American culture is stuffed with meat. It’s our starting point when cooking dinner and it’s in the overwhelming majority of menu items at most restaurants. For decades, we’ve been among the top meat-consuming countries in the world (and not just by a hair). There’s no single explanation for this phenomenon. There are economic, historical, and cultural factors like those outlined in this NPR report and plenty more after that.
One obvious reason for eating it likely to pop into the head of anyone you ask would be, “It has protein.” (Right after, “Because it’s delicious!” of course. And I won’t deny that it can be.)
It’s true. Meat has protein – including essential amino acids. It also has important nutrients like iron and vitamin B12. I may be a vegetarian, but I’m not about to deny the facts. I’m not even here to tell you about the health risks of eating meat in spite of those nutrients (though there are good health reasons not to go overboard with the burgers). I believe in moderation, making your own educated decisions for your health, and embracing variety and diversity.
And that’s what I did when I decided to make the switch to a vegetarian diet (Click here for an amusing post on why vegetarians like myself choose to be this way). What I didn’t do was decide to begin a crusade to convert all omnivores. All I want to do is share what I’ve learned and let people make their own decisions.
So here’s what I’ve learned about protein.
1. Yes, foods besides meat have protein and essential amino acids.
2. Even things besides milk and eggs have protein.
3. Not only can plants provide protein, but they can also provide essential amino acids.
4. Science is good because it tells us all this good stuff about protein.
5. The RDA values for protein for men and women are 56 and 46 grams per day, respectively. Or, depending on your health needs, about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories.
All right then! Time for the main course! Let’s get a rundown of some good vegetarian, non-meat sources of protein.
I’m vegetarian, not vegan. And eggs are part of the reason. They’re delicious, versatile, and nutritious. And you need them for cake. Okay, there are ways to make cake without eggs, but in my opinion it’s just not the same. Eggs are amazing. Just ask these two dinosaurs from my childhood.
Eggs spent years standing in the corner because of their cholesterol levels, but thanks to science, timeout is over. Eggsperts say saturated fat is the bigger problem and that it’s once again okay to enjoy eggs.
Along with milk, eggs have the highest biological value for protein, providing about 6 grams in just 75 calories. They also contain great amounts of all nine essential amino acids and are a good source of vitamin B12.
One important note: Eat the yolk! You might reduce your fat and cholesterol intake if you have just the white, but you’ll also miss out on the best nutrients. In my opinion, eating just the white is like eating just the skin of an apple.
Again, I’m not vegan so I consider milk and its affiliates good sources of protein. (I recommend choosing organic to avoid hormones and antibiotics – and also to make yourself feel better by imagining happy cows in wide-open, green pastures straight out of a Christopher Marlowe poem.)
Regardless of your preferred fat content, an average 8-ounce serving of milk contains 8 grams of protein and all 9 essential amino acids. And in case you’re feeling adventurous and want to try something more exotic like goat milk, the nutritional values are pretty similar. Except for the percentage of goat you can taste. You can taste 100 percent more goat in goat milk than you can in cow milk. Okay, I’m KIDding. There’s not seriously actual goat in goat milk, but if you’ve never tried it, just be warned that it does have a different taste than cow’s milk.
In the dairy world, yogurt is another good protein source. I prefer Greek over regular. A 6-ounce serving provides 15 to 20 grams, which can be as much as double what you’ll find in other yogurt.
And of course, since it’s made with milk, cheese is also a source of protein.
If you’re not into cow’s milk or you’re lactose intolerant, soy is a good option. Soy milk has 8 grams of protein and all essential amino acids, but in smaller amounts. As for other dairy alternatives like almond milk, they leave a little bit to be desired. But again, choose what fits your dietary needs.
3. Nuts & Seeds
Everyone knows nuts have protein, and your best option is probably almonds. They have the most protein with about 6 grams per ounce and also lower levels of fat than other nuts.
Wondering about peanut butter? Two tablespoons will give you about 8 grams of protein.
My personal favorite in the seeds department is hemp seed. I know, your mind automatically jumps to marijuana, but sorry, hemp seed isn’t going to get you high. But it will give you 10 grams of protein and all essential amino acids in three tablespoons. Plus it has healthy essential fatty acids. I think that’s pretty groovy. It can be a bit tricky to find, but we sell it here.
Chia and flaxseed are other good options, though flax doesn’t include all essential amino acids.
And another powerful seed – pepitas. More commonly known as pumpkin seeds, an ounce gives you 7 grams of protein.
Watch our Video on the Health Benefits of Hemp Seeds
Though they don’t include all essential amino acids (except for soybeans), they do offer a lot of protein – plus other nutrients like fiber. In addition, they contain the amino acid lysine, which is one that’s more commonly missing from plant proteins.
Most types of beans have about 15 grams of protein per cup. Aside from soybeans (about 28 grams of protein) and edamame (22 grams of protein), white beans have the most at about 17. Lima beans are at the bottom with about 10 grams.
Although technically legumes like beans, I like to include lentils in their own category. Why? Because I love them. But they seem to be overlooked. Common in Indian dishes, they’re still seen as fairly exotic here in the U.S. But I believe everyone should get to know them.
One cup has 18 grams of protein and lots of fiber and minerals. Seriously, investigate these little guys. There are several different varieties (like red and black beluga) so they can be pretty versatile.
My personal favorite is quinoa (keen-wa). Though it’s technically a seed, it’s used like a grain, like rice. With 8 grams of protein per cup and a great balance of all essential amino acids, it’s become a staple in my cooking.
Another high-protein pseudograin is amaranth with over 9 grams of protein per cup.
A true grain, spelt has over 10 grams, while your typical rice has about 5 grams of protein in a cup.
That’s right, vegetables do have protein. No, this does not mean herbivores and vegetarians are technically actually kinda sorta eating meat.
Per calorie, vegetables actually often have more protein than meat. However, since they’re so low in calories, you’d have to eat a lot more to get the same amount of protein you would from meat.
But the protein still counts – and every bit adds up. Peas are a great source with 8 grams of protein per cup and all essential amino acids. Technically, they’re a legume, but most people typically associate them with veggies.
Corn has five grams per cup, broccoli 3 grams, and asparagus has 3 grams in about 8 spears.
8. Meat “Substitutes”
In most Western cultures, that’s how things like tofu are viewed. But I don’t like to think of them as impostors who wish they were meat. In other cultures, things like tofu and tempeh are a regular part of the diet – you could just as easily call pork a tofu substitute.
Tofu has about 10 grams of protein in half a cup and can be used and prepared a million different ways. Available in different consistencies, it can even be used as a base for different sauces.
Tempeh, fermented and with a stronger flavor than tofu, has about 21 grams of protein in 4 ounces.
9. Supplements & Powders
If you’re skeptical about some of these foods and need a quick, convenient option, protein powders like whey are available. They can pack a ton of protein and nutrients and are great for supporting a workout, but remember, they’re supplements. This means they shouldn’t make up your entire diet, but rather supplement it. They’re great for filling in gaps or giving an extra boost, not sustaining you every day of your life.
There are tons to choose from. Whey powder is probably the most popular, but there are a lot of plant-based options, too.
Teras Whey has a lot of healthy options. I like their Bourbon Vanilla rBGH-free Whey Protein. They have organic and fair-trade options and have a variety of flavors, like dark chocolate, blueberry and coffee. They even do a protein made with whey from goat milk.
For plant-based protein that’s also vegan friendly, check out Vega. They never use soy, which makes it ideal for people with allergies. Their Protein Smoothie packets in Bodacious Berry flavor are really convenient. And if you want to get some extra nutrients with your protein, go for the Protein and Greens powder in chocolate.
So go ahead. Expand your horizons. Swap out the meat now and again and see what you think. The world is your tofu oyster.
Hemp Milk, Tempt Brand – Mike Mozart
Lentil Soup – Emily Carlin
Quinoa – Emily
Texas BBQ Market Style Smoked Pork Loin – Texas BBQ – freecandy13
Goat – Ben Salter