Whether you regularly partake in meatless Monday, live a flexitarian lifestyle, or ditched meat years ago, you’ve probably struggled with getting enough protein in your diet. But what’s the big deal with protein anyway? A couple of things, actually. For one, protein is essential for building muscle tissue and enzymes that help transport oxygen throughout your body, says the Harvard School of Public Health.
The proteins in our bodies are made up of 20 amino acids, nine of which, called essential amino acids, must come from our diets because we cannot produce them on our own, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Animal proteins are known for providing all nine essential amino acids, but most plant proteins (with the exception of a few) fall short by one or two.
But fear not, plant-eaters! As long as you’re eating the right combinations of foods, you can hit your daily-recommended protein intake. “Carefully planning meals and snacks throughout the day can ensure vegetarians meet their protein needs,” says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to the USDA, women need a minimum of about 46 grams of protein per day, while men need a minimum of about 56 grams. To make sure you’re getting your fill, incorporate the following plant-based protein sources into your daily grub.
Soy-based food products, like tempeh, tofu, and soy burgers are very nutritious and versatile protein sources, says Planells. He recommends feasting on a half a cup of tempeh (which packs 19.5 grams of protein), half a cup of tofu (10 grams of protein), or a soy burger (about 13 grams, depending on the brand).
The bean’s claim to fame: It offers all of the nine essential amino acids found in animal-based protein products.
Soy is also a good source of B vitamins and essential fatty acids like omega-3s, which can both be tricky for non-meat-eaters to fill up on without supplementation since they’re prominent in animal food sources, says Planells.
After soy, lentils are one of your richest plant-based proteins, says Planells. Just half a cup of this type of legume, called a “pulse,” packs nine grams of protein, he adds.
“Eating a variety of whole grains and plant proteins is your best bet at meeting your overall protein needs,” reminds Planells.
We know vegetarians and meat-lovers alike can get behind this protein source. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain eight grams of protein, says Planells.
Not into super-sticky nut butters? Just grab a handful—23, to be exact—of nuts, like almonds, for a healthy snack that contains six grams of protein, he adds.
Because peanuts and almonds contain small amounts of the nine essential amino acids, Planells suggests pairing nuts and nut butters with a piece of whole wheat bread to achieve an adequate amount of essential amino acids.
Vegetarians (and many healthy eaters, for that matter) overlook the small but mighty seeds as a protein source. Case in point: One ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds contains eight grams of protein, while an ounce of sunflower seeds contains five, says Planells Not to mention, these seeds offer additional vitamins and minerals, like zinc, which helps hundreds of enzymes do their jobs throughout your immune system, nervous system, and more, says the National Institutes of Health.
Go ahead, sprinkle seeds on that salad for added crunch—or just eat ‘em straight as a snack.
Beans are an ever-popular protein source for many vegetarians. A half cup of kidney beans, for example, contains eight grams of protein. Pair those beans with a grain like kamut for a meal that packs 12 grams of protein.
You can toss beans into soups and salads, or even try dips like hummus, which is made from chickpeas and typically packs four grams of protein per four tablespoons.
Not to mention, many beans offer a good dose of iron. Adult men need eight milligrams of iron per day and women need eighteen, says the National Institutes of Health. One cup of kidney beans contains almost four grams. And while experts previously believed animal-sourced iron was absorbed more easily by our bodies than plant-sourced iron, they now believe quite the opposite, says Planells. Three cheers for plants!
This popular side dish actually isn’t a grain—it’s a seed! A half cup of quinoa contains four grams of protein, says Planells. It makes a great base for adding roasted vegetables, beans and other proteins, and healthy fats like olive oil, he adds.
As an extra bonus, quinoa contains all of the nine essential amino acids.
Veggies may not be the food we turn to for protein, but leafy greens can boost your protein intake—as well as your calcium.
Dark leafy greens can be added to soups, used as a base for salads, or stirred up with additional veggies for a quick stir-fry.
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