Nutrition Articles

How to Meet Your Protein Needs without Meat

A Guide to Vegetarian Protein Sources

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Eating a vegetarian diet can be very healthful and rewarding. However, most vegetarians—including soon-to-be vegetarians and their meat-eating loved ones—are concerned about getting adequate protein. Most people are accustomed to getting protein from meat, but what else contains protein? Aren't plant-based proteins "incomplete" or lower quality?

Fortunately, with a bit of extra attention, you won't have any trouble meeting your protein needs just because you give up meat. There are so many protein-packed vegetarian options! Did you know that most foods, including vegetables, have some of the essential muscle-building nutrient? Without looking closely, it is easy to miss some great sources. (Who knew a cup of broccoli had 3 grams!)

Nuts, seeds, soy products, cereal, eggs and dairy are all good meatless protein choices. These groups of food each contain different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and different levels of protein quality. There is no need to consume certain foods in special combinations as nutritionists once thought! When your diet includes a variety of each of these types of foods, you can rest assured that you're consuming all the amino acids you need for muscle growth and cell repair. 

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Nuts
Nuts provide a good dose of protein along with some heart-healthy fatty acids and antioxidants (vitamins A and E). They are also packed full of fiber. Take your pick! Many nuts have a significant source of protein ready to work for your body. Peanuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, and pine nuts are among the highest in protein, while chestnuts and hazelnuts, although they do still have some protein, are the lowest. Think out of the box when you’re adding nuts to your diet. They can be grated, toasted, ground or eaten raw and are great when combined with salads, wraps, soups and stews and baked goods. But pay special attention to portion size! Nuts are a great source of many nutrients, but do come with a hefty dose of calories, thanks to the healthy fats they contain. A single serving is just 1 oz! Many nuts are best when stored in a refrigerator, which helps keep their fats from going rancid (for up to 6 months).

 
Nuts, 1/4 cup Protein Calories Fat
Peanuts, raw 9 g 207 18 g
Almonds, dry roasted 8 g 206 18 g
Pistachios 6 g 171 14 g
Hazelnuts 5 g 212 21 g
Pine nuts 5 g 229 23 g
Cashews, raw 5 g 197 16 g
Walnuts 4 g 164 16 g


Seeds
Seeds are another great way to grab a few grams of protein and many other nutrients. Healthful unsaturated fats, as well as phytochemicals, make seeds a powerhouse for heart disease and cancer prevention. Just a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) has 8.5 grams of protein. Add this amount to a salad or eat them plain for a quick snack. Sunflower seeds are easy to add to pasta or salads, or sandwich wraps, while sesame seeds are easily ground and sprinkled onto steamed veggies for a protein dusting.

 
Seeds (1/4 cup) Protein Calories Fat
Hemp seeds 15 g 232 18 g
Pumpkin seeds, roasted 9 g 187 16 g
Flaxseed 8 g 191 13 g
Sunflower seeds, roasted 8 g 205 18 g
Sesame seeds, roasted 6 g 206 18 g


Legumes
Dried peas, beans and lentils belong to a group of food known as "pulses" or "legumes." Aside from soybeans, these plants have a very similar nutrient content, which includes a good dose of protein. On average, they have about 15 grams of protein per cup, and tagging along with the essentials protein are fiber and iron. Adding beans, lentils and dried peas to your meals is a great way to replace meat (a beef burrito can easily become a black bean burrito, for example) while still getting your much needed protein. Add pulses to soups, salads, omelets, burritos, casseroles, pasta dishes, and more! Make bean dips (such as hummus, which is made from garbanzo beans, or black bean dip) to spread on sandwiches and use as protein-packed dips for veggies or snack foods.

 
Legumes, 1 cup cooked Protein Calories Fiber
Soybeans 29 g 298 10 g
Lentils 18 g 230 16 g
Split peas 16 g 231 16 g
Navy beans 16 g 258 12 g
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) 15 g 269 12 g
Black beans 15 g 227 15 g
Kidney beans 15 g 225 11 g
Lima beans 15 g 216 13 g
Pinto beans 14 g 234 15 g


Soy
Soybeans are a complete protein that is comparable in quality with animal proteins. Eating soybeans (and foods made from soybeans) has been growing trend in America for only five decades, but this protein-rich bean has been a staple in Asia for nearly 4,000 years! This plant powerhouse is used to create a variety of soy-based foods that are rich in protein: tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP, a convincing replacement for ground meat in recipes), soymilk and "meat analogs," such as vegetarian "chicken" or faux "ribs" are all becoming more popular as more Americans practice vegetarianism. To learn more about using tofu, read Tofu 101. To learn how soy may impact your health, click here.

 
Soy Foods Protein Calories Fat
Soybeans, 1 cup cooked 29 g 298 10 g
Tempeh, 4 oz cooked 21 g 223 13 g
Edamame, 1 cup shelled 20 g 240 10 g
TVP, 1/4 cup dry 12 g 80 0 g
Soy nuts, 1/4 cup roasted 11 g 200 1 g
Tofu, 4 oz raw 9 g 86 5 g
Soy nut butter, 2 tablespoons 7 g 170 11 g
Soymilk, 1 cup sweetened 7 g 100 0.5 g
Soymilk, 1 cup unsweetened 7 g 80 0.5 g


Grains
In a culture that focuses largely on wheat, it's easy to overlook the many types of other grains available to us. Some of these grains are very high in protein and can be included in your diet for both whole-grain carbohydrates and muscle-building protein. Quinoa is unusually close to animal products in protein quality, making it an excellent grain to replace white rice or couscous. It can also be cooked and mixed with honey, berries and almonds in the morning for a protein-packed breakfast. Other grains high in protein include spelt, amaranth, oats and buckwheat. Choose whole-grain varieties of cereals, pastas, breads and rice for a more nutritious meal.

 
Grains Protein Calories Fiber
Amaranth, 1 cup cooked 9 g 238 9 g
Quinoa, 1 cup cooked 9 g 254 4 g
Whole wheat pasta, 1 cup cooked 8 g 174 6 g
Barley, 1 cup cooked 7 g 270 14 g
Spelt, 4 oz cooked 6 g 144 4 g
Oats, 1 cup cooked 6 g 147 4 g
Bulgur, 1 cup cooked 6 g 151 8 g
Buckwheat, 1 cup cooked 6 g 155 5 g
Brown rice, 1 cup cooked 5 g 216 4 g
Whole wheat bread, 1 slice 4 g 128 3 g
Sprouted grain bread, 1 slice 4 g 80 3 g


Dairy
If you consume milk products, dairy is a great way to add some extra grams of protein to your day. Low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt are easily accessible, quick to pack and fun to incorporate into many meals and snacks. Whether you’re drinking a cup of skim milk with your dinner or grabbing some string cheese before you run errands, you can pack about 8 grams of protein into most servings of dairy. You’re also getting some bone-building calcium while you’re at it! Keep in mind that low-fat varieties of milk products are lower in calories and fat, but equal in calcium to the full-fat versions; low-fat varieties may also be higher in protein.

 
Dairy Protein Calories Fat
Fat-free cottage cheese, 1 cup 31 g 160 1 g
2% cottage cheese, 1 cup 30 g 203 4 g
1% cottage cheese, 1 cup 28 g 163 2 g
Fat-free plain yogurt, 1 cup 14 g 137 0 g
Low-fat plain yogurt, 1 cup 13 g 155 4 g
Parmesan cheese, 1 oz grated 12 g 129 9 g
Whole milk yogurt, 1 cup 9 g 150 8 g
Goat's milk, 1 cup 9 g 168 10 g
1% milk, 1 cup 8 g 102 2 g
Swiss cheese, 1 oz 8 g 106 8 g
2% milk, 1 cup 8 g 121 7 g
3.25% (whole) milk, 1 cup 8 g 146 8 g
Low-fat cheddar/Colby cheese, 1 oz 7 g 49 2 g
Part-skim mozzarella cheese, 1 oz 7 g 72 5 g
Provolone cheese, 1 oz 7 g 100 8 g
Cheddar cheese, 1 oz 7 g 114 9 g
Blue cheese, 1 oz 6 g 100 8 g
American cheese, 1 oz 6 g 106 9 g
Goat cheese, 1 oz 5 g 76 6 g
Feta cheese, 1 oz 4 g 75 6 g
Part-skim ricotta cheese, 1 oz 3 g 39 2 g


Eggs
Eggs contain the highest biologic value protein available. What this means is that an egg has a near perfect combination of amino acids within its shell; when assessing protein quality of all other foods (including meat), nutrition experts compare them to the egg. This doesn’t mean that all other sources of protein are less healthful or less important but does mean that an egg is an awesome way to get a few grams of protein. At 6 grams for one large egg, there are endless ways to add it to your diet. Salads, sandwiches, breakfasts or snack—an egg can fit in anytime!

 
Eggs Protein Calories Fat
Egg, 1 boiled 6 g 68 5 g
Egg white, 1 cooked 5 g 17 0 g
Liquid egg substitute, 1.5 fl oz 5 g 23 0 g


As you can see, protein is EVERYWHERE in our diet, and even without meat you can get enough every day; you just have to look in the right places! For more ideas for using these various plant-based proteins, check out our dailySpark series, Meat-Free Fridays for recipe and cooking ideas!

Selected Sources
Information Sheet: Protein from The Vegetarian Society (VegSoc.org)

Various nutrient profiles from The World's Healthiest Foods (WHFoods.com)



Want to learn more about going meatless? Check out SparkPeople's first e-book! It's packed with over 120 delicious meat-free recipes, plus tips and tricks for going meatless. Get it on Amazon for $2.99 and start cooking easy, wholesome veg-centric meals the whole family will love!

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Member Comments

  • I stick more with the legumes. Yes I was bloated I the beginning but over time your body adapts. At least it did for me.
  • PLCHAPPELL
    Nuts and seeds are my go to snack.
  • always looking for more ways and recipe so that I can add grains to my diet.
  • I do think of meat when I hear of protein. But other items are just as significant.
  • 97MONTY
    Great article, very informative
  • So, the link that I clicked was titled "Plant based" but the article was focus to vegetarians, and included dairy. Dairy is not part of a plant-based lifestyle as it comes from animals.
  • Decent article, but it fails to mention that nuts, beans & veggies are not complete protein sources but must be combined with complementary grains, for example.
  • Thank you for this article. I have been living with a pre-diabetes diagnosis and have been looking for more ways to increase the protein in my diet. I need to do this without fatty meats and without causing my husband to revolt! There are several good options that he will love in this article.
  • Loved the article but I don't understand why protein content for nuts was listed for 1/4 Cup but serving size is 1 ounce, seems misleading to me.
  • SPUNOUTMOM
    I really enjoyed the article. I would have liked it if you would have included all the nutrient information. I have someone who is type 1 diabetic & is vegetarian. So it is very important for me to have the carb info included.
  • I'm still trying to figure out how to get a minimum of 60 g of protein a day without meat - and more if I am running that day. 3 g of protein in broccoli? I am not going to eat 20 cups of protein. I need to limit dairy and soy. And beans - really upset my colitis. So that leaves nuts? I can't afford the amount of calories it would take to eat that many nuts to get enough protein!
  • ANGEL530917
    In order to print any thing, just press Control and then the key "p" for print. It works all the time.
  • TERESABFIT
    LITTLEWIND53 -- In answer to your question (and it may have already been answered -- I didn't read all 119 comments), you can print articles using the blue MORE button. It has a print function.
  • I used to be able to print articles I thought would be beneficial to my meal plan. This is such an article, But I CAN'T FIND A PRINT ICON

    I do have vision problems and may just be missing it. Could anyone help me please????
  • TRENAMARIE
    I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't care for red meat, great article , I will use this info

About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

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