When you think of protein, a big piece of steak or an omelet with bacon might come to mind.
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But protein doesn’t just come from animal-based foods. Many plants are high in protein, too.
So if you’re thinking of going vegetarian or vegan — or just scaling back on your meat intake a few days a week – you can still get the nutrients you need. In fact, a diet rich with whole plant foods can get you on the right track to lowering your risk for many chronic illnesses 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 variety of whole foods,” says registered dietitian Nancy Geib, RD, LDN.
How much protein do you need?
Protein is your body’s main building block. “It’s essential to make muscles and tendons and skin tissues, and it helps your body produce antibodies to fight infections,” Geib says.
Ideally, healthy adults should get about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of their body weight each day. That comes out to 54 grams or so for a 150-pound adult.
But that’s just a starting point. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you’re an athlete, you’ll need more. “It depends on many factors including your individual activity level and your muscle mass,” Geib says.
For most people, it’s not necessary to meticulously count or track how much protein you’re eating every day.
“Just make sure you’re eating some with every meal,” Geib says. “A lot of times I’ll see vegetarians and vegans who are eating a lot of pasta or junk food, and they’re not getting in those fruits and vegetables and that well-balanced diet.”
If you feel weak or fatigued regularly, or if you find yourself getting hungry shortly after eating a meal, those could be signs that you’re not getting enough. A registered dietitian can help you make tweaks to your diet to make sure you’re properly fueling your body.
Best plant protein sources
Here’s how different vegan and vegetarian protein sources stack up:
- Beans: Just a half cup of any bean variety packs 6 to 9 grams of protein — plus 6 to 8 grams of fiber to keep you full. Beans may also help lower cholesterol and promote healthy gut bacteria.
- Lentils: Whether they’re brown, green or red, adding a half cup of cooked lentils to soups, curries, tacos or salads adds about 12 grams of protein to your meal. Check the bulk bins at your grocery store for the best deals.
- Edamame: These lightly boiled or steamed soybeans — often served still in their shell — make a great snack or appetizer. One cup of edamame (not in its shell) packs 18 grams of protein. The even better news? Whole soy is a complete protein, which means it provides all the amino acids your body needs but can’t make on its own.
- Tofu: Tofu, which is made from soybeans, is so versatile that you can use it in place of meat in a recipe or even as a base for creamy desserts. You’ll get 8 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving. Look for non-GMO or organic varieties with short ingredients lists.
- Tempeh: Made from soybeans that are fermented and pressed into a block, tempeh is high in protein, prebiotics and other nutrients. Because it’s more compact than tofu, it’s higher in protein — a three ounce serving will give you 15 to 16 grams. Tempeh’s firm but chewy texture makes it a superb addition to sandwiches and salads. Or, crumble it to substitute for ground meat in recipes.
- Grains: You probably think of grains as primarily carbohydrates, but they also pack a protein punch. A half-cup serving of oats, for instance, adds 5 grams of protein to your morning meal. A quarter cup (uncooked) of barley or quinoa also add 5 to 6 grams. Teff, millet, amaranth and other ancient grains are also great options to mix up your meals.
- Green peas: Peas get a bad rap, but they’re a great source of protein: One cup of cooked peas has 8 grams.
- Nuts: Though it’s technically a legume, the peanut packs the most protein out of all the commonly consumed nuts (9 grams per quarter-cup serving). Almonds and pistachios are close behind with 7 and 6 grams, respectively. Grab a handful as a snack or garnish your morning oats with a tablespoon of nut butter to add protein and filling fats.
- Seeds: Like nuts, seeds are a great source of protein and unsaturated fats. For a snack, reach 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 your morning oatmeal or toast.
- Plant-based beverages: Some milk substitutes, such as soy milk and pea milk, have nearly as much protein as cow’s milk. Look for unsweetened or lightly sweetened varieties.
- Nutritional yeast: The secret ingredient in many vegan “cheese” sauces, nutritional yeast is a great source of protein and B vitamins. One tablespoon sprinkled on top of your meal adds two grams of protein.
- Vegetables: They’re not the most abundant sources of protein, but if you’re eating a diet heavy in vegetables, you’ll get a decent amount of protein from them. For example, a cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contributes 4 grams of protein to your meal. A cup of sweet yellow corn is 5 grams. Leafy greens like spinach, watercress and bok choy are low in calories but have a high protein content per calorie.
- Meat substitutes: Faux meat products can make the transition to a plant-based diet easier for meat lovers, but they’re not all healthy. Choose options with minimal ingredients, ample protein and reasonable amounts of saturated fat and sodium.
If you’re a vegetarian but not a vegan, you might incorporate these other protein sources into your diet:
- Eggs or egg whites: Eggs are a low-cost and nutritious source of protein. Each egg provides 6 to 8 grams. If you use egg whites, you’ll get fewer calories, but you’ll miss out on vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins housed in the yolk.
- Dairy products: Milk, cheese and yogurt are excellent sources of protein and calcium. To get the most protein bang for your buck, choose cottage cheese 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 filling breakfast or snack.
Other nutritional considerations for vegetarians and vegans
Aside from protein, there are some other nutrients you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough of on a non-meat diet. Talk with your doctor or dietitian to make sure your diet includes adequate amounts of:
- Vitamin B12.
- Vitamin D.
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
It might take some planning and diligence, but be confident that you can get the nutrients your body needs if you prefer a diet without meat.