3 Steps to Pick Protein on a Meat-Free Diet

Choose the best veggie 'meats'

Tofu dish
Harald Walker/Stocksy United

Plant-based diets are gaining in popularity—primarily because of the health benefits, including a reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. While these perks are great, eliminating any given food source can leave you deficient in a number of important nutrients. In fact, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan-style diet are more likely to be deficient in vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc—all of which are essential for daily living.

On top of that, it can be challenging for the meat-free eater to reach his or her daily allowance for protein.

Why Protein Is Important

Protein serves as the building blocks of muscles and cells and helps provide satiety within meals. Protein helps fuel daily living, improves recovery after a tough workout, and promotes wound healing. Animal protein is the only source of essential vitamin B12, important for formation of red blood cells, protein metabolism, and function of the central nervous system. Without animal proteins in our diet, it can be difficult to provide our bodies with the fuel it needs.

Which Foods Are Rich in Protein?

When it comes to meat-free options, it’s best to get creative. While many plant-based foods have small amounts of protein in them, they’re generally not complete. Complete proteins consist of nine essential amino acids that we get from the foods we eat. For a protein to be complete, it must contain all nine essential amino acids.

Complete proteins are found in meat, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy, soy, tofu, and a few funky grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.

Because beans, nuts, rice and most grains are not complete proteins, it’s best to eat a variety of foods that contain the amino acids that other foods in your diet may be missing throughout the course of the day.

Doing so will help you stay on top of your total daily protein intake. Still, it may be hard for vegetarians to be sure they’re getting enough protein altogether.

That's where soy foods come in handy. The only problem is, how do we know they’re healthy?

How to Pick Healthy Soy Proteins

Veggie “meats” are the perfect addition to any vegetarian meal. From burgers to meatballs to chicken strips, practice these steps to pick the healthiest ones:

1. Check the Protein

When reading food labels, you want to look at protein per serving. Veggie burgers that have more soy and other proteins, over grains and beans, will be on the higher end. A good rule is to aim for 15 to 20 grams of protein per meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). This should help you reach the RDA of protein each day.

2. Watch the Sodium

Processed foods like veggie “meats” tend to be higher in sodium to bring out the flavors and improve shelf life. It’s not unusual to find upwards of 500mg sodium (roughly a third of a day’s worth) in one veggie patty.

Focus on finding items that have 250mg or less sodium per serving, which, admittedly, can be difficult.

3. Think Whole 'Soy' Foods

Fill your menu with lots of whole “soy” foods like edamame and tofu. Try tossing half a cup of edamame in your quinoa salad for an additional 10g of protein and 4g of fiber. Or use tofu in place of meat or poultry in your favorite home-cooked dish. Tofu tends to take on the flavors of whatever you’re cooking it with. Start with a simple tofu stir-fry with veggies over brown rice or quinoa for a delicious meat-free dinner everyone will love.

Finally, do yourself a favor and buy single-serve portions before committing to bulk foods—that way, you can make sure you actually like it. Veggie “meats” are a great way to incorporate more protein-rich foods into your diet (if you’re not a meat-eater); just be sure you’re picking the healthy ones that taste good, too!

Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, is the health and nutrition expert for NBC’s Today Show and founder of Nourish Snacks.

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