Plant-Based Sources of Protein

Any time I mention veganism, I feel the need to precursor the discussion with the fact that in no way am I suggesting that anyone is wrong for not practicing a plant-based diet or that it is necessarily healthier than an omnivorous one. Without a doubt, circumstances of food availability are different around the world, and regardless of our whereabouts, we all have personal versions of what we will and will not do or eat.

This article will be about plant-based sources of protein, not ignoring the fact that animal-based protein exists but offering alternatives for those who are interested. For those who aren’t, that’s your prerogative, and in this instance, no one is asking you to do anything differently or judging you for choosing to eat meat. Obviously, most of us—carnivores included— hope animals that become food are treated as humanely as possible, and obviously, animals have been eaten for millennia.

I felt the need to write this article because I’ve been watching a lot of permaculture videos with references to protein production, almost exclusively when talking about raising animals. I’ve heard very little about protein production in terms of plants. In reality, permaculture gardens are often wrought with plant-based protein, so for those who’d either like to supplement or replace their animal-based protein with plants. Here’s what you should be growing.


Pulses (Courtesy of katjung)

Legumes are amongst the most revered plants in permaculture, but this is usually for their nitrogen-fixing ability. We plant legumes in abundance both to revitalize depleted soils and to then keep them fertile. Some legumes aren’t edible, but there is a large selection of appetizing—both annual and perennial—options.

In addition to being good for the soil, they are also a great source of protein, with some varieties supplying as much per serving as beef, fish, or chicken. As a vegan, legumes—pulses—are a part of my everyday diet, and as a permaculturist, they are a large feature in nearly every garden design that I do, from annual beds to food forest.

Some of my favorite varieties to eat and grow include cowpea, pigeon peas, scarlet runner beans, and just about any kind available at a run-of-the-mill supermarket: white, red, black, pinto, garden pea, chickpea, spilt peas, lentils, and so on.


Pecans (Courtesy of Corey Leopold)

In the search for perennial sources of food, large trees are the centerpiece. We often talk about this in terms of fruit, but nuts come from trees as well. Though many of them take a while to provide yields, when they do, it is abundant and highly nutritious. What’s more is that they can be sized throughout the food forests, including the canopy, understory, and shrubs/hedges.

Nuts are a great source of protein and generally regarded as a healthy source of fat, which is often a concern for those on whole food (not processed) plant-based diets. As a vegan, nuts are my favorite snack, something easy and energizing to grab on the go, and as a permaculturalist, they are a great productive element in a food forest and, eventually, great lumber.

Some of the faster varieties include almonds, chestnuts, and hazelnuts, and some other obvious favorites are pecans (my ultimate choice), walnuts (may require buffer plants, like mulberry or black locust), and macadamias (tropical).


Seeds (Courtesy of Marco Verch)

Generally, seeds are talked about in terms of what we can grow rather than a source of food, and of course, sowing is a huge part of what we do with seeds. First things first, we need to establish next year’s crop, at least with the annuals, but generally, many plants with healthy, edible seeds tend to produce them in abundance.

For some reason, seeds are overlooked in many diets, but they are a crazy nutritious source of protein, again with good fat (especially omega 3), as well as vitamins and minerals. As a vegan, I like to add them to salads, porridge, and bread, and as a permaculturalist, they are often secondary harvest from something or a good calorie-producer that also attracts pollinators.

Usually, with seeds, we think of pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame, and with the superfood movement, chia, flax, and hemp have also come onto this scene. Quinoa and amaranth, as well as several other seeds, are often lumped with grains because they can be prepared similarly.

Whole Grains

Oatmeal (Courtesy of Achi Raz)

Many people these days are avoiding grains, moving both their diets (the gluten-free thing) and gardens (the monoculture thing) away from them. However, they most definitely have their place in both, and though they are generally annual crops, they are well-established components of agricultural production, which means we eat them a lot.

Grains have a reputation for being a carbohydrate, but some whole grains are a surprisingly good source of protein. As a largely whole food vegan, I limit the amount of bread in my diet (my wife and I try to make the bread we eat), but I have rice and/or porridge on almost a daily basis, and as a permaculturalist, I can’t help but think about all that good mulch material left after a harvest.

In addition to bread, rice, and porridge, there are some great whole grains—rye, barley, millet—that we don’t see nearly enough. They can be planted as part of diverse systems and utilized in diverse diets.

Dark, Leafy Greens

Rainbow Chard (Courtesy of Local Food Intiative)

Greens are a huge part of just about any garden. They are often easy to grow, and they can be harvested as they are needed. Greens are a great starter crops for newbies, as many can be grown in containers on a windowsill and provide results relatively quickly. Otherwise, many of them are marvelous because they tolerate (or even improve with) a little frost.

Dark, leafy greens should really be the staple of any healthy diet. They have a high protein count for a vegetable, and they are leading source of vitamins and minerals necessary in both plant-based and omnivorous diets. As a vegan or carnivore, they are vital to a full diet, and as a permaculturalist, they are a huge part of the kitchen garden, harvested daily.

Spinach, kale, mustard, chard, and collards have all really become staples in the vegetable market. There are also leafy (rather than heady) lettuces, like arugula, and wild edibles, like dandelion. I’ve also been lucky enough to regularly have leafy superfoods, such as moringa, katuk, and chaya.

And Just About Anything Else

Potatoes (Courtesy of Jeremy Keith)

When it comes to natural, whole foods, just about all of them provide some ration of protein, and though one potato or banana won’t provide a daily allowance, in a balanced diet, the accumulation of these small stores can quickly add up to a meaningful percentage of what a person needs. Broccoli has enough to be of significance, as do raisins and many dried fruits. In other words, with a balanced plant-based diet, getting enough protein is not a huge concern.

Also, for the vegan version of this, it’s worth noting that very few sources of plant-based proteins have all of the essential amino acids (soy is one of the few that does), but through a varied supply of protein, it’s very easy to get all of these. For example, rice and beans provides a complete protein, which explains why it is such a huge, functional part of vegetarian and low-income diets.

Ultimately, while protein production might habitually be a reference to raising animals for food, the truth of the matter is that our gardens, without ever considering the domesticated animals that may or may not be there, are likely full of protein. That production can undoubtedly be dramatically increased by including animals, but that source is definitely not the only unit by which to measure protein output. In fact, in terms of protein, it isn’t even necessary.

Header Image: Hands with Moringa (Courtesy of Books for Life)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Cool essay, helpful to encourage new ways of seeing protein. Let us not forget that all proteins have to be broken down into their amino acid building blocks to be utilized and guess where all amino acids come from? Plants.

  2. Great article! Thanks.
    As a 20year vegan and a 5 year permaculture enthusiast, this was great to read. Very well stated and I love how you ended with “and just about anything else!”
    We just finished watching “what the health” and I recommend it. They showed how All protein comes from plants first and just accumulates in the meet as a second hand (inferior) product.
    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks
    Best wishes, Kyle

  3. I have a MS in Nutritional Biochemistry and protein is the most misunderstood nutrient. It is the most important nutrient, literally essential for life…which is why we are so efficient at extracting and recycling it. We only need 10-15% OF CALORIES from protein from all sources (even “incomplete”). More than that is used for energy (can’t be stored)which is wasteful and each amino acid has at least one very toxic ammonia molecule that must be removed and converted to urea to get it out of our bodies(along with minerals). Countries with most protein and dairy consumption have highest osteporosis. Even lettuce has 10% protein calories so the only documented cases of people getting enough calories but being protein deficient (Kwashiorkor= swollen belly) is from a monoculture diet of cassava (nearly pure carbs). We evolved from primates which are a vegetarian design (+bugs incidentally or on purpose for B-12) but we developed a more omnivorous design for increased adaptability in a rapidly changing environment, not because we needed a lot more protein. A vegetarian/vegan consuming enough calories from mixed whole plant foods, like from a permaculture polyculture, are in no danger of protein deficiency. Gorilla’s are essentially vegans who eat a few bugs and they are built like…gorillas; without protein shakes, complimentary, or “complete” proteins. Eat a mixed polyculture diet with or without animal foods as you desire. Enjoy it and give thanks for it and don’t worry about protein.

  4. Actually very few plant foods do not contain all essential amino acids. The limiting essential amino acid is lysine. Non exercising vegans have to be watch their caloric input. Vegan athletes eat more calories and so will certainly meet their lysine needs. The myth that plant foods are incomplete is just that- a myth.

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