helps convert fat and carbs into energy. Make nuts your post-run snack of choice. ‘Nuts offer varied nutritional profiles – some rich in calcium and magnesium; others, potassium – so they replace the electrolytes lost through sweat,’ says nutritionist Kristine Duncan.

Eat It 

Chia seeds expand and become gel-like when wet. Make a tapioca-like pudding by mixing with water and then topping with fruit, honey and cinnamon.


Tofu is made from soya milk curd and is pressed into a block. The smooth, soft texture handily adopts the flavours of sauces and spices. And for every 88kcal, it offers 10g of protein (and a modest 5g of fat). Tofu is also rich in heart-protective compounds called isoflavones, which US research from Columbia University found may produce enzymes that create nitric oxide, which keeps blood vessels healthy, boosts blood flow and improves muscle function. Isoflavones also speed recovery by reducing free-radical damage in muscles.

Eat it

Use silken tofu instead of ricotta cheese in lasagne, says Duncan. Or grill cubes of the firmer stuff with your favourite spices.


This nutty-flavoured meat substitute gets its chewy texture from cooked and fermented soya beans. It’s less processed than tofu, so it retains more nutrients, such as protein and fibre, explains Brill. You’ll find 23g of protein per 100g, plus 5g of fibre and 10g of fat – an ideal trio for keeping appetite at bay. Tempeh also packs a hefty calcium hit, and research in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition has found that the body absorbs calcium from tempeh just as well as it does from milk.

Eat it

Like tofu, tempeh will soak up the flavours it’s prepared with. But unlike tofu, which you can eat uncooked, it’s best heated. Brill suggests chopping it into bite-size pieces and using in a stir-fry.


‘Seitan is a brilliant alternative option for carnivores, or vegetarians who miss eating meat,’ says Brill. ‘Made from wheat gluten, it’s got a hearty beef-jerky taste and texture.’ Pronounced ‘say-tan’, seitan packs 75g of protein per 100g – which is three times more than that of 100g of chicken breast. It can be very high in salt – but that doesn’t have to be a huge concern for runners, says Duncan: ‘If you’re losing sodium through sweat, you can fit in a few high-sodium foods safely.’

Eat it

You can buy packets of ground seitan (Lima Organic Seitan, £11.90 for 500g, from amazon.co.uk) and stir into tomato sauce as a tasty topper for pizza or pasta dishes. Or saute strips of seitan with olive oil and herbs until brown and use to top off a salad.

Beans and lentils

Beans pack similarly high amounts of protein between varieties – per 100g: 5g in pinto, 6g in haricot and 10g in edamame. If you’re worried about things getting, ahem, breezy, research published in Nutrition Journal found less than half of people who ramp up their bean intake report gastrointestinal issues. Make room for lentils, too: they are similar in protein to beans (9g per 100g), but they offer twice the iron content. And iron is crucial for shuttling oxygen around the body to muscle cells.

Eat it

Using a food processor, puree canned beans with garlic, olive oil and salt; spread on sandwiches or use as a dip. Pairing vitamin C with iron-rich foods will improve your body’s absorption of iron, research shows.

Non-dairy milk

Dairy is a major source of bone-building calcium and vitamin D, and research shows increasing your intake of these nutrients can boost fat burning. But you can get both from non-dairy alternatives, such as soya milk. ‘It’s the best of the bunch in terms of protein, with 2.5g per 100ml compared with 3.5g in cow’s milk,’ says Brill. Unsweetened almond milk is a good option for weight-conscious runners, with just 15kcal per 100ml, but it’s low in protein. Oat milk is higher in carbs and sugar, so perfect as a pre-run snack.

Eat it

Drink chocolate soya milk (Alpro Chocolate Milk Alternative, £1.29 for 1L, ocado.com) for a recovery snack. Add a scoop of powdered soya milk to soups, smoothies or cereal for a protein boost.

Power switches

Here are some more meat-free protein sources to fuel your body

  • Amaranth: This grain offers 14g per 100g cooked, which is more than quinoa.
  • Green peas: Peas contain 5g of protein per 100g and they cook in minutes.
  • Nutritional yeast: Use on veg when roasting. It has 3g of protein per two tablespoons.
  • Porridge oats: In a 50g serving of dried oats, you get 8g of protein.
  • Portobello mushroom: One shroom contains 2g of protein. Grill burger-style or toss into salads.
  • Cooked spinach: Delivers 3g per 100g. Use with nutritional yeast for bonus vitamins.

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