No matter what your diet is, you need protein to live. But good news if you’re trying to cut back on meat. Eating meat is not necessary to ensure an ample supply of protein. In fact, some of the healthiest sources of protein are perfect for a vegetarian – or even a vegan diet.
What is Protein?
Protein is considered a “macronutrient” – and it is essential for building our muscles. From a chemical standpoint, protein is comprised of amino acids, which, in turn, are made up of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, sulfur, and other compounds.
When you ingest protein, enzymes in your digestive system break them down so they can be absorbed in the bloodstream and distributed to the areas of your body that need them. These proteins are either used for energy or to make other proteins. For example, many of the proteins that go to the liver are broken down so we can use them for energy, almost like the fuel you put in your gas tank.
While there’s no set-in-stone amount of protein you should ingest each day, it’s generally believed that men need about 56 grams per day, while women typically need about 46 grams daily.1
Why Do We Need It?
Protein helps you build muscle… but that’s just the beginning of its wide range of benefits. Different proteins in your body help break down food so we can absorb nutrients, remove waste, and control how nutrients are sent to cells. A protein known as hemoglobin works with iron to transport oxygen throughout the body. Your bones are mainly made up of proteins, along with magnesium, phosphate, and calcium. Proteins also help to form your hair, fingernails, and toenails, and they also form antibodies that provide protection against viruses.
So you can see why you need protein – it plays a key role in how just about every organ and cell in the body functions. But if you’re worried that you can’t get the protein you need by avoiding meat, you shouldn’t be. These are just a few non-meat items that are rich in the proteins you need in order to thrive:
Chickpeas are extremely flexible, culinarily-speaking. You can saute them, put some lemon juice and salt on them for a snack, make them into a delicious hummus, or simply toss them into a salad. Just a half a cup contains more than 7 grams of protein. Chickpeas are also low in calories and rich in fiber.
Nuts are full of not only protein but also healthy fats – they are a staple in many vegetarian diets as a result. They are, however, high in calories, so it’s worth using moderation when snacking on nuts. ¼ cup is a perfectly sized serving. Go for the dry roasted or raw varieties. And when looking at nut butters like peanut butter and almond butter, make sure you’re looking for versions without added sugar.
Chia seeds are loaded with protein, along with beneficial antioxidants. They are packed with nearly 5 ounces of protein per ounce and a great deal of fiber. You can blend chia seeds into a smoothie, mix them into a salad, or stir them into some oatmeal for a big protein boost.
Hemp is an excellent source of plant-based protein. In fact, it’s a major component of many healthy trail mixes and cereals. You might even be able to find hemp milk in your local health food store, which is an excellent way to get more protein into your diet without having to deal with the downside of consuming a dairy product.
Cocoa Powder (Unsweetened)
Yes, you can get protein from chocolate. And while this may seem too good to be true, don’t run straight to the store to stock up on Hershey bars. Unsweetened cocoa powder is typically used to make hot chocolate, but on its own, it tastes very bitter. That’s why a lot of hot chocolate recipes recommend adding a lot of sugar and fat. But you can still make a delicious hot chocolate by using coconut milk and sweeteners that are low in calories. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, take some unsweetened cocoa and sprinkle it into some butter-free popcorn.
Just about all types of beans are packed with protein. In fact, you can get a whopping 26 grams from just two cups of kidney beans. Beans are truly one of the world’s healthiest foods. They are also loaded with fiber. Their nutritional value makes them a staple in many vegetarian diets.
You can either soak dried beans overnight and cook them on the stove, or you can pressure cook them – which is much faster.
While most vegetables don’t have nearly the amount of protein as do other items such as nuts and legumes, there are some exceptions. Just one cup of chopped broccoli has a little more than 8 grams of protein, while two cups of spinach will deliver about 2 grams. Other leafy greens with a good protein count include collard greens, mustard greens, swiss chard, and kale.
One cup of green peas contains about 8 grams of protein – roughly the same amount found in a cup of milk.2 You can eat green peas on their own or mix them with some olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese and pour the mixture over some linguini.
If you follow a vegetarian diet, you know it’s important to get plenty of protein. And being meat-free doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself – at all. Try incorporating some of these protein-rich foods into each of your your meals, or as a snack, every day to stay as healthy as possible.
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