Proteins are known as the building blocks of life: In the body, they break down into amino acids that promote cell growth and repair. (They also take longer to digest than carbohydrates, helping you feel fuller for longer and on fewer calories—a plus for anyone trying to lose weight.)
You probably know that animal products—meat, eggs and dairy—are good sources of protein; unfortunately, they can also be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. What you may not know is that you don’t need to eat meat or cheese to get enough protein. Here are some good vegetarian and vegan sources, and tips on how to add them to your diet today.
Foods in the legume family are good sources of vegetarian protein, and peas are no exception: One cup contains 7.9 grams—about the same as a cup of milk. (For the record, women should get about 46 grams of protein per day, and men need about 56.) If you don’t like peas as a side dish, try blending them into a pesto, says Elle Penner, RD, nutritionist for MyFitnessPal and blogger at Nutritionella.com. “I blend frozen peas, toasted pine nuts, fresh mint, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese and serve over linguine,” she says. “It’s one of my all-time favorite meat-free meals!”
Most grains contain a small amount of protein, but quinoa—technically a seed—is unique in that it contains more than 8 grams per cup, including all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and repair, but cannot produce on its own. (Because of that, it’s often referred to as a “perfect protein.”) Plus, it’s amazingly versatile: Quinoa can be added to soup or vegetarian chili during winter months, served with brown sugar and fruit as a hot breakfast cereal, or tossed with vegetables and a vinaigrette to make a refreshing summer salad.
Nuts and nut butter
All nuts contain both healthy fats and protein, making them a valuable part of a plant-based diet. But because they are high in calories—almonds, cashews, and pistachios for example, all contain 160 calories and 5 or 6 grams of protein per ounce—choose varieties that are raw or dry roasted. Nut butters, like peanut and almond butter, are also a good way to get protein, says Penner: “Look for brands with as few ingredients as possible—just nuts and maybe salt,” she says. “Skip the ones with hydrogenated oils or lots of added sugar.”
There are many different varieties of beans—black, white, pinto, heirloom, etc.—but one thing they all have in common is their high amounts of protein. Two cups of kidney beans, for example, contain about 26 grams (almost the same as a Big Mac, which has 25 grams!). And you don’t have to make beans from scratch to reap their nutritional benefits, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author of Doctor’s Detox Diet. “If you want to buy them dried and soak them overnight before you cook them, that’s fine,” she says. “But it’s also perfectly okay—and much easier—to buy them canned, rinse them, and heat them up over the stove.”
Also known as garbanzo beans, these legumes can be tossed into salads, fried and salted as a crispy snack, or pureed into a hummus. They contain 7.3 grams of protein in just half a cup, and are also high in fiber and low in calories. “You can make a really great meal with some whole-wheat flatbread, some veggies, and some homemade hummus,” says Gerbstadt. “Just toss a can of chickpeas in the blender with some herbs and some tahini or walnut oil and you’re good to go.”
Tempeh and tofu
Foods made from soybeans are some of the highest vegetarian sources of protein: Tempeh and tofu, for example, contain about 15 and 20 grams per half cup, respectively. “They’re highly nutritious, and they can really take on the taste and texture of whatever type of food you’re looking for,” says Gerbstadt. “I love that you can get a really soft tofu and mash it with a fork, or you can get a firm one and have a really substantial product that can stand in for meat.”