Protein on cutting board

10 protein-rich alternatives for a meatless diet

July 13, 2015

Meat is a major source of protein for many Americans, but a growing number of people are opting to go meatless for personal or religious beliefs, or in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Still, protein is a dietary necessity that vegetarians must incorporate into their meals through alternate sources. David Leal, a health educator with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center in Corpus Christi, offers an overview of some lesser-known sources of protein.

Proteins are known as the building blocks of life. They serve an important role in the body by breaking down into amino acids that allow cells, tissues and organs to grow and repair. From a dietary standpoint, proteins take longer to digest than carbohydrates, which is beneficial in fighting cravings by leaving the body feeling fuller for longer periods of time. However, Leal stresses that while protein is healthy for you, too much may just add extra calories. It’s all about balance, and knowing how much protein your body needs.

Generally, the average woman needs 46 grams of protein in a 1500-calorie diet and the average man needs 56 grams in an 1800-calorie diet. Leal explains that an individual’s height, weight and age must be factored in when determining how many calories and how much protein an individual needs in his or her diet.

“The general rule we use is that one ounce of animal meat has 7 grams of protein. We recommend 2-4 ounce servings, two to three times a day for most people,” he said.

Becoming vegetarian is generally accepted as a healthy lifestyle as long as you make sure you consume the recommended amount of protein that your body needs. Leal points out that cutting meat from your diet can be beneficial by decreasing the amount of saturated fats you take in and becoming more aware of what you are putting into your body. He offers the following list of vegetarian-friendly, protein-rich foods that can help fulfill these needs, which vegetarians and meat-eaters alike might consider incorporating into their diets.

  • Seitan. An increasingly popular meat-substitute for vegetarians made from gluten, the main protein in wheat. It has a meat-like texture that other substitutes like tofu and tempeh lack. Seitan has 6 grams of protein per ounce and 2 grams of carbohydrates, which is comparable to a serving of lean meat or tuna fish.
  • Firm tofu. Firm tofu is a low-fat, healthy alternative that contains 10 grams of protein per half a cup, which is more than an egg or an ounce of animal meat.
  • Eggs. The average egg contains 7 grams of protein, which is mostly in the egg whites, but you don’t have to throw out the yolk to be healthy, as it is actually very nutrient dense.
  • Greek yogurt. This type of yogurt has grown in popularity because it is tasty, filling and nutritious. Greek yogurt is more concentrated than regular yogurt, and averages 23 grams of protein per cup.
  • Quinoa. This trendy grain has a total of 8 grams of protein per cup.
  • Edamame. Edamame are pod-bound soybeans popular in Japanese cuisine. They contain 8 grams of protein in every half cup.
  • Beans.  All beans are said to be about equally healthy for you.  Eaten on their own, they are rich in fiber and low in calories. Beans average 8 grams of protein per half cup.
  • Pumpkin seeds. A fourth of a cup of pumpkin seeds contains 10 grams of protein and 190 calories; however, they are higher in fat than many other protein-rich alternatives.
  • Peanut butter.  This famous spread has 7 grams of proteins per 2 tablespoons, but again, fat content does run on the high side.
  • Non-dairy milk. There are many types of non-dairy milks now, including soymilk, almond and rice milk.  Soymilk offers the highest protein count at 4-8 grams per cup.  Other types of milk vary in the amount of protein, but some have as little as one gram per cup. Leal recommends checking the label to know for sure whether a dairy alternative will also fill your protein needs.

Keep in mind that different products and variations in the way they are prepared may change some of these nutritional facts. To quickly and definitively find the nutritional facts on any food, Leal recommends using online sites or mobile apps with nutritional facts, such as MyFitnessPal.

“The important thing to remember is not to focus on what you can and cannot eat, but rather understand what your body needs and identify the best options for meeting those needs,” Leal said.

— Madison Matous

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