If you are a vegetarian or are just looking cut back on your meat consumption (often called a flexitarian), it is important to make sure you get enough protein in your diet. You can certainly meet your protein needs without eating meat.
The benefit of reducing your meat consumption is three-fold. First and foremost: your health. A large body of research has shown that vegetarian diets have been associated with a variety of protective health benefits, such as reduced risks of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians also have lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels and lower body mass indexes (BMIs). Secondly, eating less meat will widen your wallet -- vegetarian proteins, especially legumes, are significantly more affordable than meat and other animal proteins. Additionally, vegetarian protein sources are much better for our environment.
The following foods will provide powerful protein to vegetarians. There are several types of vegetarians -- some still eat fish, some eat dairy, some eat eggs, and some include a mixture of those foods but abstain from eating meat. Some of the items below won't apply to vegans (those who abstain from all animal products).
Legumes (Beans, Peas, and Lentils)
Eating legumes is a great way to dial up the protein in your diet without breaking the bank -- these are the most affordable vegetarian protein sources. They're very versatile, too. Regarding protein-packed beans, there are so many types to choose from, each with different tastes, textures, and colors. Beans average 12-14 grams of protein per cup. And long live the lovely lentil! A cup of cooked lentils lends 18 grams of protein to your diet.
But legumes don't stop there. Pass the peas, please! Peas pack a protein punch with 7 grams in one cup (frozen), along with 6 grams of filling fiber. Peas please just about everyone -- toss them into your favorite soup, scoop them atop a colorful salad, augment your pasta dishes with them, or add them into a whole-grain pilaf.
Soy is chock-full of protein and low in fat. If you want to avoid genetically-modified soy products, opt for organic soy foods.
- Tempeh, 2 ounces: 10 grams protein
- Soy milk, 1 cup: 8 grams protein
- Tofu, 1/2 cup: 10 grams protein
- Edamame, 1/2 cup: 8.5 grams protein
Often cleverly called "wheat meat," this wheat-derived vegetarian favorite houses 18 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving. Use seitan in place of any meat in a recipe.
Nuts & Seeds
- Nuts, 1 ounce: 3-7 grams (varies depending on type)
- Pumpkin seeds, 1 ounce: 7 grams protein
- Chia seeds, 1 ounce: 4 grams protein
- Sesame seeds & sunflower seeds, 1 ounce: 5 grams protein
- Hemp seeds, 1 ounce: 6 grams protein
- Peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons: 8 grams protein
This quick-cooking whole grain provides 8 grams per cup (cooked). Opt for quinoa instead of rice, or try it in soups or salads.
An ode to the powerful oat: these little whole-grain goodies are a nutrition powerhouse. A half-cup of oats (uncooked) contributes 5.5 grams of protein and can help lower your cholesterol.
A generous 2-cup serving of bean sprouts provides you with 6 grams of protein. Throw them in a stir-fry or use them to bulk up your favorite brothy soup. Vietnamese pho, anyone?
For Vegetarians Who Consume Eggs & Dairy
One large egg contains 6 grams of protein, and since people often eat several eggs at a time, the protein really adds up. The egg white contains more protein than the yolk, but that's mainly because 66% of the total weight of the egg comes from the white. But don't shun the yolk -- yolks provide folic acid, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamins A, D, E, K, B6 and B12, as well as a higher amount of iron, calcium, copper, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, and manganese.
This popular protein-rich item touts an impressive 15 grams of protein in a 6-ounce serving. Pair it with fruit for breakfast or a quick snack, or use it in place of sour cream or mayonnaise.
A half-cup of small-curd cottage cheese has a whopping 13 grams of powerful protein. Choose low-fat versions and pair with chopped fruit or use it in place of ricotta cheese in recipes.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children.