Everywhere you turn, there’s an opportunity to participate in meat-free trends. Meatless Monday has taken over social media, meal delivery services have added vegetarian choices, and you probably have at least one friend who sticks to a plant-based diet. Health and wellness spaces are packed with information about this dietary change, making research about vegetarian protein sources accessible and easy to understand. More individuals are searching for creative ways to fill their macronutrient requirements as they adjust to a more conscious way of eating. While only 5% of U.S. adults follow a vegetarian diet, nearly one in four say that they’re cutting back on eating meat.
Cutting down your meat consumption isn’t just a trend, it’s a proven health strategy. Experts claim that eating less meat decreases your risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and strokes. These benefits aren’t reserved solely for those who adhere to a strict meatless diet; simply making conscious choices to swap out meat for a meatless option a few times a week is a great starting point!
But where do you start? Is “meatless option” just code for beans? No! Believe it or not, there are many meatless protein options that give you the ability to be creative for meat-free meals to your menu (while hitting your protein requirement!). Here are 11 vegetarian protein sources to get you started!
Soy is one of the most well-known vegetarian protein sources. It’s also one of the most versatile; while soy beans themselves aren’t a common menu item, foods made from soybeans are everywhere. This includes unfermented foods like tofu, soy milk, and edamame, and fermented foods like tempeh and miso. Soy is also the base for a variety of pre-made meat alternatives like veggie burgers, as well as a common ingredient in cheese substitutes, if you are looking for vegan dairy alternatives.
Tofu and tempeh are popular bases for vegetarian dishes as a direct meat replacement, but they can also be used in sweet recipes (like this vegan chocolate cake!). Tofu has about eight grams of protein per serving and tempeh doubles that. Soy is one of few plant plant foods that contains all of the essential amino acids that are also found in meat, making it a great choice to replace the animal products your plate is accustomed to.
You may only think about carbs when eating grains, but they can also be a great source of protein. A half-cup of oats (for oatmeal pancakes, cookies, or just a plain bowl of oatmeal) has five grams of protein. Quinoa and barley, which are comparable in many recipes to rice, but actually have some protein, have five to six grams in a quarter-cup (uncooked). Grains make an excellent foundation for any meal of the day.
Although it’s officially a legume, peanuts are generally known as the most protein-dense nut, with nine grams per quarter-cup. Almonds and pistachios are also heavy hitters, with seven and six grams per serving, respectively. Nuts make a nutritious, filling snack on their own but are also great to mix in salad, top yogurt, or make homemade trail mix. Nut butters are also protein powerhouses that can be added into smoothies or just eaten by the spoonful.
Lentils are a budget-friendly protein alternative, and with 12 grams of protein per half-cup of cooked lentils, they’re incredibly filling as well. Lentils come in three colors — brown, green, and red — that have slight differences in the way they’re prepared and taste. Lentils can take a while to cook (generally 20 to 45+ minutes, depending on the type) so be sure to plan ahead if you’re adding them to your soup, curry, or salad.
Lentils are also a good source of iron with 15% of your daily recommended intake in one serving. Since meat typically provides iron in a person’s diet, lentils are a great substitute for people who are vegetarians on a more full-time basis.
If your parents told you that you needed to “eat your vegetables” when you were growing up and they served you peas, they weren’t actually 100% correct (but don’t tell Mom!). Peas are a member of the legume, rather than veggie, family. Plus, they’re a protein-packed vegetarian option; one cup of cooked green peas has eight grams of protein. But don’t limit yourself to the stereotypical, mushy green pea or green pea casserole; there are many innovative recipes (like this pea hummus) that feature this under-appreciated food.
Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are considered by many to be the most nutritious in the legume family. In addition to 11 grams of protein in one cup, they are high in fiber and zinc while also low in calories. Chickpeas are perhaps most well known as the star ingredient of hummus, but they’re also delicious in pastas, salads, and a stand-alone side dish.
Yes, soy beans, lentils, and chickpeas are bean varieties, but when you think of “beans” you’re probably more likely to think of things like pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and navy beans. All of these are good sources of protein, typically ranging from six to nine grams of protein per half-cup serving; considering the fiber they also pack in, beans are an excellent meat replacement because they keep you full. They may also contribute to lowering cholesterol and keeping your gut healthy. Beans are incredibly versatile, meaning you can use them to make burgers, brownies, skillet dinners, and of course, chili! .
While nutritional yeast isn’t quite a meat substitute the way that many of these foods can be, it is an excellent vegetarian addition to meals and snacks —it packs a protein punch with two grams in just one tablespoon! Nutritional yeast is known for mimicking the taste of cheese in many vegan alternatives. Along with cheese sauces and soups, it’s great sprinkled on popcorn!
The faux meat aisle at the grocery store has grown significantly in the last few years. Alongside multitudes of veggie burger options are faux chicken nuggets, pork ribs, meatballs, corn dogs, fish sticks, bacon, and so much more. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have also upped the ante with their products that are not just a vegetarian take on meat but are actually meant to emulate the real taste and texture of meat.
While these new options are often tasty and can be an easy and nutritious alternative to meat, keep in mind that plant-based doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Many of these products are highly processed (read nutrition labels!) and therefore should be eaten in moderation.
Not all vegetarians eat eggs (and vegans do not), but for those who do, eggs are an excellent protein option. One egg has approximately six to eight grams of protein. Some people prefer egg whites only, but without the yolk you’ll miss out on vitamins B and D and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And don’t think eggs are just a breakfast food — the options are endless for any meal of the day. Along with traditional breakfast dishes like fried eggs, omelets, and frittatas, eggs can be used to spice up your salad (as a topper or a solo egg salad), in a savory quiche, as deviled eggs, and so much more. Hard boiled eggs are an easy and filling snack, too!
If dietary restrictions are not a concern, dairy products can be a great source of protein. Levels of protein in milk, cheese, and yogurt vary across the board, and they’re often an excellent source of vitamin C as well. Not all dairy is created equal — cottage cheese is healthier than ice cream — but there are infinite ways to incorporate it into your meatless meals.
About the author
Meredith is a writer and brand strategist with expertise in trends forecasting and pop culture. Based in Manhattan, she loves taking her dog to picnics in the park, trying new fitness classes, and hunting for her next favorite plant-focused restaurant. She enjoys reading books, going to concerts, and anything that gives her an excuse to dress up. Meredith is always looking for recommendations for easy recipes, cute workout clothes, and effective sleep podcasts.