Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about the health advantages of vegetarian and vegan eating styles. It seems like everyone from athletes to nutritionists is extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet these days. While it’s no secret that loading up on fruits and veggies is amazing for your body, many people wonder if they’ll actually be able to pull off going vegan or vegetarian when they’re so used to eating meat.
The main concerns would-be vegetarians, vegans, and experimental non-meat eaters have in common? Feeling hungry and not getting enough protein—two very related and very fixable issues, according to experts. Luckily, as long as you know where to look, it’s actually not that hard to get the protein you need from plant-based sources. We’re not just talking about meat substitutes like tofu; we mean nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Thinking of going meat-free? Here’s everything you need to know about getting enough protein to feel satisfied in the process. Trust us: You’ll never look back.
What's the Deal With Protein?
“Many of us still equate protein with meat and/or other animal products,” explains Keri Glassman, MS, RD, nutritionist and founder of The Nutritious Life. “In reality, protein is a macronutrient that comes in many shapes and sizes and has a whole lot of responsibility other than just conquering a burger craving. Proteins are the building blocks of hormones and enzymes. We need protein to build muscles, skin, and hair and to build antibodies for our immune system,” she explains. Protein also is part of the equation when it comes to feeling satiated after you eat.
“American culture has been ingrained and bombarded with simplistic messages when it comes to food that always do not tell the whole story,” points out Joe Holder, Nike trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. In fact, most people overestimate the amount of protein they actually need, he says. “For the most part, if you are eating a well-rounded diet and getting enough calories, you’ve got your protein needs covered.” That’s because tons of foods besides meat and fish have protein in them, and in industrialized countries, protein deficiency is actually pretty uncommon.
What’s more, relying more heavily on the protein that comes from plants can actually be better for you in the long run. “There actually seems to be a link between increased animal protein and increased mortality risk, so it seems like we could all benefit from cutting back slightly on meat while also increasing plant-based foods,” says Holder. Though meat does have a higher amino acid (the building blocks of protein) profile than plants, plants contain antioxidants, nutrients, and phytochemicals that meat and fish just don’t have.
“If we want to talk about efficiency, the portion of meat that is actually protein is relatively minimal,” Holder adds.
How Much Do You Actually Need?
Holder says the standard formula for figuring out your protein needs is 0.8 gram per kilogram of bodyweight. If you’re active, that number could rise to 1.5 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. That’s because if you’re increasing your activity, your body needs more calories to function, plus extra protein to aid in muscle repair post-workout. Be careful not to overestimate your increased protein needs from exercise, though, as most people aren’t actually active enough to warrant being on the upper end of that spectrum.
Another way to figure it out is to look at the overall number of calories you eat in a day. “Adults in the U.S. are recommended to get anywhere from 10% to 35% of their total caloric intake every day from protein,” says Glassman. For example, if you’re eating 1700 calories per day, you’d want somewhere between 170 to 595 calories to come from protein. Protein has four calories per gram, so you’re looking at somewhere between 42 grams and 149 grams of protein per day. “I recommend slightly closer to the 35% of the highest-quality protein possible,” says Glassman.
If you’re unsure how many grams of protein are in the foods you normally eat or the foods you plan to eat as a vegetarian or vegan, keeping a food journal or using a macronutrient tracker like MyFitnessPal for a few days can help you feel more comfortable during the transition.
Can You Feel Full Without Eating Meat?
Here’s the trick: Feeling full actually has nothing to do with eating meat! Holder says it’s a common misconception that vegetarians and vegans are constantly hungry. “The core issue is that in general, many people do not eat mindfully or hydrate adequately,” he says. “The simplest ways to feel full are by increasing your fiber intake, chewing your food properly, and increasing your water intake.” So if you’re planning on giving the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle a try, make sure you’re loading up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains for fiber, eating your meals mindfully, and drinking lots of H20.
Another trick that can make a huge difference? “Every meal should include protein,” says Glassman. “And it probably will, even without much effort! If you’re eating lots of different vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes, you may already be getting more protein than you realize,” she adds. Still, planning out your meals in advance can help you feel prepared.
What Foods Should Be on Your Shopping List?
There are a ton of ways to get protein that don’t have anything to do with animals or meat, which makes going veggie easier than ever. “Our food supply is now filled with plant-based protein sources,” says Glassman. “Hemp and chia seeds weren’t sitting on grocery store shelves years ago. Neither were high-quality vegan protein powders. We can now meet our needs without burgers or wings.”
Here are the top animal-free sources of protein our experts recommend:
- Tempeh: 33 grams of protein per cup
- Pea and Rice Protein Powder Combo: ~20 grams of protein per serving
- Chickpeas: 19 grams per 1/2 cup
- Edamame: 17 grams per cup
- Chlorella: 16 grams per ounce
- Spirulina: 16 grams per ounce
- Hemp Seeds: 10 grams per ounce
- Black beans: 8 grams of protein per 1/2 cup
- Almonds: 6 grams per ounce
- Pumpkin seeds: 5 grams per ounce
- Chia Seeds: 4 1/2 grams per ounce
- Peanut Butter: 4 grams per tablespoon
- Broccoli Rabe: 1 1/3 grams per cup
And if you’re going vegetarian and not vegan, check out these awesome sources of protein:
- Cottage Cheese: 25 grams per cup
- Greek Yogurt: 17 grams per serving
- Eggs: 6 grams each
Do you keep track of your protein intake? Share your tips for getting the right amount below.