Vegetarian Protein Sources Everyone Should Be Eating

Stay healthy with these good-for-the-planet foods.

March 6, 2012
vegetarian protein sources
Escaping The Meat Market

According to the United Nations, the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than the world's plane, train, and automobile fleets combined. So if you're looking for a way to please the Lorax and stay well fed, start getting more of your protein from plants and reduce the amount of meat in your diet, especially the factory-farmed meat that's widely available in supermarkets. It's not just good for the planet, it's healthier for you, too. Harvard scientists recently completed a study finding that eating a single serving of red meat each day increases your risk of early death, and factory-farmed chicken, often touted as a healthier alternative to beef, can be contaminated with e. coli bacteria that can give you urinary tract infections.

Related: Becoming A Vegetarian: Expectations Versus Reality

The idea that protein only comes from meat is a myth. Nearly all foods contain small amounts of protein, and it's very easy to get your daily protein requirements from beans, grains, nuts, and certain green vegetables, which have less cholesterol and fat than meat and are usually cheaper, to boot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women get 46 grams of protein each day and that men get 56 grams.

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white beans
Beans + Lentils

Protein Content
Beans: 12 to 14 grams per cup cooked
Lentils: 18 grams per cup cooked

Why You Should Eat More
Beans and lentils are the cheapest source of protein out there. So whether you prefer kidney, garbanzo, white, black, or pinto beans, "Buy lots of cans of beans, rinse and drain them to remove 40 percent of the sodium, and use them in everything," suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. "White beans taste delicious in pasta: garbanzo or edamame in stir-fries; black beans and pinto in burritos, tacos, and quesadillas; and lentils or kidney are great in salads and whole grain pita lunches." To avoid bisphenol A, or BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical, found in metal canned foods, buy Eden Organics brand (the company uses cans without BPA in their liners), look for frozen beans, or buy dried ones and cook them accordingly.

2/11
mixed nuts
Nuts + Seeds

PHOTOGRAPH BY THINKSTOCK

Protein Content
Nuts: 3 to 7 grams per ⅓-cup serving, depending on the type (peanuts and pine nuts have the most)
Seeds: 2 to 5 grams per ⅓-cup serving, depending on type

Why You Should Eat More
Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews, and pine nuts are all good vegetarian protein sources. "Try a sprinkle of chopped nuts on everything from oatmeal to yogurt to salad, and nut-based dressings are healthy and delicious," says Blatner. On the seed side, Blatner recommends pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower. "I particularly like seed butter, such as sunflower seed butter, on toast with an apple for breakfast," she says.

3/11
chia seeds
Chia Seeds

Protein Content
4 grams per ounce

Why You Should Eat More
Though the protein content isn't as high as some other vegetarian foods out there, chia seeds pack a huge nutritional punch. For starters, they're an incredible fiber resource with nearly half (11 grams) of the amount you need every day in a single ounce. That helps fill you up and eat fewer calories. They also contain 18 percent of your daily calcium requirement—more than triple that of milk—which helps your bones. Chia seeds have no flavor, so you can add a tablespoon to any food you wish to without altering its flavor, and unlike flax, chia seeds don't need to be ground in order for your body to absorb all the nutrients.

4/11
cold tofu
Tofu + Tempeh

Protein Content
Tofu: 8 grams per serving
Tempeh: 18 grams per serving

Why You Should Eat More
"I call tofu the veggie white meat—anything chicken can do, tofu can do, too," says Blatner. "Tempeh [a fermented form of tofu] has a fabulous texture and is a great burger stand-in or perfect crumbled in chili or seasoned or broiled into a high-protein crouton on a salad." Look for organic products to avoid genetically modified soy and hexane, a cancer-causing contaminant that has been detected in heavily processed, nonorganic soy products. If you're not a fan of tofu or tempeh, you can still reap the protein benefits of soy in soy milk (8 grams per glass) and edamame (green soybeans, which have 17 grams per cup). But do go easy on soy products, as too much can raise estrogen levels and wreak hormonal havoc in both women and men. Aim for one serving of tofu, soy milk or edamame per day.

5/11
hemp seed
Hemp

PHOTOGRAPH BY JENS GADE/GETTY

Protein Content
Seeds: 6 grams per ounce
Milk: 2 grams per cup

Why You Should Eat More
If you're allergic to soy, or just freaked out by its estrogenic activity, hemp products are your next best bet. Sold as a dairy alternative or as seeds, hemp is one of very few plant proteins that supply you with all the essential amino acids, acids your body can't produce on its own to build muscle and create more protein. The fatty acids in hemp seeds and hemp milk also boost your immune system, and the crop itself is highly sustainable, growing as fast as 10 feet in 100 days and naturally requiring very few pesticides.

6/11
eggs
Eggs

PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAIRE CORDIER/GETTY

Protein Content
6 grams per egg

Why You Should Eat More
There's a reason the incredible, edible egg is such a popular breakfast choice. The protein in eggs has the highest biological value—a measure of how well it supports your body's protein needs—of any food, including beef. And the yolks contain vitamin B12, deficiencies of which are common in vegetarian diets and can cause attention, mood, and thinking problems while raising blood homocysteine levels--a risk factor for heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer's. To get the healthiest eggs, find a local producer whose chicken flocks are small and feed off of grass, bugs, and organic grain; studies have shown that E. coli and salmonella contamination in eggs is directly related to the size of the flock. LocalHarvest.org helps you find your neighborhood farmer's market and all of the healthy things—like eggs—on offer.

7/11
greek yogurt
Greek Yogurt

PHOTOGRAPH BY CULTURA RM/DIANA MILLER/GETTY

Protein Content
15 to 20 grams per 6-ounce serving

Why You Should Eat More
All dairy products are good sources of protein. A glass of milk provides you with 8 grams, but Greek yogurt is a protein powerhouse, with twice the protein and half the sugar and carbs of regular yogurt. In fact, Greek yogurt contains the same protein as a three-ounce serving of lean meat. Top that with a handful of nuts and you could get half of your daily protein intake at breakfast. Mixing different vegetarian protein sources into your daily routine also insures that you're getting the right mixture of amino acids, which aid in building muscle and regulating your metabolism.

8/11
avocado
Avocados
Protein Content
4 grams per avocado

Why You Should Eat More
All vegetables contain between 1 and 2 grams of protein per cup, but avocados (which are technically fruits) surpass them all. Though 4 grams may not sound like much, avocado protein contains all nine essential amino acids—the amino acids your body can't produce on its own to build muscle and create more protein—in addition to heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. There may even be a reason these fruits are in season during flu season. "Protein not only builds muscle and maintains organ structures, but is also needed to mount prompt, strong immune responses," explains Carol S. Johnston, PhD, RD, professor and director of the nutrition program at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation. "You want to have adequate protein intake daily to have amino acids ready for immune protein synthesis at the time of infection."
9/11
pseudograins
Pseudograins
Protein Content
5 to 7 grams of protein per cup, cooked

Why You Should Eat More
There are grains, and then there are pseudograins. Grains—wheat, barley, rye, brown rice and corn—all contain decent amounts of protein, and globally, wheat provides more plant-based protein than any other food. But intolerance to the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye is on the rise, owing to the increased use of these grains in processed foods. So if you want to go gluten free, look to corn, rice, and pseudograins, foods that are cooked and served like grains but are technically seeds, including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and wild rice. If you stick with corn, replace the standard yellow or white corn products with blue corn, which has 30 percent more protein.
10/11
beef cuts
Humanely Raised Beef

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK HOOPER/GETTY

Protein Content
B
etween 20 and 25 grams per 3-ounce serving, depending on cut

It's OK To Eat Meat Occasionally
OK, so beef isn't vegetarian, but you don't have to give up meat entirely to get heart-, brain-, and planet-friendly protein. The UN report finding that factory-farming was so bad for the planet also noted that improving animal diets and getting them off of grain was one huge step meat producers could take to counteract global warming. In other words, feeding animals their natural diet of grass and forage is better for our climate than pumping cattle full of corn and soy, which increase "enteric fermentation," or, basically, flatulent cattle that produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. That diet also produces healthier beef. Grass-fed meats routinely show higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins, as well as lower levels of E. coli, than factory-farmed beef.

11/11
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