One of the challenges many vegetarians face is incorporating enough protein into their diets in the absence of meat products. And since protein is such an integral part of our diet (it helps repair and build our muscle tissue, maintain energy, keeps you fuller longer, and helps with a host of other biological functions) it's important to ensure we're taking in enough each day.
So, we sought the expertise of two dietitians (and the co-founders of Culina Health) Vanessa Rissetto, MS, RD and Tamar Samuels, MS, RD, CDN, for their favorite plant-based proteins, and ways to incorporate them into your diet.
But First, How Much Protein Do You Need?
Vanessa explains that it's different for everyone, as it is calculated based upon your current weight. To calculate the amount of protein you need, you should consume about .8-1 gram of protein per day per kilogram that you weigh. For example, if you weigh 150lbs, that converts to about 68 kilograms. Then, multiply that by .8 or 1 and you should aim for 54-70 grams of protein per day, spread throughout your meals and snacks. Vanessa stresses that this calculation is an average, and if you're exercising, breastfeeding, or have other factors at play, it could affect your recommended range.
So to help you hit your recommended daily protein intake, here are some of Vanessa and Tamar's favorite sources of plant-based protein that are vegetarian (and RD) approved.
Vanessa and Tamar both recommend chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans. Vanessa loves them because they're, "super versatile, high fiber, and very filling," and you can enjoy them as hummus, the star of a meal, or puree them and make different sauces." One cup of cooked chickpeas has up to 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber, and Tamar adds, "I love a good chickpea pasta for a high fiber/high protein, quick and easy weeknight dinner meal."
One of Tamar's favorite plant-based proteins. One cup of cooked lentils can have more than 15 grams of protein and around 10 grams of fiber. Tamar adds that they include both soluble and insoluble fiber which is great for digestion and heart health, respectively. She loves to batch cook a lentil soup for the week in her Instant Pot, though any slow cooker will do, and also recommends adding them to salads or homemade veggie burgers. Vanessa adds that she loves lentils for their versatility, and because they tend to take on the flavor of whatever you cook them in.
Tamar says that non-GMO/organic, unprocessed soy products like tempeh and tofu are a great way to get plant-based protein, though she recommends avoiding any highly processed forms of soy. Tofu and tempeh in particular, she explains, "may have additional health benefits because the beneficial bacteria from the fermentation process help support nutrient absorption and the digestibility of soy." It's super versatile and can be used in a variety of ways as a meat substitute in many traditional dishes, with 3 oz of cooked tempeh having 13 grams of protein.
A fan favorite, this tiny soybean packs a powerful amount of protein—with more than 20g per boiled cup. You can eat it alone, or toss it into your favorite stir fry for added yum. Vanessa says, "I like to use soy crumbles, broccoli slaw, edamame, and mushrooms, which can give you a sense of fullness. The water and fiber from the vegetables, protein/ and fat will help keep you full."
Along with tempeh, tofu is considered a go-to meat substitute for vegetarians, Also known as bean curd, it is made of coagulated soymilk and is available in a variety of textures and firmness. Vanessa says that since it's soy-based, it's not for everyday consumption, but that it's very filling and lean, which makes sense, at 8 grams of protein per 3 oz.
One cup of uncooked black beans contains about 15 grams of protein. These yummy legumes are quite versatile, and Vanessa enjoys adding mushrooms to the mix for "really good, hearty black bean burger" that has the "mouthfeel of a regular burger—but better."
This blue-green algae powder is in fact, a superfood with lots of potential nutritional and health benefits. Vanessa's favorite way to incorporate spirulina into your plant-based diet is to add into a smoothie, with berries and unsweetened almond milk. Spirulina is 60-70% protein.
Compared to other legumes, walnuts have less protein overall, but according to Tamar, "they are still one of my favorite plant-based protein sources, mostly because they pack a major punch when it comes to antioxidants." Two tablespoons of walnuts has only around 2 grams of protein. According to Tamar, "they also have some seriously good for you heart-healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids (a rare find for nuts). Walnuts have been studied for their heart health benefits (including benefits for high blood pressure), metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, and anti-cancer benefits. While we need more research to determine the exact benefits of walnuts for these conditions, the current literature is promising!" She recommends adding walnuts to your smoothies, or spreading some walnut butter on whole-wheat toast. "Walnuts are also a great way to add creaminess to dressings instead of using dairy products - love them for a dairy free Caesar salad dressing!"
Peanut butter fans will rejoice in knowing that peanuts are an RD approved way to hit your plant-based protein targets. Tamar says that, "For those of us who can tolerate peanuts, it's a great source of plant-based protein." Peanuts have more protein than any other nut, with two tablespoons of peanuts containing roughly 5 grams of protein. They are packed with beneficial nutrients, including monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, niacin, folate and manganese. Tamar recommends natural peanut butters that are free of sugar and other additives and loves adding natural peanut butter to smoothies, having them with bananas (banana peanut butter "nice-cream", anyone? She also says they make a great addition to salads and, "I love a good peanut sauce on some zucchini noodles!"
Another source of plant-based protein, this gaining in popularity meat substitute is made with spices and wheat gluten. The result? A protein-packed meat substitute that Vanessa says is an excellent, lean option that won't retain a lot of water, as beans do.
Harvard Health Publishing. How much protein do you need every day? Updated January 19, 2022.
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