Though burgers and steaks are still American staples, people from coast to coast are often choosing to forgo meat at meals. Whether it be for economic or ethical reasons, the U.S. per-capita meat consumption was in decline from 2004 to 2012. If animal protein is off the table for you, it’s important to seek out an alternative protein source that will help build muscle mass, maintain strong bones, and keep you satiated between meals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 to 35 percent of our daily calories should come from protein. In other words, men and women should be chowing down on 56 and 46 grams of protein, respectively, each day. Whether you’re part of the 10 percent of American adults who consider themselves vegetarians or you’re a flexitarian who eats a spectrum of veggies and meats, read on for the best meat-free sources of protein!
We’re spilling the beans on this one: Legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas are fiber all-stars. They tend to be inexpensive and can be purchased at your local store in the canned or dried goods section. Spice them up at home to create different flavor combinations.
A staple of Indian cuisine, lentils pack a punch of protein — coming in at 11 grams per cup, boiled. Unlike most beans that need to be presoaked, lentils are OK to cook right away. Choose from red, black, brown and green varieties. Try them on a Middle Eastern-inspired salad or in a spicy curry dish at dinner.
Beans are perfect for chilies, salads and tacos, or just baked and seasoned on their own. Use them the next time you make avocado tacos or homemade veggie burgers. One cup of boiled black beans has approximately 15 grams of protein. Just remember, if you buy dried black beans, you’ll need to soak them for at least four hours, and then simmer them over heat before eating them up.
Chickpeas are widely used in Middle Eastern diets, and were introduced to other regions by Spanish explorers who dubbed the small round legumes “garbanzo beans.” They can be bought dried or cooked and canned, and can generally be stored up to four days in the fridge or 12 months in the freezer. While there are a variety of colors, the most popular is beige, which has a somewhat nutty flavor. Add them to leafy greens or pasta salads, make a chickpea salad, or use them to make homemade hummus. One cup packs 14.5 grams of protein.
Milk-based products contain calcium, which is a key nutrient needed to build strong bones. Be on the lookout for low-fat or fat-free products (without added sugar) or ones that are fortified with Vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption.
Yogurt contains good-for-you bacteria like acidophilus, which promotes digestive and reproductive health. Try Greek yogurt, which provides five to seven more grams of protein per six ounce serving compared to regular yogurt. A six-ounce cup of Greek yogurt has the same amount of protein as a two to three ounces serving of lean meat. If you crave something sweet or crunchy, add fruit, homemade granola or local honey to your yogurt and enjoy it as a healthy dessert.
In addition to protein, cow’s milk contains all nine essential amino acids. Consider skipping the whole milk and sticking with low-fat or skim varieties, which have eight grams of protein per cup — and less cholesterol. Chocolate lover? You’re in luck! Experts say low-fat chocolate milk makes an ideal post-workout snack due to the combination of carbohydrates and protein, which help muscle recovery.
You cheddar believe it! Cheese is another great way to sneak protein into your diet. Skim and one percent cottage cheese have about 20 grams of protein per five ounce serving, making it a healthy go-to snack. Cheese pairs well with fruits and veggies, so try munching on tomatoes and mozzarella or apples and cheddar. Though higher in fat, mango and brie is an especially tasty combo, too!
All healthy diets should incorporate grains, which fuel the body with carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and protein. Stick with whole grains because they have more fiber, potassium, magnesium and selenium than refined ones (for example, pastas and breads made from white flour).
Pronounced “keen-WAH,” this grain-like seed has a nutty and mild flavor, and is native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Though one cup of cooked quinoa has the same eight grams of protein as a cup of white pasta, quinoa has double the amount of fiber. Aim for five grams per serving to keep your digestive system healthy. Try quinoa in a Mediterranean-style salad, a veggie burger or a breakfast bake.
Best known as the main ingredient in tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern cold salad, nutrient-rich bulgur is made from cracked wheat and can be used in place of couscous or white rice. Simply add two parts boiling water to every one part bulgur, let stand for about 20 minutes — or until the water is fully absorbed — and then use in your favorite recipes! One cup of cooked bulgur contains six grams of protein and eight grams of fiber, so give it a go in a red lentil pilaf, a bulgur vegetable chili or a kale casserole.
A food staple of the Aztecs, amaranth is a grain that contains a significant amount of calcium, magnesium, fiber and— you guessed it — protein! One cup of cooked amaranth contains nine grams of protein. And, because it isn’t made from wheat, amaranth flour is often used for baking gluten-free goodies like this rustic chocolate cake. Try sneaking it into granola or tabbouleh-style salads.
Soybeans are the high-protein seeds of the soy plant, which is part of the pea plant family. Common in Asian diets for thousands of years, soy products have caught on in North America in recent decades. Though some studies have linked soy to breast cancer in animals, the American Cancer Society reports that moderate soy consumption should be safe for the general population.
Made by soaking and grinding dry soybeans in water, soymilk contains the same amount of protein as cow’s milk. An eight-ounce glass holds eight grams of protein, and many manufacturers enrich soymilk with calcium. If you are lactose intolerant, use soymilk as a stand in for regular milk in cereal and coffee. You can also make your own chocolate ice cream using soymilk!
If your question is tofu or not tofu, read on! Resembling soft, white blocks, tofu is made by coagulating soymilk. Available at most local grocery stores, tofu has a tasteless quality that means it can take on the flavor of whatever dish you decide to whip up. Consider marinating tofu to add to a stir-fry or baking it before mixing it into a noodle salad. One-half cup of firm tofu (126 grams) has a whopping 10 grams of protein. Refuel tired muscles with a protein-rich, tofu-packed, non-dairy fruit smoothie.
Originating from Indonesia, tempeh (pronounced tem-pay) resembles a firm veggie burger and is made from cooked and fermented soybeans. In contrast with tofu, tempeh has a textured and nutty flavor that’s fairly versatile. Tempeh shines as a meat substitute in vegetarian BBQ sandwiches, vegetable stir frys or after marinating in a tasty sesame ginger sauce. What’s even better? A 100-gram serving size of tempeh contains 19 grams of protein. It’s not as widely available as tofu, but look for it in health food stores or specialty markets.
Nuts, Seeds and Nut Butters
Crunchy, salty and satisfying, nuts and seeds are a fan favorite, and a great source of protein and healthy fats. You can reap the benefits by snacking on them raw, adding them to salads, granolas or baked goods, or by spreading nut butter on to your favorite whole grain breads. Just keep in mind nuts have a high density of protein, fats and calories, so a small serving is all you need. You’d be nuts to not eat them!
Every one-ounce serving (around 28 kernels) of almonds contains six grams of protein, which makes them a great morning or afternoon snack that will keep you satisfied. Almond butter has twice the fiber of peanut butter, so keep that in mind next time you reach for the Jif jar. Spreading homemade almond butter on whole grain toast is a great way to start your day.
You can’t beat walnuts when it comes to delicious snacking. A one-ounce serving has 4.3 grams of protein, 1.9 grams of fiber, plus omega-3s and antioxidants to boot! Researchers say the antioxidants found in walnuts promote heart health. So sprinkle some of these salty bites on a spinach and strawberry salad or raw brownies for a crunchy finish.