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Proteins are known as the building blocks of life: In the body, they break down into amino acids that promote cell growth and repair. (They also take longer to digest than carbohydrates, helping you feel fuller for longer and on fewer calories—a plus for anyone trying to lose weight.) You probably know that animal products—meat, eggs and dairy—are good sources of protein; unfortunately, they can also be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. What you may not know is that you don't need to eat meat or cheese to get enough protein. Here are 14 good vegetarian and vegan sources, and tips on how to add them to your diet today.
Foods in the legume family are good sources of vegetarian protein, and peas are no exception: One cup contains 7.9 grams—about the same as a cup of milk. (For the record, women should get about 46 grams of protein per day, and men need about 56.) If you don't like peas as a side dish, try blending them into a pesto, said Elle Penner, nutritionist for MyFitnessPal and blogger at Nutritionella.com. "I blend frozen peas, toasted pine nuts, fresh mint, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese and serve over linguine," she says. "It's one of my all-time favorite meat-free meals!"
Most grains contain a small amount of protein, but quinoa—technically a seed—is unique in that it contains more than 8 grams per cup, including all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and repair, but cannot produce on its own. (Because of that, it's often referred to as a "perfect protein.") Plus, it's amazingly versatile: Quinoa can be added to soup or vegetarian chili during winter months, served with brown sugar and fruit as a hot breakfast cereal, or tossed with vegetables and a vinaigrette to make a refreshing summer salad.
Nuts and nut butter
All nuts contain both healthy fats and protein, making them a valuable part of a plant-based diet. But because they are high in calories—almonds, cashews, and pistachios for example, all contain 160 calories and 5 or 6 grams of protein per ounce—choose varieties that are raw or dry roasted. Nut butters, like peanut and almond butter, are also a good way to get protein, says Penner: "Look for brands with as few ingredients as possible—just nuts and maybe salt," she said. "Skip the ones with hydrogenated oils or lots of added sugar."
There are many different varieties of beans—black, white, pinto, heirloom, etc.—but one thing they all have in common is their high amounts of protein. Two cups of kidney beans, for example, contain about 26 grams (almost the same as a Big Mac, which has 25 grams!). And you don't have to make beans from scratch to reap their nutritional benefits, said Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, author of Doctor's Detox Diet. "If you want to buy them dried and soak them overnight before you cook them, that's fine," she says. "But it's also perfectly okay—and much easier—to buy them canned, rinse them, and heat them up over the stove."
Also known as garbanzo beans, these legumes can be tossed into salads, fried and salted as a crispy snack, or pureed into a hummus. They contain 7.3 grams of protein in just half a cup, and are also high in fiber and low in calories. "You can make a really great meal with some whole-wheat flatbread, some veggies, and some homemade hummus," said Gerbstadt. "Just toss a can of chickpeas in the blender with some herbs and some tahini or walnut oil and you're good to go."
Tempeh and tofu
Foods made from soybeans are some of the highest vegetarian sources of protein: Tempeh and tofu, for example, contain about 15 and 20 grams per half cup, respectively. "They're highly nutritious, and they can really take on the taste and texture of whatever type of food you're looking for," said Gerbstadt. "I love that you can get a really soft tofu and mash it with a fork, or you can get a firm one and have a really substantial product that can stand in for meat."
Not crazy about meat substitutes? Get your servings of soy the way it appears in nature: Straight from the soybean, still in the pod. Boiled edamame, which contains 8.4 grams of protein per half cup, can be served hot or cold and sprinkled with salt. Try it as a snack, an appetizer before dinner, or added to salads or pastas (minus the shell, of course.)
Vegetables don't have nearly as much protein as legumes and nuts, Gerbstadt said, but some do contain significant amounts—along with lots of antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber. "If someone is eating a lot of vegetables—and a wide variety of different types of vegetables—it will certainly add up to a good amount of amino acids," she added. Two cups of raw spinach, for example, contain 2.1 grams of protein, and one cup of chopped broccoli contains 8.1 grams.
Adding hemp to your diet does not mean you're eating rope (or marijuana), said Gerbstadt; you can find it in some cereals and trail mixes, or you can buy hemp seeds (10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons) and add them to smoothies, pestos, or baked goods. Hemp milk can also be a dairy-free way to add protein to your diet, and it's even lower in calories than skim milk.
Sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds
Don't discount the other seeds in your pantry, either; the more familiar varieties are also high in protein and healthy fats, said Gerbstadt. (Per volume, sunflower seed kernels contain the most protein—7.3 grams per quarter cup—followed by sesame seeds and poppy seeds at 5.4 grams each.) Try thinking of outside-the-box ways to add more seeds to your diet, Gerbstadt said: "Instead of saving poppy seeds for once a year for your holiday bread, try adding them to a vinaigrette," she suggests.
Another meat substitute popular with vegetarians, seitan is made from wheat gluten, seasoned with salt and savory flavors and loaded with protein—36 grams per half cup, more than either tofu or tempeh. It looks like duck meat and tastes like chicken, and can be used in any recipe that calls for poultry.
Milk alternatives aren't just for the lactose intolerant: They can be great additions to any diet; just watch out for lots of added sugar and flavors, said Penner. (Plain soy milk, for example, contains about 100 calories per cup—comparable to skim milk's 80 calories—but the flavored varieties can contain much more.) Soy milk has the most protein, at 4 to 8 grams per 8 ounces, but almond, hemp, and rice milk also contain about 1 gram per cup.
Unsweetened cocoa powder
Bet you didn't know you can get protein from chocolate! Unsweetened cocoa powder—the type used in baking or making hot chocolate from scratch—contains about 1 gram of protein per tablespoon. The powder is bitter all by itself, however, so most recipes call for lots of sugar and fat (usually butter or other dairy), as well. Stick with nonfat (or almond milk) and choose calorie-free sweeteners for a healthy, low-cal hot cocoa, or add it to air-popped popcorn (along with sugar, allspice, and cayenne pepper) for a sweet and spicy whole-grain treat.