If you’re considering cutting down on your meat, or even fully committing to becoming vegetarian or vegan, you might be concerned about how much protein you’re getting. Protein is one of the most important nutrients we need, so you need to make sure you’re getting enough.
Protein is one of the things that keep your body moving, making up your cells and catalyzing important internal functions like digestion and cell repair. In fact, every cell in your body contains and relies on protein to function.
If you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll lose muscle mass and your metabolism will slow down. You also put more strain on your body, putting you at a higher risk of illness or injury.
The reason that there is more of a focus on protein in vegetarian and vegan foods is that meat tends to have a much higher amount of protein when compared to vegetables. The average person needs between 45-55 grams of protein a day, with more or less depending on your sex and weight. And where meat is the most common source of protein for most people, alternative sources aren’t really discussed as much.
But don’t worry – there are plenty of plant-based foods out there that have just as good an amount of protein as meat does, while also tasting delicious. Luckily for you, we’ve gathered up some plant-based alternatives to meat that have a high protein content. On top of that, our list also includes some recipe recommendations that use these alternatives!
So if you’re ready, let’s get right into it!
Best Sources of Plant-Based Protein
Kicking off the list is perhaps the most well-known meat substitute. Tofu has been an increasingly popular meat alternative in recent years, but it was first created in China over 2000 years ago.
Tofu (also known as bean curd) is made from the curds of soy milk. These curds are collected and pressed into blocks. Tofu is pressed into several different densities, categorized by their firmness. These range from ‘silken’ (the least dense) to ‘extra firm’ (the densest, and sometimes called ‘super firm’).
The reasons for tofu’s success as a meat substitute mainly come down to two things: its taste and its texture.
Tofu’s texture is remarkably similar to many kinds of meat, especially with its varying densities. These mimic different types of meat, while softer tofu can be scrambled to mimic eggs.
In terms of taste, tofu doesn’t really have much flavor on its own. However, it is great at absorbing the flavor of anything it’s cooked in, from sauces to glazes. This makes tofu the perfect vessel for your meal, delivering great tastes and convincing texture.
A younger version of tofu, edamame beans are immature soybeans. While (like tofu) edamame beans aren’t suitable for anyone with a soy allergy, edamame beans are just as good a source of protein as their more processed form.
Edamame beans are typically eaten whole after being blanched, or are boiled or steamed then used as an ingredient. Edamame beans typically have a pale green color and are around the same size as kidney beans. However, they have a texture similar to garden peas, and a taste to match.
You can add edamame beans to a stir fry or salad to get an extra bit of protein in your diet.
It might be a bit surprising, but potatoes actually contain a fair bit of protein. While they’re usually thought of as nothing but carbs, a mid-sized baked potato with its skin left on can contain up to 5 grams of protein!
This makes jacket potatoes the perfect lunch – simply add a few protein-rich toppings and you have a great meal.
And if you don’t want to eat something too high in carbs, you can cook just the skins for a tasty alternative to chips, or use them to hold other ingredients.
Beans aren’t just good for your heart – they are a healthy food that benefits your whole body!
Many different types of beans have high levels of protein, and they are versatile enough to be included in all kinds of meals.
Some of the best beans for protein are lima beans, black beans, and kidney beans. However, other beans like pinto beans and cranberry beans are also great ways to bump up your protein intake.
Most of the time, you’ll get beans either dried or canned in water. This gives them a long shelf-life, and canned beans are usually ready to use as an ingredient (though you should make sure to give them a rinse first!).
Plenty of recipes already call for beans, but you can also find a place for them in foods like stews and soup. They also feature in a lot of Southern cooking, as well as in Mexican food. Their versatility makes beans a perfect staple for your cooking, so make sure you stay stocked up!
Similar to beans, pulses are also chock-full of protein. Pulses are a more general term that includes beans, but there are plenty of other types of pulses.
Lentils and chickpeas are the most common, and both are incredibly versatile ingredients. And of course, they also contain a lot of protein. A cup of cooked red lentils contains around 18 grams of protein, while cooked puy lentils have just over 20 grams per cup. Chickpeas have a slightly lower, but still respectable 14 grams of protein per cup.
While these pulses have much more protein before they are cooked, you should never eat them raw. Uncooked pulses can contain harmful toxins, and you also need to make sure you rinse them off before cooking to make sure they’re all clean and prepared.
That said, cooked pulses are a great addition to many different dishes. Like beans, many recipes already call for pulses, but you can include them in much more.
Lentils add some texture when cooked down, and can be put in stews or casseroles to thicken them up. You can also put lentils in soups – in fact, why not use beans, lentils, and some wild rice in a Mexican-inspired bean and chili soup?
You can also pop chickpeas in all sorts of meals, from delicious curry to a healthy salad.
Pulses are just as versatile as beans, and are another easy way to increase the protein in your diet.
Along with several other essential nutrients, leafy greens are a great source of protein.
Kale, spinach, and bok choy are all full of protein. Kale can provide 2 grams of protein per cup, while also having a very low calorie count. Watercress also has a decent amount of protein and can easily be added to a sandwich or salad.
One of the best aspects of leafy greens like spinach or kale is how much they reduce down. By getting rid of the water, you’re left with a much smaller portion that’s absolutely bursting with protein and nutrients. It also makes them easier to incorporate into your meals, without drastically increasing your calorie intake.
Seitan is one of the more unusual proteins on this list. However, it also manages to be one of the best!
Seitan is made of wheat flour, which is made into a dough and kneaded in water to extract large strips of gluten. This is then rinsed off and used as a high-protein alternative to meat.
Also known as ‘wheat meat’, seitan is becoming an increasingly popular meat substitute. This is because it’s similar in texture to meat, and it’s easy to make it look convincing as well. Seitan is even more convincing than tofu, and makes a good option for people who can’t eat tofu due to a soy allergy.
While it doesn’t have much taste of its own, seitan absorbs the flavor of what it’s being cooked in, making it great in a sauce or glaze.
It’s also packed full of protein, containing a whopping 75 grams of protein per 100 grams of seitan.
However, as seitan is made of gluten it is not suitable for anyone with celiac disease or any other wheat or gluten allergy
Perhaps even more strange than seitan, mycoprotein is much more complicated to make.
Mycoprotein is made out of a fungus, which is fermented and processed before being used as a meat substitute.
Mycoprotein, as the name suggests, is rich in protein. It is used in food for its meat-like texture, and it is also great for absorbing other flavors.
Although mycoprotein is hard to use at home, the meat-free food company Quorn uses mycoprotein in almost every product.
Quorn and other mycoprotein meat substitutes are great at mimicking a wide variety of different meats, from beef to chicken, and even fish.
Something to bear in mind though is that mycoprotein (especially Quorn) is often mixed with non-vegan ingredients. If you’re vegan, make sure to double-check the ingredients list.
Nuts are simply bursting with protein! Not only that, but they’re delicious and low-calorie, making them a great addition to your diet.
Peanuts and almonds are particularly high in protein, and you can get a gram of protein from just 4 almonds or peanuts. They are also popular nuts to use as ingredients, whether in sauces, baking, or as a spread.
You don’t have to do much preparation with nuts either. You can chop them up to use in a meal, roast them with sugar and spices, or simply eat them raw as a snack.
Of course, people with nut allergies won’t be able to use nuts for protein, but otherwise they’re a tasty and simple way to up your protein intake.
While meat is typically seen as the main source of protein for most meals, vegetables are also capable of providing the protein you need.
There are plenty of vegetables with high protein content, so you don’t need to go too far out of your way to accommodate them in your diet. You might be regularly eating them already!
As well as iron, broccoli is full of protein, with 2.5 grams a cup. In fact, broccoli has more protein per calorie than steak. This makes it one of the healthiest ways to up your protein content, without needing to eat a massive portion.
Sprouts are also a great source of protein. Alfalfa sprouts and brussels sprouts are some of the best, and are great when roasted in seasoning and a drizzle of olive oil.
If sprouts aren’t really your thing, then beansprouts, corn, and bell peppers are some more options. These can be used in most dishes, and their relatively sweet flavor makes them a bit more appealing. You might need to eat more of these veg to get the same amount of protein as meat, but their calorie count is much lower.
Although a diet exclusively made up of vegetables is difficult to maintain in the long run, increasing your vegetable intake is a simple and healthy way to bump up the protein in your diet.
Grains are pretty much universally looked upon as a health food. With their high levels of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, grains are a great staple to add to your diet.
Oats are one of the best grains – one cup of cooked porridge oats contains 5 grams of fiber. This makes oatmeal a great breakfast – you can also add some high-protein fruits to add some extra flavor and antioxidants.
Wheat, wild rice, and couscous are also good grains for protein, and can be incorporated into many foods.
They may not be as protein-dense as mycoprotein, but many types of mushrooms are incredibly nutritious. As well as other nutrients like fiber and vitamins, mushrooms have a good amount of protein in them.
White mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and oyster mushrooms are some of the best varieties in terms of protein content. Meanwhile, the best types of mushrooms are portobello and shiitake – a cup of these mushrooms after they’ve been cooked contains between 4-5 grams of protein.
Mushrooms are great both raw and cooked, and their meaty texture makes them a great plant-based source of protein.
Despite their small size, seeds have a high protein content. Their size also makes them great snacks or ingredients, and they can be slipped into plenty of foods without being too noticeable.
While it is usually considered a grain, quinoa is actually classed as a seed. A cup of cooked quinoa contains up to 8 grams of protein. It’s popular when put in salads, but you can also mix it in with sauces to add some extra protein to pasta or curry.
Chia seeds are also a popular plant-based protein source. They are often used in vegan desserts and baked goods, but are also a popular addition to oatmeal and yogurt. You can even add chia seeds into a smoothie, where they add a slight texture as well as plenty of protein.
Other seeds are great choices too. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds can be eaten raw or roasted, containing about 8 grams of protein per ounce. Sesame seeds and poppy seeds are often added to loaves of bread, and they can also be eaten raw or roasted for some extra protein.
Peas are very similar to beans in terms of their nutritional value. Garden peas have about 8 grams of protein per cup, while yellow split peas have a massive 48 grams. Peas are also very versatile, in a similar way to peas and lentils, and can be found in many different recipes.
You can also add peas to some meals you wouldn’t expect – for example, yellow split peas can be added to a curry, while sugar snap peas are a great addition to a stir fry. You can even add peas with kale or spinach to make a protein-heavy smoothie that also tastes great.
One of the lesser-known soy-based meat alternatives, tempeh is very similar to tofu. That said, there are several differences that set tempeh apart.
Tempeh is much more dense than tofu, meaning it has more protein per serving. Tempeh has up to 15 grams of protein per cup. It also comes in much more solid blocks and doesn’t have the same firmness rankings.
Tempeh can be sliced or cubed and used as a meat substitute, or crumbled to simulate ground meat and scrambled egg. And although it differs from tofu in several ways, tempeh is still great at absorbing other food’s flavors.
So if you like tofu but want something with more firmness and higher protein, tempeh is definitely up your alley.
Fruits, while generally not as high in protein as vegetables, are also great ways to improve your protein intake. It’s also a much sweeter alternative to other options on this list, so don’t feel like you have to eat nothing but kale and beans to get your daily protein!
There are plenty of fruits with a good amount of protein. For instance, grapefruit and kiwi both contain 2 grams of protein per cup, and are ideal in a fruit salad or as a snack.
Guava and avocado are great sources of protein, each packing 4-5 grams of protein per cup.
So all you need is to have some of your 5-a-day, and you’ll be on your way to your daily levels of protein!