Top 6 Meat-Free Protein Sources

Protein-rich meats are go-to bodybuilding foods for good reason, but you can crank up your muscle-making machine with these plant-based sources, too!

January 23, 2014

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Hemp Seeds

Here’s some groovy news: Nutty-tasting hemp seeds possess more protein, roughly 11 grams per ounce, than most other seeds. A recent study by Canadian scientists reported the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score of hemp, research speak for the protein value of a food, is greater than that of many other plant-based foods. [1]

EAT MORE: Toss ’em into oatmeal, yogurt, salads and smoothies.


Japan’s favorite legume boasts an impressive résumé of vitamins and minerals, but its protein payload — about 16 grams in a cup of shelled beans — is eye-popping. Researchers at the University of Arkansas (Little Rock) found soy protein to be just as effective as casein protein at preventing muscle breakdown and stimulating muscle protein synthesis. [2]

EAT MORE: For a protein-packed snack season some boiled, shelled edamame with sea salt, cayenne and lemon juice.

Canned Chickpeas

Mass hounds should hit the canned food aisle and load up on chickpeas. A mere half-cup of these legumes supplies 11 grams of protein and stellar amounts of fat-torching fiber. Look for brands like Eden which supply canned chickpeas free of added salt.

EAT MORE: Add to salads, pasta, soups, chilis, cooked rice or quinoa.

Dried Lentils

With 18 grams of protein in a cup serving along with impressive amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals, this little legume offers some serious nutritional bang for your buck. Plus, they don’t require the annoying presoak that dried beans do.

EAT MORE: Cook a big pot and add to chilis, pasta sauces, soups and salads. Cooked lentils will keep in the fridge for about five days.

Soba Noodles

Made with the gluten-free buckwheat, soba noodles offer 8 grams of protein in a 2-ounce serving (a couple of extra grams over most whole-wheat noodles). They’re a great addition to a post-workout meal to help repair weary muscles. An added benefit for the harried cook? They cook faster than regular pastas.

EAT MORE: Prepare according to package directions and toss with your favorite meat sauce.


Bodybuilders should go nuts for almonds. Ounce for ounce they lead most nuts in the protein department with 6 grams in an ounce serving (about 22 nuts). They’re also laced with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and vitamin E. As a potent antioxidant, vitamin E may help mend worn and torn muscles.

EAT MORE: Snack on them throughout the day or chop them and add to your oatmeal and steamed vegetables.

(1) House, J.D., et al. Evaluating the quality of protein from hemp seed (Cannabis sativa L.) products through the use of the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score method. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Nov 24;58(22).

(2) Luiking, Y.C. et al. Differential metabolic effects of casein and soy-protein meals on skeletal muscle in healthy volunteers. Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb;30(1):65-72.