What is the most important concern people have when they find out you are eating a plant-based diet? Deficiencies! They will ask you a lot of questions like “how do you get your protein?” or “where do you get your calcium from? What about iron?!” etc. What most people won’t ask you is the following question:
What are the best lysine-rich plant foods?
Let’s be honest. Protein, calcium or iron aren’t a big problem since they can be found in a lot of different plant-foods. As long as you are eating a balanced diet you’re good. The essential amino acid lysine, on the other hand, is only found in small amounts in most plants and therefore often proclaimed the missing amino acid in vegan diets. But don’t freak out now, if you are already including some of the 11 foods listed below, which you most probably do, there is no reason to worry. Nevertheless, along with other vital nutrients such as vitamin B12 or vitamin D3 vegans should consciously include lysine-rich sources to provide optimal nutrient supply. In this post, you will learn everything you need to know about lysine plus the 11 best plant-based sources for lysine.
What is lysine?
You probably know that the building blocks of proteins are amino acids. There are basically 20 amino acids of which 9 are essential. These amino acids are called essential because, unlike the other 11 amino acids, they cannot be made by the body and must come from your diet.
Amino acids have the following functions:
- Building peptides and protein: When a cell needs a new protein or peptide it is looking for the “construction plan” inside your DNA. The “construction plan” is then copied from your DNA and the protein or peptide will be synthesized with all required amino acids according to this plan, so it can fulfill its function. If an amino acid is not available the protein won’t be synthesized. That’s why it is important to provide your body with all the building blocks it needs.
- Synthesizing neurotransmitters: Several amino acids are used to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin or adrenaline.
- Supporting the immune system: Amino acids affect immune responses and play a major role in regulating the body’s immune system. Among other things they mediate the functionality of macrophages and T cells and are also used to form different proteins for defense mechanisms. 
As you might have guessed already one of these 9 essential amino acids is lysine which is also the least abundant amino acid available in plant-foods.
So why do we need lysine anyway?
Within our body, lysine is needed for numerous biological processes. Lysine plays an important role in the formation of collagen, a substance important for bones and connective tissues including skin, tendons, and cartilage. In addition, lysine helps your body to absorb calcium and reduces the amount of calcium that is lost in urine. Since calcium is important for bone health researchers assume that there is a link between lysine and healthy bones.
If you are not sure whether or not you are getting enough lysine, then here are some symptoms you might notice:
- Loss of appetite
- Bloodshot eyes
- Reproductive disorders
However, if you encounter one of these symptoms keep in mind that the problem might be more holistic than you think. These symptoms can also be caused by several other things. It is nevertheless a good idea to track your daily lysine intakes for a few days, to get a feel for it and to know if you are meeting the RDA for lysine. If you want to keep your manual work at a minimum you can use tools such as cronometer to track your intakes. If you are far below the RDA, try to incorporate some of the lysine-rich foods listed below.
How much lysine do we need a day?
Research suggests that teenagers need around 40 mg of lysine per kg bodyweight daily. Adults need a slightly lower amount of 38 mg/kg bodyweight. This means based on your bodyweight you will want to consume about 1900 – 3400 mg of lysine daily. Since lysine is the least abundant amino acid in plant-sources you will know that:
If you meet your daily lysine requirements you will most probably also have covered your overall daily protein intake.
Amino acid pool
As we have learned before it is important to have all amino acids available for protein synthesis. That’s why statements like “You should eat complete protein sources” or “You have to combine different foods in the same meal to get a more complete amino acid profile” make sense in theory, although they are a misconception.
Your skeletal muscles have a sizeable pool of free amino acids which can compensate for low levels of certain amino acids. This means that it is not necessary to consume complementary proteins in the same meal and that the separation of the proteins among meals over the course of a day is sufficient. Of course, combining food sources or eating more complete protein is never a bad idea. I just want to point out that it isn’t necessarily more effective and that you don’t have to meticulously watch the amino acid profiles of the foods you consume in a single meal.
So now that we got the basics covered, let’s take a look at the best plant-based sources for lysine!
Top 11 lysine-rich plant foods
Plant foods high in lysine are mainly found in legumes, grains, and nuts. Below is a list of the 11 best plant-based source for lysine. I also summarized the main characteristics in the chart below.
This fermented soy product from Indonesia provides 15g of protein and 754 mg lysine per ½ cup serving. Compared to tofu which is made from soybean extract, tempeh keeps all the fiber of the original soybean during fermentation. This is especially good for your digestive tract. Similar to tofu you can add tempeh with its nutty flavor to a lot of different meals.
Oatmeal is my favorite breakfast. A 2/3 cup serving of oats already provides 17 g of protein and 721 mg of lysine. This is the amount I use for my daily oatmeal which provides 1,200 mg of lysine in total. You can check out the recipe my plant-based breakfast post. Oats are also rich in vitamin B1, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
I discovered this super grain about one year ago. Lupins are packed with fiber, vitamin B, and essential minerals. Lupins ½ cup provides 13 g of protein and 691 mg of lysine. I also like to use lupin protein powder every now and then. This is also a good way to up your lysine and protein intake if you are not able to meet your needs from whole foods. Despite the awesomeness of these beans, people already suffering from peanut allergies should avoid lupins due to allergic reactions.
Similar to tempeh soybeans have a high lysine content. With 665 mg of lysine per ½ cup serving and 11 g of protein, they are an excellent source. They also provide good amounts of calcium, iron, and magnesium. You can add these to salads, or combine them with rice, noodles or quinoa.
Lentils are fast to make, delicious and have a high lysine content. Per ½ cup serving they provide 647 mg of lysine and 9 g of protein. They are low in calories and are a good source of folate, iron, and potassium. Add your lentils to curries, stews or soups.
I love kidney beans and black beans. Now that I know that they are packed with 8 g of protein and about 550 mg of lysine per ½ cup serving I love them even more! Beans are also high in iron and magnesium. Try out some Mexican recipes or add them to salads or rice meals.
Chickpeas are so good. No matter if you eat them as hummus, falafel or in a curry. Just a ½ cup serving contains 486 mg of lysine and around 7 g of protein. All in all, they are the perfect package of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
8. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds have the most lysine based on a 100 g basis in this whole list. In a ¼ cup serving, they still provide 450 mg of lysine and 6 g of protein.  Pumpkin seeds are said to improve heart health, prostate health and protect against certain cancers. Pumpkin seeds are rich in antioxidants, iron, zinc, magnesium and many other nutrients. Next time you have a craving for munching something, munch on these!
Quinoa is very nutritious and has been consumed in South America for thousands of years. It contains all 9 essential amino acids with lysine being one of them. Quinoa has both more and better protein than most other grains. Just 1 cup of quinoa gives you 442 mg of lysine and about 8 g of protein. You can use quinoa for burger patties, salads, or just use it as a rice replacement.
When I am in Iran I have to privilege to eat these delicious nuts straight from the source. Similar to pumpkin seeds pistachios have one of the highest lysine contents per 100 g. One ¼ cup serving contains 368 mg of lysine and 7 g of protein. They are a powerful nutritional punch and are really good for your heart health.
The first time I saw real cashew fruits was in Brazil. When you are eating the nut you don’t think that the seed is only part of a tasty fruit. Cashew nuts have 286 mg of lysine and around 5 g of protein per ¼ cup serving. They also contain healthy fats and lots of minerals and vitamins.
Plant-based protein powders
Usually, I am not a big fan of supplements in general. But if you cannot get your daily lysine intake from whole foods there are some plant-based protein powders you can take to get an extra boost of lysine. One scoop of pea, lupin or hemp protein easily exceeds the lysine content of most of the above-mentioned foods.
Lysine-rich plant foods – Summary
The following table summarizes the 11 whole food sources mentioned above plus the 3 protein powders. It shows you how many grams the servings have and also the lysine and protein content on a 100-gram basis.
|Lysine [mg]||Protein [g]||Lysine [mg]||Protein [g]||Serving||Serving [g]|
|Kidney beans||627||9||555||8||1/2 cup||89|
|Black beans||608||9||523||8||1/2 cup||86|
|Pumpkin seeds||1,386||19||450||6||1/4 cup||33|
|Hemp protein||2,110||45||633||14||1 scoop||30|
|Pea protein||7,700||85||2,310||26||1 scoop||30|
|Lupin protein||4,600||42||1,380||13||1 scoop||30|
I hope you enjoyed this post! Let me know in the comments if there are any other plant-based sources I missed. Share this post with your vegan friends so they know about lysine too.
Peace and take care!
 Young, V. R., & Pellett, P. L. (1994). Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 59(5), 1203S-1212S.
 Trumbo, P., Schlicker, S., Yates, A. A., & Poos, M. (2002). Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(11), 1621-1630.
 Additional information: The official suggestion by the WHO is 30 mg/kg per day for adults.
World Health Organization, & United Nations University. (2007). Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition (Vol. 935). World Health Organization, P. 136.
Photo credits: © colnihko / Fotolia