The importance of proteins as growth-promoting macronutrients can be gauged from the fact that they are often referred to as the building blocks of our body.
By accounting nearly 17% of the body’s weight, protein is the most predominant component of our muscles, skin, nails, hair, and eyes, as well as vital internal organs like the heart and the brain.
Furthermore, it works as the body’s fuel source for energy and is essential for the production of infection-fighting antibodies, regulation of blood sugar and fat combustion. Protein is a holy grail in the diet of gym aficionados in particular as it is satiating, dulls unwarranted hunger pangs, and helps gain muscle mass.
For a protein to be complete, it must include an array of amino acids, some of which can be produced by the body on its own, whereas others need to be derived from dietary sources. In fact, there are nine essential amino acids that the body is incapable of producing and thus need to be supplemented from outside sources to satisfy our holistic protein requirement.
According to the Institute of Medicine, women need a minimum of 46 grams and men require at least 56 grams of protein daily.
The main sources of complete protein include meat, dairy products, fish, and eggs. Meat, in particular, is the most preferred food source as it already contains the complete rainbow of essential amino acids.
A diverse range of vegetarian and plant-based sources, however, need to be consumed in order to make up for all the essential amino acids. While compensating your protein needs sans, meat intake might seem like a tall order to some, but it is easier and much more convenient than it sounds.
Nearly all foods, except for highly refined food products, alcohol and oils, contain some protein.
Plus, the additional benefits of cutting down on your meat intake, especially red or processed meat, as the singular source of protein further tilt the scales in favor of relying on vegetarian sources of protein.(1)
For instance, it can save you from the damage caused by the high saturated fat and cholesterol content of animal-based protein sources. It’s also good for the environment and easy on the pocket.(2)
Several meat-free foods work as a go-to alternative for protein nourishment and can easily be included in vegetarian diets. While it may be difficult to get a full dose of protein per day from one vegetarian source, including a number of high-protein foods that are not animal based can help you reach your protein goals.
Foods that Have High Protein Content
Here are 10 meat-free sources of protein.
1. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt, which has the whey strained out, is a significant source of protein. A typical 6-ounce cup of Greek yogurt contains 15 to 20 grams of protein, which is much higher than approximately 9 grams of protein in regular yogurt.
Moreover, Greek yogurt is packed with several healthful nutrients like calcium, potassium, and numerous vitamins and minerals.
Greek yogurt is a wholesome, nutritious post-workout snack. You can top it with fresh fruits, nuts, or honey. Due to its thick, creamy texture, you can substitute Greek yogurt for other fats when making baked goods. It can also be a part of savory dishes, smoothies, and vegetable dips.
You can also avail the probiotic advantages of this protein-rich food, as it helps keep your digestive system functioning smoothly, gives your immune system a boost, aids weight loss, prevents high blood pressure, and lowers bad cholesterol.(3)
Lentils make for a healthy alternative to the conventional animal sources of protein. One cup of boiled lentils contains 18 grams of protein.
However, they are not a complete protein food because they do not contain all nine essential amino acids. But what they lack in amino acid content, they make up in a rich composition boasting fiber, iron, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, folate, and niacin.
Thus, there are many health benefits of eating lentils. As a rich source of fiber, they provide energy, reduce the risk of heart disease, help maintain body weight by keeping you satiated for longer, and keep the digestive system healthy.(4)
Lentils belong to the legume family and come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. They are readily available in whole or split form.
Edamame comes straight from young soybeans. They remain in the pod and are harvested before the beans become hard.
This soy product is a complete protein food, which means it provides all of the essential amino acids needed in the diet. One cup of cooked edamame contains 17 grams of protein.
These beans also contain fiber, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C and K, along with healthy polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. In addition, they are naturally gluten-free and have a lower calorie count than most animal proteins.
You can buy them shelled or in the pod, fresh or frozen. You can eat boiled edamame (hot or cold) sprinkled with salt and dry herbs. You can also add this as a complementary ingredient in your soups, salads, stews, casseroles, or pasta.
4. Kidney Beans
Kidney beans are another excellent source of protein. One cup of boiled kidney beans provides 15 grams of protein. Although they contain all the nine amino acids, they run a little low on methionine, a proteinogenic amino acid, which keeps them from being a complete source of protein.
In addition to protein, they are enriched with fiber, iron, folate, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and vitamin K and B6. What makes kidney beans even healthier is the fact that they are low in fat and problematic cholesterol.
Kidney beans should be soaked in water for several hours. Before cooking the beans, drain the water, rinse them with clean water, and then boil a big batch of beans for use throughout the week. You can use boiled kidney beans in soups, salads, stews, or casseroles.
Tofu (bean curd), a soymilk product, is another good source of protein. Just a ½ cup of tofu gives you 10 grams of protein. It contains eight essential amino acids as well as a good amount of iron and calcium.
It also has manganese, selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, copper, zinc, and vitamin B1.
Made from soymilk through the process of curdling and then draining, tofu is available in fresh, dried, or fried form. A staple ingredient in Thai and Chinese cuisine, it has a neutral taste and will soak up the flavors of whatever you add to it. You can use this soy product in baking, grilling, stir-fry dishes, soups, desserts, shakes, and salads.
6. Chia Seeds
When it comes to protein for vegetarians, chia seeds are a good option. Two tablespoons of this superfood provide 9.4 grams of protein. These seeds are also one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.(8)
Furthermore, chia seeds are a nutritional powerhouse containing fiber, iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. Thus, in addition to providing protein, some preliminary evidence suggests that they help improve digestion, prevent anemia, improve athletic performance, regulate blood sugar, prevent signs of premature aging, and promote brain health.
When including chia seeds in your diet, you can soak them in water and add the resultant chia gel to healthy recipes, even baked goods. You can also add whole or ground chia seeds to fresh juices and smoothies.
Quinoa is an excellent and complete non-animal source of protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids.
One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.14 grams of protein. This grain also contains fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and folate.
To cook quinoa, add 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water and cook on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Add nuts and fruits to cooked quinoa to make a breakfast porridge. You can even combine cooked, chilled quinoa with other vegetables and fruits to make a tasty salad.
Eating quinoa daily can help reduce inflammation and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colon cancer.(9) It may also improve your digestion and help you maintain healthy body weight.(10)
8. Soy Milk
Soy milk is a popular milk alternative for vegans and people who are lactose intolerant. It is produced by soaking dried soybeans and then grinding them in water. It is chock-full of protein and contains vitamin A, B12, and D. Just 1 cup of soy milk contains 8 grams of protein.
You can easily find soy milk at any grocery store, or you can even make it at home using a soy milk machine. A traditional staple of East Asian cuisine, soy milk is used in making soy yogurt, soy cream, soy kefir, and soy-based cheese analogs.
9. Green Peas
Green peas, or simply peas, are one of the best sources of vegetable protein. They also contain fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, folate, and vitamin B, C, A, and K. Also, they are low in calories. One cup of cooked green peas can provide about 8 to 10 grams of protein.
You can enjoy green peas in fresh or frozen form. You can add them to soups, stews, stir-fry dishes, side dishes, casseroles, and salads.
Owing to their high levels of dietary fiber, peas can help in lowering the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.(4) Additionally, consuming this plant-based protein can play a role in alleviating symptoms of arthritis.(13)
10. Peanut Butter
Just a few spoonsful of peanut butter are sufficient for a quick and easy protein boost. This nut butter is a good source of monounsaturated fat and fiber, and a mere 2 tablespoons of peanut butter contain 8 grams of protein.
The fact that it is also rich in vitamin E, B3, and B6, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, and folate is as an added bonus.
Although peanut butter is readily available at any grocery store, you can easily prepare it at home as well. There are many versatile ways to enjoy this delectable healthy treat: spread it on toast, stir it into stews, whirl it into smoothies, or use it on baked products.
When taken in moderation, this butter can help lower bad (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) cholesterol and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.(14) It may even reduce inflammation and cancer risk and help in weight management.(15) Although nut butter is highly nutritious, it’s also high in calories, so be mindful of your portion size.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Ms. Stephanie McKercher (Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist)
What fruits and vegetables are rich sources of protein?
Beans, lentils, edamame, and dry peas all contain high levels of protein.
What happens if you eat too much protein?
Eating too much protein can be hard on your kidneys. It may also lead to malnutrition if it causes you to limit or eliminate other food groups.
What is the most preferred meat substitute for vegetarians?
Choosing protein-rich vegetarian food that tastes good to you is what’s most important. Plant-based protein alternatives include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and chickpeas. You can diversify your diet by including any or all of them depending upon your individual taste preference.
Is plant protein better than animal protein?
Plant protein isn’t necessarily healthier than animal protein, but it often provides additional vitamins and minerals required by our bodies for optimal functioning. Plant proteins also provide phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Is protein difficult to digest?
Protein in moderation isn’t difficult to digest for most people, but our bodies can only handle about 20 grams per meal.
What happens if you lack sufficient protein in your diet?
Protein deficiency is extremely rare, but it can lead to muscle loss, a weakened immune system, and issues with skin, hair, and nails.
Should protein supplements be taken by vegetarians?
Most vegetarians don’t need to take a protein supplement. You can find natural sources of plant-based protein from soybeans, pulses, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Can vegetarians get enough protein from plant-sources?
You can get more than enough protein from vegan and vegetarian foods.
Please provide some additional tips or inputs regarding a meat-less protein-rich diet to our readers.
Tofu is one of my favorite sources of plant-based protein. I brush it with sauce and bake on a sheet pan for 30 minutes at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s delicious on grain bowls and tacos!
About Stephanie McKercher MS, RDN: She is a Colorado-based registered dietitian, who also works as eco-friendly recipe developer at Grateful Grazer.
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