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10 Vegetarian Sources of Protein

by Joe Wilkes


Anyone who's read the latest studies about high-protein diets knows that we need to get a substantial amount of protein in our diets—about a third of a gram for every pound of body weight. Meat provides one of our best and most readily available sources of protein, but there are a lot of good reasons to think about cutting back or cutting out our consumption of animal products to satisfy our protein needs. View Our Protein Supplements

Aside from the obvious animal-rights issues, there are several economic and environmental considerations to consider. The USDA estimates that it takes roughly 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. When you consider that one-third of the world's population is classified by the World Health Organization as starving, it's easy to see where some of that grain could be put to better use. Beef production also impacts the ecosystem, from the clear-cutting of rainforests for grazing to water pollution to methane emissions, which contribute to greenhouse gases. And the cost of meat to your personal health is also significant. Although packed with protein, many meat choices contain high levels of saturated fats, the overconsumption of which can lead to heart disease and cancer.

At any rate, this article isn't intended to be a polemic about the benefits of vegetarian living. Picking up a book like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, not to mention any of the vast Internet resources available on the subject, might convince you to replace meat with an alternative protein source a couple of meals a week.

One challenge in going vegetarian is finding enough "high-quality" protein. High-quality protein is defined as protein that contains all eight of the essential amino acids: isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Most meat sources have all of the amino acids in one place. Plant sources usually have some of the acids, but not all in one place. So the key is combining foods to get a full complement of amino acids. Here are some of the top ways to get your proteins sans meat. (Vegans, skip to #3, and keep in mind that #7 uses egg whites as a binder). We'll omit soy for the time being—it has its own set of conundrums and contradictions.

  1. Eggs. Egg protein is commonly referred to as a "perfect protein," because it contains all eight essential amino acids. There's a reason Rocky drank eggs during training; they contribute greatly to muscle recovery. One egg contains 6 grams of protein, with only 80 calories and 5 grams of fat. It also contains more than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, which is high, but dietary cholesterol isn't the same thing as blood cholesterol. In fact, some eggs are now produced with high levels of omega-3s (achieved by adding fatty-acid-rich seeds to the hens' diets), which can actually aid in the lowering of blood cholesterol levels.
  2. Dairy. One cup of 2 percent milk contains 8 grams of protein, only 5 grams of fat (3 of which are saturated), and about 120 calories. Switch to skim milk and you get just as much protein, no fat, and 30 percent fewer calories. An ounce of Swiss cheese also has 8 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat (with 5 grams saturated), and a little over 100 calories. Nonfat yogurt may be your best dairy option: 8 ounces has 14 grams of protein and only 137 calories. Or try cottage cheese, which boasts 28 grams of protein in one cup. Many dairy products still have the same saturated-fat issues as meat, and not all people can tolerate dairy well; a not-inconsiderable percentage of the population is either lactose-intolerant or allergic to dairy.
  3. Legumes. You probably already know some of the great health benefits of legumes. Not only are they high in fiber, they're high in protein, too. A cup of chickpeas has about 17 grams of protein, while a cup of lentils has about 16 and a tablespoon of peanut butter has about 4. Some people blame beans for intestinal distress. It actually isn't the fiber in the beans that causes gas, but a sugar that requires an enzyme (which humans lack) to help digest it. When soaking beans, add a pinch of baking soda to the water. It'll help leach this sugar out of the beans, making you less gassy after eating them. Also, to avoid the sugar, don't cook the beans in the water you soaked them in. Another cautionary measure is that if you weren't much of a bean eater before, introduce them into your diet slowly to give your system time to get used to them.
  4. Grains. Usually we think of grains as carbs, but when we're talking grains, they actually have a fair amount of protein. A cup of barley, for example, contains almost 20 grams of protein. A cup of buckwheat flour contains 15 grams of protein. A cup of couscous (dry) contains 22 grams of protein. A cup of oats for oatmeal provides you with 13 grams of protein. If you always choose whole-grain varieties of your favorite grains, you'll get most of your recommended daily allowance (RDA)* of fiber as well. But carb-watchers should beware; whole grains are the "carbiest" of the protein sources available.
  5. Nuts and seeds. The mighty almond, which also has the most fiber per ounce of any of the common nuts, also has the most protein—6 grams per ounce. Almonds do have 16 grams of fat per ounce, but only one gram is the unhealthy saturated kind. Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, have 7 grams of protein per ounce (about 140 seeds) with 13 grams of fat (2 grams saturated). Other seeds, like sunflower and flax, are also good sources of protein, with about 5 grams per ounce.
  6. Seitan. Seitan is a meat substitute made from processed wheat gluten. Popular for centuries in Asia, it has gained popularity in America in the past few decades, but is still largely only available in health food markets. It's not very flavorful, which makes it an ideal ingredient for replacing meat in any dish—it will assume the flavor of the sauce or spices you use. Many Asian dishes use it as mock pork, chicken, or beef. Just 3 ounces of seitan contain 20 grams of protein, almost twice as much as steak, and only 130 calories and 2 grams of fat. Try it in a stir-fry—you might fool your family!
  7. Quorn®. Quorn is the most well-known brand name of a fungus-based protein source that has only been available commercially since 1985. Quorn is processed into different forms and flavors, like hot dogs, burgers, and faux chicken nuggets. Three ounces of Quorn, depending on how it's prepared, can have 10 to 16 grams of protein, with low fat and calorie contents. As with seitan and other meat substitutes, you should keep an eye on the sodium content; salt is usually the go-to ingredient when attempting to disguise a meat substitute's origins. Also, there have been some reports of people having allergic reactions to Quorn, so it may be worth checking with your doctor to see if you're sensitive to it.
  8. Nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast can be used as an additive in a variety of recipes. It's very popular in Europe and Australia, and is gaining popularity in America. It has a slightly cheesy flavor and can be added to shakes, soups, and sauces, or used as a substitute for Parmesan cheese or as a popcorn or garlic-bread topping. It's especially rich in B vitamins. A two-tablespoon serving has 8 grams of protein (and is a complete protein, containing all amino acids), only one gram of unsaturated fat, and 50 calories.
  9. Spirulina. Also known as blue-green algae, this has been a food source for centuries in Africa and South America. It has a lot of vitamins and minerals and is a complete protein. One ounce of dried spirulina contains 16 grams of protein, only 2 grams of fat, and 81 calories. Algae aren't the most appetizing foodstuffs, and much of spirulina is consumed in pill form or mixed into super-green drinks (like Shakeology®). But it can also be used powdered or fresh in dips, salads, and sauces. Take a look at Internet message boards and Web sites, where enthusiasts post lots of recipe ideas.
  10. Amaranth and quinoa. These are often referred to as "pseudograins." Both are actually seeds but are similar to grains in texture and flavor. Both are complete proteins, containing all eight essential amino acids, and have high levels of fiber and minerals. Amaranth can be used as flour, puffed into breakfast cereal, or cooked into soups and stir-frys. One ounce has 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, and 105 calories. Quinoa can also be used for breakfast cereal, and, when boiled, makes an excellent substitute for rice or couscous. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat, and 222 calories.

Another way of getting extra nonmeat protein in your diet is with Shakeology, Beachbody's delicious meal replacement shake. Available in Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanille, Cafe Latte and Greenberry flavors.  Also all have vegan versions, Shakeology packs 17 grams of protein per serving and is great either in place of a meal or as a snack. 

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