Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Meat has become synonymous with protein, so many consumers struggle to identify non-meat sources of this dietary building block. But adequate protein needs easily are attained through a well-planned diet. And plant-based protein typically contains more fiber and less saturated fat, factors that are cornerstones of a heart-healthy diet.
According to a 2009 research review by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegans and vegetarians typically meet and even exceed their protein requirements: the average adult woman needs just 46 grams of protein a day; the average adult man needs 56 grams. By eating a variety of healthful veg foods, you can easily cover your protein bases.
Not sure where to start? We asked nutritionist Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN, author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, to help us choose a few of the most convenient and affordable protein-packed staples.
Consider this soybean block a blank canvas: it’ll soak up the flavors of whatever you add to it. Use silken varieties for blending into smoothies and puddings; save firmer tofu for baking or stir-frying into chewy pieces and tossing into salads, sandwiches, veggie bowls, and noodle dishes. In addition to protein, tofu delivers a dose of bone-building calcium if it’s made with calcium sulfate, notes Warren. Check for it in the ingredients list on the label. Tip: Short on time? Grab pre-seasoned baked tofu by brands such as Wildwood or Nasoya. Protein: 10 grams per 4-oz. serving firm tofu
A helping of beans makes any dish more filling, thanks to an abundance of protein and fiber. “Being rich in both types of fiber—soluble and insoluble—beans also help lower cholesterol and promote healthy digestion,” says Warren, who suggests eating a variety, such as chickpeas, black beans, and heirloom beans, for the widest range of nutrients. Cook a big batch of dried beans for use throughout the week, or stock up on cans with BPA-free linings and no added salt. Tip: Add a strip of kombu seaweed to beans as they cook to make them more easily digestible. Protein: 7 grams per 1/2-cup serving cooked black beans
3. Greek Yogurt
Swap out regular yogurt for this thicker, strained variety, which has up to twice as much protein. Warren forgoes non-fat yogurt in favor of 2% or even whole, which will leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied. Go organic, when possible: recent research shows that organic milk contains more heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids than its conventional cousin. Look for plain Greek yogurt, and sweeten it yourself using fruit or a natural sweetener such as agave or honey. Tip: Prefer savory to sweet? Add a few spoonfuls of Greek yogurt to blended soups and sautéed greens. Protein: 17 grams per 6-oz. serving 2% Greek yogurt
Starting your day with an egg can help curb cravings later in the day—just don’t skip the yolk. “It’s a great source of the nutrient choline, which is vital for cells to function properly,” says Warren. Egg yolks are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that help maintain eye health. Note: the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consuming less than 300 milligrams cholesterol per day. One large egg clocks in at 186 milligrams. Tip: Check the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard to see how different egg companies stack up. Protein: 6 grams per large egg
These little legumes are packed with about the same amount of hunger-quelling fiber as beans, but they require no soaking and cook up in just 20 to 30 minutes. What’s more, “they’re an excellent source of folate—even more so than beans—which is important for your nervous system and heart health,” says Warren. She suggests pairing iron-rich lentils with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes and oranges, which help your body absorb the iron. Tip: Not a fan of mushy lentils? Choose French or Puy lentils, which hold their shape when cooked. Protein: 9 grams per 1/2-cup serving cooked lentils
6. Nuts and Nut Butters
Just a handful of walnuts, almonds, cashews, or peanuts gives you a quick-and-easy protein boost. Nutty for nut butter? All types are good sources of monounsaturated fat, which can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, says Warren. She advises skipping low-fat varieties that remove much of this good fat, and opting for jars with just two ingredients: nuts and salt. Spread on toast, stir into stews, or whirl into morning smoothies. Tip: Try sunflower seed butter if you’re allergic to nuts. Protein: 7 grams per 2-Tbs. serving peanut butter
Don’t be intimidated by nutty, earthy tempeh. Like tofu, it’s made from soybeans, but with a twist: “The beans are fermented, producing bacteria that’s beneficial for your GI tract,” says Warren. “The fermentation process also breaks down the carbohydrates that some people have trouble digesting, making it an easier-to-tolerate option for people whose bellies don’t do tofu.” For a beginner-friendly ground meat alternative, crumble tempeh, pan-fry it, and stir into pasta sauces, taco fillings, and chili. Tip: Liven up salads and sandwiches with tempeh bacon, a smoky treat that’s great for new vegetarians. Protein: 21 grams per 4-oz. serving tempeh
8. Protein Powder
Aside from the convenience, protein powders are a great option for a quick protein boost. Plus, many plant-based protein sources go beyond protein, offering nutrient profiles that include vitamins, minerals, and ample amino acid profiles. Pea protein, in particular, contains ample amounts of all nine essential amino acids for your muscle-building needs. Plant protein powders are usually void of additives, which can cause malabsorption, and the elimination of additives also makes plant-based protein powders more easily digestible and gut-friendly. Tip: Look for a vegan protein powder that offers a complete protein and a high concentration of amino acids. Some of the best types to look for are pea and rice. Protein: We like Naked Whey’s Raw Vegan Protein powders, which offer 27 grams of protein and 5.7 grams of BCAA’s per serving.