When you think of protein, a large piece of steak or a bacon omelette may come to mind.
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But protein does not come only from animal-based foods. Many plants are also rich in protein.
So if you are thinking of going vegetarian or vegan – or just reducing the amount of meat you eat a few days a week – you can still get the nutrients you need. In fact, a diet rich in plant-based foods can get you on the right track to lower your risk of many chronic diseases and help you feel better overall.
“On a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get enough protein if you eat an adequate number of calories from a set of whole foods,” says registered dietitian Nancy Geib, RD, LDN.
How much protein do you need?
Protein is the main building block of your body. “It’s essential to build muscle and tendons and skin tissue, and it helps your body produce antibodies to fight infections,” says Geib.
Ideally, healthy adults should get about 0.36 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight each day. This comes out to 54 grams or more for an adult 150 pounds.
But this is only a starting point. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you are an athlete, you will need more. “It depends on many factors including your level of individual activity and your muscle mass,” says Geib.
For most people, it is not necessary to accurately calculate or monitor the amount of protein you eat each day.
“Just make sure you are eating with every meal,” Geib says. “Many times I will see vegetarians and vegans eating a lot of pasta or junk foods, and they are not getting into those fruits and vegetables and that well balanced diet.”
If you feel weak or tired regularly, or if you feel hungry right after eating a meal, these may be signs that you are not getting enough. A registered dietitian can help you make adjustments to your diet to make sure you are nourishing your body properly.
The best sources of plant protein
Here’s how different sources of vegan and vegetarian protein accumulate:
- Beans: Just half a cup of each bean variety contains 6 to 9 grams of protein – plus 6 to 8 grams of fiber to keep you full. Beans can also help lower cholesterol and promote healthy gut bacteria.
- Lenses: Whether they are brown, green or red, adding half a cup of cooked lentils to soups, curries, tacos or salads adds about 12 grams of protein to your meal. Check out wholesale baskets at your grocery store for the best deals.
- Edamame: These lightly boiled or steamed soybeans – often still served in their shells – make a snack or excellent snack. One cup of edamame (not in its shell) packs 18 grams of protein. Even better news? Whole soy is a complete protein, which means it provides all the amino acids your body needs but cannot produce on its own.
- Tofu: Tofu, made from soy, is so versatile that you can use it instead of meat in a recipe or even as a base for creamy desserts. You will get 8 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving. Look for non-GMO or organic varieties with short ingredient lists.
- TempehMade from soy that is fermented and pressed into a block, tempeh is rich in protein, prebiotics and other nutrients. Because it is more compact than tofu, it is higher in protein – a three ounce ration will give you 15 to 16 grams. Tempeh’s strong but chewy quality makes it a great addition to sandwiches and salads. Or, crumble to replace minced meat in recipes.
- Kokrra: You probably think grains are mostly carbohydrates, but they also contain a bit of protein. Half a cup of oats, for example, adds 5 grams of protein to your breakfast meal. A quarter cup of barley or quinoa also add 5 to 6 grams. Teff, millet, amaranth and other ancient cereals are also excellent options for mixing your meals.
- Green peas: Peas get a bad noise, but they are an excellent source of protein: A cup of cooked peas weighs 8 grams.
- Nuts: Although technically a legume, peanuts pack the most protein of all commonly consumed nuts (9 grams per quarter cup serving). Almonds and pistachios are close to 7 and 6 grams, respectively. Take a handful as a snack or garnish your breakfast oatmeal with a tablespoon of walnut butter to add protein and filling fats.
- Soybeans: Like nuts, seeds are a great source of protein and unsaturated fats. For a snack, look for sunflower seeds, which contain 8 grams of protein per ounce, or pumpkin seeds, which have 7 grams per ounce. You can also sprinkle hemp seeds, which have about 10 grams per ounce, on oatmeal or toast in the morning.
- Plant-based beverages: Some milk substitutes, such as soy milk and pea milk, have almost as much protein as cow’s milk. Look for sweetened or lightly sweetened varieties.
- Nutritional yeast: The secret ingredient in many vegan “cheese” sauces, nutritious yeast is a great source of protein and B vitamins. A tablespoon sprinkled on your meal adds two grams of protein.
- Vegetables: They are not the most abundant sources of protein, but if you eat a diet rich in vegetables, you will get a good amount of protein from them. For example, a cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contributes 4 grams of protein to your meal. One cup of sweet yellow corn is 5 grams. Leafy vegetables like spinach, hazelnuts and bok choy are low in calories but have a high calorie protein content.
- Meat substitutes: Artificial meat products may make the transition to a plant-based diet easier for meat lovers, but they are not all healthy. Choose options with minimal ingredients, plenty of protein and reasonable amounts of saturated fat and sodium.
If you are a vegetarian but not a vegan, you can include these other sources of protein in your diet:
- Eggs or egg whites: Eggs are a low cost and nutritious protein source. Each egg provides 6 to 8 grams. If you use egg whites, you will get fewer calories, but you will lose vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins located in the egg yolk.
- Dairy products: Milk, cheese and yogurt are excellent sources of protein and calcium. To get the most protein for your dollar, choose curd or plain Greek yogurt. Both pack 13 grams of protein or more per serving, and you can dress them up with fruit, nuts or granola for a full breakfast or snack.
Other nutritional considerations for vegetarians and vegans
In addition to protein, there are some other nutrients you will want to make sure you are getting enough nutrition with a non-meat diet. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to make sure your diet includes adequate amounts of:
- Vitamin B12.
- Vitamin D.
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
It may take a little planning and diligence, but rest assured that you can get the nutrients your body needs if you prefer a meat-free diet.