Where can you get the highest plant protein for the calorie? Find out here.
The benefits of protein are numerous, and plants high in protein have the benefit of additional vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plant-based proteins are in many raw and prepared food products. They offer many of the same benefits as meat, dairy, and egg proteins, but often with fewer calories, so you can eat much more.
Where Do Calories Come From?
A calorie is a unit of energy in food. The body uses this energy to function, and if not used, it is stored in the body as fat. Calories come from only three nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each provides slightly different calories per gram of mass, but as an approximation, carbohydrates and proteins have about 4 calories per gram, and fat has about 9 calories per gram.
- Carbohydrates are about 4 calories per gram
- Proteins are about 4 calories per gram
- Fats are about 9 calories per gram
As an example, let’s look at the nutrition label for Naked Pea protein powder. We see in a serving there are 120 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 2 grams of carbohydrates, and 27 grams of protein. Using the figures above we get:
0.5 grams fat x 9 calories = 4.5 calories
2 grams carbohydrates x 4 calories = 8 calories
27 grams protein x 4 calories = 108 calories
4.5 + 8 + 108 = 120.5 calories total
This is an example of a food that has very little carbs or fat. 90% of the calories are from protein.
Plants That Provide Protein
Some plant-based foods are high in protein but low in calories. To put this another way, high-protein, low-calorie means few carbohydrates and fats. Eating plenty of these foods, especially leafy green vegetables and legumes, or beans, will help fill you up with plenty of protein and vitamins, but with few calories.
High-protein, low-calorie means few carbohydrates and fats.
Most raw foods have a combination of all three calorie generators. A food with very few fats and carbs would be close to 4 calories per gram, the amount produced by the protein. The more calories per gram over 4, the more there is a combination of fats and carbohydrates in the food. Other nutrients, such as water, minerals, and vitamins, although very useful to the body, do not have calories, but they do add to the mass. Also to note is that plant-based protein is sometimes calculated as less calories per gram. Although there are numerous benefits from plant protein, there is somewhat of a difference between these and milk, dairy, and egg proteins. Unlike many animal-based proteins, those found in plants are not always “complete”, with all the nine essential amino acids that the body needs from proteins. For this reason, it’s good to eat a variety of plant-based protein vegetables, legumes, and nuts. Soy is somewhat the exception, being a complete protein.
How to read this chart:
- Column one is the food or food group, as well as the form, if applicable (e.g. cooked, raw, roasted)
- Column two is the calories per gram of protein. For example, 8 means 8 calories per 1 gram of protein. The lower the calories, the less carbs and fats.
- Column three is the percent protein in the mass of the food. Most of the mass may be water and other nutrients. For example, 10% means 10 grams of protein for 100 grams of food. Cooked foods have added water, and although the calories for each protein gram are the same, the percent of protein drops because of the water being added to the total mass. (Percentages under 10% are listed to a tenth of a percent)
Lowest Calorie Plant-Based Protein Sources Chart
|Food||Calories per gram of protein||Percent protein|
|1||Seitan||5 – 8||18 – 25%|
|2||Raw alfalfa sprouts||6||4%|
|3||Sprouted kidney beans||7||4.2%|
|5||Mushrooms (white, portabella)||7 – 9||3.1 – 3.3%|
|6||Nutritional yeast||8||45 – 53%|
|8||Tofu||8 – 10||6.6 – 17%|
|10||Tempeh||9 – 13||13 – 20%|
|12||Sprouted soy or mung beans||10||3%|
|15||Raw cilantro, parsley||11 – 12||2.1 – 3%|
|18||Raw kale or broccoli||12||2.8 – 2.9%|
|19||Lentils (sprouted or cooked)||12 – 13||9%|
|21||Brussels sprouts (cooked)||14||2.6%|
|22||Black eyed peas (cooked)||15||7.7%|
|23||Kidney, lima, black beans (cooked)||15||7.8 – 8.9%|
|24||Green peas (cooked)||15||5.2%|
|25||Pinto or navy beans (cooked)||16 – 17||8.2 – 9%|
|27||Hemp seeds (raw and hulled)||18||33%|
|29||Raw shelled pumpkin seeds||20||30%|
|31||Whole wheat bread||20-27||11 – 12%|
|38||Raw pistachio nuts||28||20%|
|39||Sweet corn (cooked)||28||3.4%|
|43||Raw cashew nuts||30||18%|
|46||Potatoes (roasted, cooked)||38 – 43||2.4 – 2.5%|
Research in food protein and calorie chart is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.