It seems like everywhere we look today, high-protein options are being marketed as the thing your body needs. So what’s all the hype about?
While certainly not as necessary to have in high quantities as some diets would have you believe, protein is the compound we need to keep our cells moving and grooving. And though meat is a rich source of protein, if you’re not thrilled with the idea of having meat all the time, it’s not the only way. With a little creativity and basic know-how, you can go meatless and still meet your protein needs.
Why is protein important?
Along with carbohydrates and fats, protein is a major component of the human diet. Without this trio of macronutrients, your body can’t perform essential functions necessary to live.
Proteins consist of amino acids, which provide the building blocks for our bodies. These components are responsible for repairing cells and creating new ones. Proteins are the ultimate multitaskers. They transport nutrients and function as enzymes and hormones.
Macronutrient recommendations are based on the percentage of overall calories consumed daily. The Institute of Medicine suggests that protein should make up 10 to 35 percent of our daily caloric intake. For women ages 19 and older, this equals roughly 46 grams or two to three servings per day.
But protein’s claim to fame doesn’t stop there. An experiment by Food & Science Nutrition discovered that premenopausal women were more likely to lose excess body weight after consuming snacks high in protein and low in fat. Protein also promotes a feeling of fullness and satiety. Nutrition Journal found that when twenty women in their late twenties ate high-protein foods, they had better appetite control. Because it is so easy to eat our emotions or munch mindlessly on snacks, protein may be helpful for developing healthier eating habits.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, food sources contain all or some of the amino acids that our body needs. If a food has the entire package, we call it a “complete” protein. These are typically animal products such as eggs, dairy, pork, poultry, and fish. Incomplete proteins tend to be nonanimal sources, such as legumes (beans) and plants (nuts). These foods provide some, but not all, of the amino acids that our bodies need.
Want to skip the meat?
Even for committed carnivores, it’s good for the environment, and our bodies, to have variety in our diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that women who consume more red meat have a greater risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For some, cultural or ethical practices may cut out some or all meat. Others may dislike the taste or find it to be too heavy on the stomach. Environmentally, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that an egg-, dairy-, and plant-based diet is more sustainable than the average American meat-based diet.
In recent years, going meatless has not only become more popular, but it’s also more accessible. Whatever your reason for going meatless—one day a week or 365 days a year—it doesn’t have to strain your protein intake. Here are six meatless sources to get you started.
Brunch fans will be happy to know that eggs are an awesome source of complete protein. At 6.28 grams of protein per egg, this beloved breakfast food is popular for its filling qualities. The Journal of American College of Nutrition found that an egg-based breakfast kept women of the same weight fuller longer than a bagel-based breakfast. Perceived cravings were also lower during the day.
Apart from curbing hunger, Food & Function says that egg intake increases levels of high-density cholesterol (HDL), also known as “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol acts as a transporter for lutein and zeaxanthin, two powerful carotenoids (antioxidants). These components have properties that protect cells and may reduce risks for cancer. The verdict is in. Eggs are a win-win all around.
02. Greek Yogurt
According to Katerina Melekos, RDN, a registered dietitian in New Jersey, Greek yogurt has more protein than other dairy products. An animal product, it is also considered a complete protein. “A standard 6-ounce container contains a whopping 15 to 20 grams of protein,” she says. A study in Appetite found that a serving of high-protein yogurt promoted fullness and decreased hunger in healthy female subjects.
Because Greek yogurt is thicker and has more texture than regular yogurt, it may take some getting used to. Try mixing in your favorite fruits for a natural dose of sweetness. A drizzle of honey and a sprinkling of granola make for a tasty breakfast or snack. For an even more satisfying breakfast, mix it with cereal or cooked oats.
For a savory option, add fresh herbs and spices for a vegetable dip. You can even make a creamy pasta sauce with just a few extra ingredients. Use one cup of plain Greek yogurt for every one pound of pasta. Mix herbs, cheese, or crushed tomatoes to taste. You’ll end up with a delicious protein-rich sauce without the heavy cream and butter.
03. Soy Products
From soy milk to tofu, soy products are an excellent source of plant-based complete protein. A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that, like eggs and Greek yogurt, soy-based foods increase appetite control and satiety. The study also found that consuming soy products led to greater cognitive flexibility and a boost in mood. Along with natural sources of energy, including soy in your regular diet may help you stay on top of your A-game.
Thanks to the high fiber content of soy, it can also lower the risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Institute for Research. Oncology Nutrition also states that women who consume soy foods have a lower risk of breast cancer. Because women who eat this health food may be more likely to exercise and consume vegetables, the reduced risk may be influenced by factors other than soy. However, Oncology Nutrition confirms that consuming soy does not amplify it. And according to a report in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, “When consumed at usual dietary intakes consistent with intakes by Asians, isoflavones [in soy] are unlikely to have the negative effects associated with estrogens.” It all boils down to consuming soy in moderation.
As in any food group, the University of Texas MD Anderson Center recommends sticking to whole foods (tofu or tempeh) and avoiding processed foods (faux chicken nuggets).
According to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, soy-based products also provide iron and B vitamins. “Try tossing these alternatives into a salad or pasta for extra texture,” Melekos says.
Melekos also says that you can even use it to substitute meat in recipes. “Use a 1:1 ratio,” she says. “For example, if a recipe calls for 6 ounces of ground beef, you can use 6 ounces of tofu.” This is the perfect way to experiment with meatless versions of your favorite recipes.
Soy milk is another high source of plant-based protein. If you’re not one to chug a glass of milk, try using it in your oatmeal or smoothies. For a healthier latte or hot chocolate, use it as a substitute for water or whole milk.
A food staple in South America, quinoa has stolen the spotlight in recent years among healthy eaters in the U.S. While this gluten-free “pseudo-grain” is the seed of the quinoa plant, it is often consumed like rice or pasta.
At 8 grams of protein per cup, this superfood is a complete protein and a wise choice for those who don’t eat meat. It is also full of iron, fiber, omega-6 fatty acids, and vitamin B. Quinoa is the real deal.
Busy ladies on the go will be glad to know that it cooks quickly. In just fifteen to twenty minutes, quinoa seeds fully absorb broth or water. The Whole Grains Council notes that it freezes very well, making it a great foundation for week-long meal planning. “Add quinoa to salad, pasta, or soup to bulk it up,” Melekos suggests.
05. Beans, Lentils, and Garbanzos
Like quinoa, beans are extremely versatile. Although they aren’t complete sources of protein, they’re pretty high up on the list. “Not only are they inexpensive, but one cup of kidney beans contains 15 grams of protein, too,” Melekos says.
According to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, we can promote healthy weight management by a single daily 1-cup serving of beans, lentils, or garbanzos. Consuming these has also been associated with a lower risk of premature death and cardiovascular disease.
From kidney to black beans, these protein-rich foods are easy to prepare. “You can buy them canned and toss them in quinoa, salad, or pasta,” Melekos says. “Try adding them to a vegetable quesadilla or burrito for a filling meal.” Just make sure they’re free from added sodium or preservatives.
Of course, we can’t forget about the hummus. Made with protein-rich garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), hummus is a flavorful dip for crackers and vegetables. You can also spread it on a sandwich, toast, or bagel.
For a quick and easy way to get extra protein, munch on a handful of nuts. They may not be complete sources of protein, but they certainly help the cause. “Specifically, peanuts and almonds are your best bets,” Melekos says. The American Society for Nutrition found that when women substituted an equivalent serving of nuts for red meat, they gained less weight over time. As with other protein-rich foods, increased satiety plays a big role in healthy weight management.
Nuts have also been shown to decrease the risk of breast cancer by the International Journal of Cancer and type 2 diabetes by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In both studies, nuts were used as a protein substitute in place of red meat.
Melekos suggests munching on a half cup of nuts or nut butter for one serving of protein. These days, many grocery stores have jumped on the non-peanut nut-butter trend, offering everything from toasty almond to cashew butters.
If you aren’t nuts about eating this many nuts in a day, add a dollop of your favorite nut butter to your oatmeal, or sprinkle nuts on your cereal or yogurt. Nut butters make a killer sauce for wraps, rolls, or noodles. They’re also the perfect dip for crackers or vegetables. Who says we’re too old for ants on a log?
Now that you know the lowdown on these non-meat protein sources, we hope you’ll be able to make more wholesome food choices that fit your lifestyle. As always, pay close attention to your body in case you have an allergy or intolerance to any of these foods. If you’re trying something you haven’t consumed before, do so in conjunction with foods you’re already familiar with. That way, if anything feels off, you’re more likely to point out the culprit. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best for you. By getting enough protein in a variety of forms, you are gifting your body with a balanced diet and the building blocks that it needs to keep going strong.