If you’re worried about getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet, you may be in for a surprise. The truth is, most Americans get way too much protein, and vegetarians can easily get more than enough protein in their diet as well. Many people still believe that protein is only available from meat and animal sources and we will all fall over dead without animal protein! However, Harvard scientists recently completed a study finding that eating a single serving of red meat each day increases your risk of early death, and factory-farmed chicken, often touted as a healthier alternative to beef, can be contaminated with E. coli bacteria that can give you urinary tract infections.
The idea that protein comes only from meat is a myth. Nearly all foods contain small amounts of protein, and it’s very easy to get your daily protein requirements from beans, grains, nuts, and vegetables, which have less cholesterol and fat than meat and are usually cheaper. All vegetables contain between 1 and 2 g of protein per cup. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women get 46 grams (g) of protein each day and that men get 56 g.
Beans and lentils are the cheapest source of protein, providing 12 to 14 g per cup of cooked beans and 18 g per cup of cooked lentils. White beans taste delicious in pasta; garbanzo or edamame in stir-fries; black beans and pinto in burritos, tacos, and quesadillas; and lentils or kidney are great in salads and whole grain pita lunches.
Nuts provide 3 to 7 g of protein per 1/3-cup serving, depending on the type (peanuts and pine nuts have the most). Seeds give 2 to 5 g per 1/3-cup serving, depending on type. Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews, and pine nuts are all good vegetarian protein sources. Try a sprinkle of chopped nuts on everything from oatmeal to salad. On the seed side, try pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower.
Tofu and tempeh are also excellent sources of protein. Tempeh has 18 g of protein per serving; tofu has 8 g per serving. If you’re not a fan of tofu or tempeh, you can still reap the protein benefits of soy in soy milk (8 g per glass) and edamame (green soybeans, which have 17 g per cup). Aim for one serving of tofu, soy milk or edamame per day.