I go through spurts… Sometimes I love a steak medium-well, other times just the thought of meat is repulsive. At times I crave an egg and cheese bagel, but most of the time I cannot stand the taste of eggs. Some people think it’s weird and others cannot understand how you can eat a balanced diet without eating meat everyday. For me, preparing the meat myself is the worst. It makes it a lot easier if I order meat at a restaurant, but even then…
Growing up, my family rarely ate meat. An occasional hamburger or grilled chicken, turkey on Thanksgiving, ham on Christmas, other than that we were fed meatless sources of protein. Carnivores often times laugh at the idea of tofu, calling it a hippie food, although there are a number of great tofu recipes (like my Black Soybean Tofu Lettuce Wraps). Tofu is definitely not the only meatless protein source; in fact the list below provides a number of options for anyone (vegetarian or not) looking to reduce their meat intake and increase their protein intake.
What is protein?
Protein is made up of building blocks, called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that link together to form peptides, which then link together to form proteins. There are 9 amino acids that are considered and they cannot be generated by the body but they are necessary for survival. Protein is the primary component for muscle, bone, skin, hair and other tissues in the body. Over 10,000 different proteins are needed in the body to maintain life. In fact, after water is excluded, protein makes up 75% of your body weight.
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins are not stored by the body, therefore it is important to take in protein on a daily basis.
There are two different kinds of proteins: a high quality protein, which contains all 9 essential amino acids and a low quality protein, which is missing one or more of the essential amino acids. A complete protein is often times going to come from an animal source, such as beef, poultry, fish or eggs. Incomplete proteins will usually come from fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts.
One health concern that usually is associated with complete proteins is their high levels of saturated fats. It is especially important to eat beef and pork in moderation, although, one thing to note is their propensity to be good sources of iron, unlike white meat. Chicken, turkey and fish contain less saturated fat. It is very important to vary your protein choices.
As a vegetarian, vegan, or limited-meat-eater, it takes extra precaution to consume enough protein to meet the body’s needs. Incomplete proteins from a variety or sources can be consumed to create a source of complete protein. An incomplete protein is a slightly misleading name, as it can have a number of health benefits that meat cannot provide. For example, research suggests that people consuming nuts on a regular basis are less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease than people who rarely eat them. Nuts contain healthy unsaturated fatty acids which can help to reduce cholesterol LDL and increase HDL.
Since protein is a required nutrient, it is recommended for the average American to consume about .4g per pound of body weight per day. Since an athlete will experience muscle break down and thus require muscle repair, they require a higher amount of protein. The exact amount depends on the duration and intensity of the exercise or sport. Strength training athletes require about .6-.8 grams per pound of body weight per day while endurance athletes only need about .5-.6 grams per pound of body weight per day. Take note that simply consuming more protein will not create or increase muscle mass. Instead, the body could convert the protein and store it as fat.
If you eat limited amounts or no meat, the following foods can be added to your diet to increase your protein intake. If you are a carnivore, these items can be added to your diet to ensure that you are getting enough protein and the correct amino acids.
Kale has approximately 3 grams of protein in just 1 cup. According to Organic Authority, in just 1 cup of chopped kale, there is approximately 2.9g of protein and it is far more nutritious than any other leafy green. It not only aids in decreasing inflammation, it contains more iron than beef, it is high in calcium, which can help in fighting bone loss and osteoporosis. It is high in fiber, which is important to decrease the possibility of heart disease, digestive disorders and cancer. Additionally, it is high in omega fatty acids and it is very high in vitamins A and C, which can help fight off illness.
Spinach contains approximately 5 grams of protein per cup. It is also extremely high in vitamin A, calcium and iron.
Nuts come in a wide variety of options with about 5-7 grams per quarter cup. They are rich in healthy fats and omega 3’s. They are also great for suppressing hunger. Whether its peanuts, almonds, cashews or walnuts, you can place them on top of your salad for additional nutritional value. Also, there are a wide range of nut butters on the market!
Soy can be consumed in a number of different ways. Tofu is made from curdled soybean milk and it is extremely healthy and versatile. It contains about 10 grams of protein per half cup and it can be prepared in a stir-fry, sauté, baked or fried dish, and more. Other options include soy milk, tempeh, soy protein powder and more.
Quinoa has about 8 grams of protein per cup. Technically, quinoa is a seed rather than a grain so it is naturally gluten-free and high in fiber. It is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. It can be used in a number of different recipes and takes on almost any flavor that it is mixed with.
Chia seeds have 4 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Although they are small, they have a great amount of protein, omega-3’s, fiber and minerals. (Read Cha-Cha-Cha-Chia)
Hummus has about 7 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. When served with whole wheat pita, it adds even more nutritional benefit and when paired together, all 9 essential amino acids are present. It is extremely easy to make at home!
Eggs (some would consider them not meatless) contain about 6 grams of protein per egg. Despite their claim of being high in cholesterol, they are considered a super food. They are loaded with nutrients and contain all 9 amino acids. They are one of the most cost-effective and versatile protein sources.
Greek Yogurt provides a whopping 15 to 20grams or protein per serving, which is nearly double the protein of regular yogurt. It is also extremely high in calcium but be sure to watch out for high sugar content.
Edamame has nearly 17 grams of protein per cup. It is a complete protein that is also high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They can be used in a wide range of recipes.
Chickpeas have about 6 grams of protein per half cup and they are rich in fiber.
Lentils deliver 18 grams of protein per one cup and more than half of your daily fiber needs, folate, vitamin B1 and plenty of minerals.
Buckwheat, which actually is not a type of wheat, has 6 grams of protein per 1 cup. The Japanese have turned the plant into a noodle called soba but most cultures eat the seed either in the form of flour or simply cooking the kernels, similar to oatmeal. It is extremely healthy and some studies have shown that it may improve circulation, lower cholesterol and control blood glucose levels.
Hempseed, not the hemp you may be familiar with, has 10 grams of protein per 2 tablespoon servings. It contains significant amounts of the 9 essential amino acids as well as zinc, magnesium, iron and calcium. It is also a vegan source of essential fatty acids like omega 3’s, which can help to fight depression! Much like chia seeds, they can be placed in many recipes, on top of salads, in yogurt, smoothies and more!
Ezekial Bread has 8 grams of protein per 2 slices. (Discussed in detail on my previous post Azodicarb… What!?) It is extremely nutritious and contains all of the essential amino acids. It is made from sprouted grains, which increases the fiber and vitamin content.
Cottage Cheese contains 13 grams of protein per half cup. It is affordable and comes in reduced-fat versions. It also contains high amounts of calcium. It can be used in recipes in place of ricotta or sour cream. Or, you could combine it with veggies, fruit, or cinnamon.
Peanut butter has 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Either crunchy or creamy, peanut butter can be eaten with any meal. It is also high in monosaturated fats, which can help prevent heart disease and is less likely to be stored as body fat.
Protein powder comes in a wide range of types from whey to pea powder as well as almost any flavor that you can think of. Today, there are also a number of vegan protein powders on the market. Each type of protein powder has different amounts of protein, advantages, disadvantages, and uses depending on your dietary requirements, activity level and more. The range of price is vast and many supplements contain chemicals, artificial flavors and ingredients. A protein supplement is probably not necessary for the average American but for teenagers, athletes, recovering from an injury or an individual going vegan, it can provide a number of benefits. Despite contrary belief, most people do get enough protein from their everyday diet so a meal replacement or protein supplement may not be necessary.
As always, this is just a guide. Be sure to check with your physician or a licensed health care professional before making a change to your exercise or diet plan.