The Beginner’s Guide to Meat-Free ProteinDecember 7th, 2015
It’s common knowledge nowadays that getting a daily dose of protein doesn’t mean you have to choose between chicken, pork, beef, or fish. Plant-based foods can be just as potent sources of the essential macronutrient—good to know when the struggle to avoid factory-farmed foods is real.
Beyond eating eggs or nut butters, though, most of us are stumped when it comes to finding alternatives to meat. But cooking with meatless protein doesn’t have to be boring—here are some of our favorite completely vegetarian, vegan, and even Paleo proteins to keep on hand.
No need to be intimidated by this native Indian legume. They’ve got an insane amount of protein—10 grams per ¼ cup serving—and are super filling thanks to tons of fiber and resistant starches. They’re one of the “most cherished foods” according to ancient Ayurvedic text, and with their high nutrient content it’s easy to understand why. Cook them like regular beans, or if you want to go gourmet try mung bean noodles, which have the protein of mung beans but the taste and texture of spaghetti.
Packed with vitamin E and iron, crunchy, sweet little pumpkin seeds are crazy-good for hair, skin, and nails. They’re also chock-full of protein—about 12 grams per one cup serving.
Pretty much any variety (red, green, brown) is full of healthy vegan protein—about 18 grams per cup. And because of their perfect one-to-one ratio of protein to fiber, a bowl of these legumes leave you feeling just as sated as a hearty steak. Worried about indigestion? Rinse thoroughly or soak lentils for up to 12 hours to eliminate the antinutrient coating and reduce the risk of bloating.
A vegan’s best friend, this seed has been a superstar of the plant-protein world for a while. But just because you’ve keep hearing about it doesn’t mean you should consider it old and tired—thanks to its unique texture, quinoa is ideal for replacing meat in certain dishes. One cup contains 24 grams of protein and all nine essential amino acids, so it deserves to take center stage in any meal. Throw it into winter chili instead of ground beef or form it into patties for falafel or quinoa “burgers.”
Actually a fruit seed, buckwheat is gluten-free and therefore Paleo-friendly. Primal eaters fall in love with this hearty pseudo-grain because it’s low in calories but high in fiber and protein—a whopping 17 grams of insoluble fiber and 23 grams of protein per serving. As heart-healthy as whole grains, buckwheat makes an ideal morning porridge.
Just add water and watch chia seeds grow! You can soak these tiny seeds to make “chia gel,” a vegan tapioca-like pudding, or add them to smoothies, oats, and anything else you can think off for an extra kick of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Throwing in a single ounce of chia seeds will add about 5 grams of protein to any meal.
Despite what you might think, hemp protein doesn’t have any questionable, hallucinogenic side effects. Hemp hearts are the seeds found at the top of the hemp plant, and they taste a little nutty with the consistency of sunflower seeds or pine nuts. There’s no THC in these guys, so the only side effect you can look forward to is extra protein intake—10 grams per serving. Their delicate flavor make them an excellent addition to any vegetarian dish that needs a protein pick-me-up.
A tablespoon of spirulina has 4 grams of protein, and a cup contains a whopping 64 grams—twice as much as a cup of chicken. But let’s be real, you’re probably not dumping this dried green seaweed by the cup into into your morning smoothie. Stick to two to three tablespoons for a hearty dose of protein in addition to more than half of your daily value of vitamins A, K, and B.
Armed with eight vegan proteins, you’re totally prepared to take your Meatless Monday game up a notch—no eggs or almonds required.
Illustration by Foley Wu