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How to Get Enough Protein: The Best Protein Sources for Vegans, Vegetarians and Plant-Forward Eaters

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Protein has emerged as the current dietary darling. Some trend trackers predict protein will be the next mega-trend in 2023.

(Getty Images)

Americans are seeking protein when dining out and eating at home. The use of the word “protein” on restaurant menus has jumped 105% just within the last year, according to Datassential. Innova Market Insights reports that new foods and beverages making a protein claim is up 10% each year for the last five years.

How to Get Enough Protein: The Best Protein Sources for Vegans, Vegetarians and Plant-Forward Eaters

Plant-Based Protein

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Meat may be the iconic flagship of the protein group, but plant foods can hold their own among their protein compatriots – including beans, peas and lentils, nuts and seeds and soy products.

It’s actually better to vary your protein sources. Most Americans get enough protein from meat, poultry and eggs, but do not meet recommendations for seafood, nuts, seeds and soy products.

Increasing the proportion of your plate to favor more plants, like the eating patterns of the Mediterranean diet or a flexitarian approach, offers multiple benefits – from maintaining a healthier weight to reducing the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

If you’re concerned about plants being an “incomplete” protein that requires complicated combining of different proteins, you can put that worry to rest. Now we know that when you eat a variety of plant foods the overall mix of amino acids – or the building blocks of protein – is not substantially different from animal protein.

Protein Serving Size

For every ounce of meat, poultry or fish, here’s the equivalent serving size:

  • ¼ cup cooked beans.
  • 1 egg.
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or other nut butters.
  • ½ ounce of nuts or seeds.
  • ¼ cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu.
  • 1 ounce tempeh, cooked.
  • 6 tablespoons hummus.

In addition to these official members of the protein foods group, whole grains and dairy can also help you add protein, especially quinoa, kamut, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese.

Rather than completely avoiding meat, most Americans are going the route of less meat, not meatless. So if you’re looking to reduce the amount of meat you eat, here are ways to add more protein that do not involve meat.

Power Up With Pulses  

Pulses are the nutrient-dense edible seeds of legumes, including dry peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. Affordable, sustainable and incredibly versatile, pulses not only provide protein, but they’re packed with other nutrients like fiber, folate, potassium and magnesium.

Protein content of pulses

  • Lentils: ½ cup cooked = 9 g.
  • Kidney beans: ½ cup cooked = 8 g.
  • Pinto beans: ½ cup cooked = 8 g.
  • Split peas: ½ cup cooked = 8 g.
  • Black beans: ½ cup cooked = 8 g.
  • Blackeye peas: ½ cup cooked = 7 g.
  • Chickpeas: ½ cup cooked = 7 g.

Easy ways to enjoy pulses

  • Mix cooked green lentils or chickpeas into your salad and grain bowls.
  • Make a pulse-based soup or stew, including split pea soup, lentil soup, a three-bean vegetarian chili or a hearty Mediterranean-style chickpea stew. 
  • Replace shredded pork or ground beef with black beans in tacos, burritos and tostadas.
  • Use mashed pinto beans for half or all of the ground beef when making burgers.
  • Try pulse-based snacks such as roasted chickpeas and lentil chips.
  • Make dips like hummus or black bean dip to serve with vegetables or as a spread on sandwiches and wraps.
  • Use pulse flour like chickpea flour to make bread, muffins, pancakes and other baked goods.
  • Add canned cannellini beans to your favorite pasta dish and check out the varieties of higher-protein pulse pastas that are now widely available, including chickpea, lentil and pea pasta.  
  • Enjoy a side of pulses: baked beans, beans and rice, refried beans or chickpea salad.

Eat More Nuts and Seeds

Do not underestimate the value of nuts and seeds as a protein source. These tiny, but mighty foods deserve more attention.

“I always keep jars of different nuts and seeds lined up in my fridge,” says registered dietitian and cookbook author Katie Morford of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook. “It’s a daily reminder to use them in my cooking. They’re delicious for starters and full of fiber, healthy fats, protein and good-for-you phytonutrients.”

Protein content of nuts and seeds

  • Hemp seeds: 3 tablespoons = 10 g.
  • Peanut butter: 2 tablespoons = 8 g.
  • Peanuts: 1 ounce = 7 g.
  • Tahini: 2 tablespoons = 6-7 g.
  • Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons = 6 g.
  • Almonds: 1 ounce = 6 g.
  • Pistachios: 1 ounce = 6 g.
  • Flaxseeds: 3 tablespoons = 6 g.
  • Almond butter: 2 tablespoons = 4-6 g.
  • Walnuts: 1 ounce = 4 g.
  • Cashews: 1 ounce = 4 g.
  • Pecans: 1 ounce = 3 g.

Easy ways to enjoy nuts and seeds

Morford offers these ideas to bump up your use of nuts and seeds:

  • Add a few tablespoons of hemp, chia, or flax seeds to smoothies. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds contain 10 grams of protein, plus heart-healthy omega-3s and other nutrients.  
  • Spread nut butter on whole-grain toast, then sprinkle seeds on top, and finish it with berries or sliced fruit. It’s a quick meal with about 12 grams of protein.  
  • Use nut and seed flours in baked goods. You can seamlessly substitute out about one-quarter of the all-purpose flour in most recipes, such as chocolate chip cookies, cakes, muffins, and quick breads. To make your own flour, run nuts or seeds through a food processor or blender. 
  • Top any hot or cold cereal with chopped nuts or toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds. A ¼ cup serving of pumpkin seeds has 10 grams of protein.
  • Scatter toasted nuts or seeds (or both) on a salad. Morford uses four different types of seeds in her super seed salad, which adds flavor, crunch, and protein.
  • Use ground nuts, such as pecans or almonds, as a coating for baked or pan-fried fish and chicken cutlets, much like you would use panko or breadcrumbs. 
  • Add nuts and seeds to homemade granola or other snack bars, like these  snack bars with nut butter, seeds, and nuts.

Enjoy Eggs Beyond Breakfast

While eggs have been in the news lately due to high prices, they remain an excellent source of high-quality protein and provide other essential nutrients like choline, lutein, vitamin B12 and iodine. Eggs are also more versatile than you may think.

Protein content of 1 egg

  • Jumbo egg = 8 g.
  • Extra-large egg = 7 g.
  • Large egg = 7 g.
  • Medium egg = 6 g.
  • Small egg = 5 g.

“As a registered dietitian and mom of two grown boys (who are always hungry), eggs are a regular part of our diets,” says Liz Weiss of Liz’s Healthy Table. “Sure, we eat them for breakfast scrambled and sunny-side up, but we also include them in other meals and snacks.”

Easy meals and snacks with eggs

Here are some of Weiss’s ideas for adding eggs to meals beyond the morning:

  • Make egg salad: Mash hard-boiled eggs with light mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and some shredded carrot (for an extra burst of vitamin A) and use as a filling for sandwiches and wraps, or scoop on top of a green salad.
  • Buy store-bought hard-boiled eggs or make them yourself and grab for a quick, on-the-go snack.
  • Turn eggs into muffins: Whisk eggs with shredded cheese and chopped, cooked veggies (bell peppers, baby spinach, green onions), scoop into muffin tins and bake. Check out her recipe for Egg & Kale Dinner Muffins.
  • Omelets are a classic breakfast dish that also can be enjoyed for lunch or dinner. Set up a build-your-own omelet bar with an assortment of fillings, including shredded cheese, sautéed mushrooms, bell pepper strips or baby spinach, black beans, salsa, chopped green onion and diced avocado.
  • Make egg tacos: Scramble a few eggs and serve in crunchy taco shells with black beans, salsa, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and guacamole.
  • Enjoy an easy frittata for dinner. This egg-based dish is like a crustless quiche. Load up with chopped vegetables, including broccoli, asparagus, spinach, red peppers or cherry tomatoes.
  • Add a poached or soft-boiled egg to salads, grain bowls, avocado toast, pizza, flatbreads, soup and pasta.

Choose Higher-Protein Grains

Grains may be an overlooked source of protein, although they can help contribute significant amounts of protein to a plant-forward diet, says registered dietitian and author Sharon Palmer, the Plant-Powered Dietitian. Grains in their whole form, such as cooked oats, quinoa, brown rice and farro, are a valuable source of not only protein, but fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

Protein content in whole grains

The amount of protein in grains can vary. Here’s a comparison of the protein content of whole grains, based on dry or uncooked amounts.

  • Whole-wheat pasta: 2 ounces = 8 g.
  • Kamut: ¼ cup = 7 g.
  • Wild rice: ¼ cup = 7 g.
  • Quinoa: ¼ cup = 6 g.
  • Teff: ¼ cup = 6 g.
  • Farro: ¼ cup = 6 g.
  • Buckwheat: ¼ cup = 6 g.
  • Millet: ¼ cup = 5 g.
  • Sorghum: ¼ cup = 4 g.

How to eat more whole grains

Palmer recommends these ideas to increase whole grains:

  • Plug in your rice cooker or instant pot and cook up a different whole grain every night of the week. Ancient grains like amaranth, barley, quinoa, millet, teff, farro, kamut and bulgur can be cooked with water according to package directions and served in place of rice, pasta or potatoes.
  • Add whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice or farro, to a grain bowl as the foundation, layering in beans, vegetables and a flavorful sauce.
  • Fold whole grains like millet, oats, and wheat berries into baked goods, such as bars, bread, cookies, muffins and pancakes
  • Serve whole grains, such as kamut, brown rice and quinoa as a side to dishes like curry, stir-fry and ratatouille.  
  • Stir quinoa, millet, teff or other whole grains into soups, stews and chilis.
  • Add whole grains, like oats, quinoa, or farro to veggie-burgers, lentil patties and nut loaves.
  • Include whole grains as a side dish, such as wild rice pilaf, farro with olive oil and garlic and Spanish brown rice.

Let Dairy Do Double Duty

Dairy foods, including milk, yogurt and cheese, are not technically in the protein foods group, but they can be a hard-working stand-in for meat. Fortified soy milk and yogurt are also part of the dairy group because their nutrient content is comparable to dairy milk and yogurt.

Other plant-based milks like almond, oat, rice and coconut milks are not included because they lack the same nutrition profile. Even if they’re fortified with calcium and vitamin D, the protein content is only 0-1 gram per serving.

Protein content of dairy foods

  • Cottage cheese: ½ cup = 14 g.
  • Ricotta cheese: ½ cup = 14 g.
  • Yogurt: 1 cup = 8-12 g.
  • Parmesan cheese, grated: ¼ cup = 11 g.
  • Dairy milk: 1 cup = 8 g.
  • Soy milk: 1 cup = 7-8 g.
  • Cheddar cheese: 1 ounce = 6 g.
  • Processed cheese (American): 1 ounce = 3 g.

Tips to use dairy as a stand in for meat

  • Enjoy a Caprese sandwich layered with sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil instead of a burger or turkey sandwich.
  • Add small dollops of burrata or cubes of fresh mozzarella to pasta instead of meatballs.
  • Swap ricotta or cottage cheese for ground beef in lasagna.
  • Skip the meat when making enchiladas and quesadillas and fill with part-skim mozzarella and beans.
  • Top salads and grain bowls with grilled halloumi or paneer instead of grilled chicken.
  • Get reacquainted with cottage cheese, which is a favorite of registered dietitian Marina Chaparro, founder of Nutrichicos.  “I love cottage cheese because you can make it sweet by adding fruit or savory by adding dip mix, herbs or spices. It goes great on top of salads, too,” she says.
  • Yogurt is another versatile dairy food. Chaparro recommends using yogurt in smoothies and savory dips like tzatziki for vegetables.  She also suggests adding yogurt to pancakes and baked goods for additional protein, calcium and moisture.

Protein powders and bars have proliferated on store shelves, and it’s become trendy to make protein cookies and puddings. Yet it’s best to get your protein from whole food sources most often. Consider the entire nutrient package and what else a food has to offer beyond protein. Also keep in mind when it comes to protein, more isn’t necessarily better.

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Bernard Greenhall
Bernard Greenhall

Bernard is a sports and physical education expert with years of experience. He's passionate about promoting health and wellness through physical activity, and he's worked with athletes and non-athletes alike to help them achieve their fitness goals. Bernard holds a degree in Physical Education and is dedicated to staying up-to-date with the latest trends and research in his field.

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