Eating too much red and processed meat has implications for our health, in particular our risk of developing bowel cancer. So, if you are still eating meat every day, why not branch out and try plant-based types of protein a few days a week instead?
Restricting or avoiding meat in your diet can be challenging, but with the health, nutritional and environmental advantages of choosing non-meat protein foods over meat, the challenge can be well worth the effort.
There are both animal and plant sources of non-meat protein. Some common plant protein foods are nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, peas and tofu. Non-meat protein foods that come from animals include eggs and dairy products, like milk, yogurt and cheese. Consuming a variety of these foods will allow you to meet your daily protein recommendations — 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men, regardless of caloric intake — without eating meat.
Non-meat sources of protein contain different nutrients than meat and, therefore, have different effects on your health. Eating non-meat protein in place of meat can help decrease your risks of high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, diverticular disease and certain types of cancer, including colorectal, ovarian and breast cancers. Additionally, eating little to no meat may increase your life expectancy by three to four years, according to a review article published in the September 2003 issue of “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Individuals who consume all of their protein from non-meat sources tend to have lower body weights compared to their meat-eating counterparts, and they have a lower risk of obesity.
Eating non-meat protein foods instead of meat can help the environment. The production of 1 gram of meat protein can require up to 26 times more land, water and fossil fuels compared to 1 gram of soy protein, according to another article in the September 2003 issue of “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” In addition to using fewer resources, non-meat protein foods are responsible for significantly fewer chemicals and pesticides released into the water and soil. For example, the 2003 article revealed the production of meat protein emits over 100 times more copper — which can pollute the soil and cause harm to animals and plants — than the production of the same amount of soy protein. By choosing more non-meat foods as sources of protein, you can help increase the sustainability of U.S. and worldwide food production and make a positive impact on the environment.
Non-meat sources of protein are often lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol compared to meat, making them healthier choices for your heart. Additionally, unlike meat, many non-meat protein foods, such as nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, are good sources of fiber — a type of carbohydrate that can help decrease your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Nuts and seeds also contain healthy unsaturated fats that can further benefit your heart and overall health.
Eating non-meat foods can be a healthy, environmentally-friendly way to meet your protein requirements, but you should keep some considerations in mind. Meat is one of the best food sources of several essential nutrients, including vitamin B12, iron and zinc. If you choose to exclude all meat from your diet, make sure you consume other foods that contain these nutrients, such as fortified breakfast cereals, whole grains, eggs, nuts, soy products and legumes. Also, except for soy protein, plant protein is incomplete, meaning it does not provide all of the essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein — your body requires; however, since different foods contain different amino acids, consuming a variety of plant foods throughout the day will give your body all of the protein it needs.
Here, we’ve ranked 6 of the highest-protein veggies, legumes, and minimally processed meat alternatives, like tempeh, for your convenience.
Protein: 18 g per 1-cup serving (cooked)
Talk about healthiest appetizer ever—just a cup’s worth of edamame (or cooked soybeans) packs a huge protein punch. Be sure to pick an organic variety, though, as most soybeans in the US are genetically modified and heavily treated with pesticides.
Protein: 16 g per 3 oz serving
Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans and shaping it into a dense cake that can be sliced and pan-fried like tofu. It’s nutty, chewy, and packs significantly more protein and fiber than tofu—and because it’s fermented, it’s easier to digest for some.
Protein: 8 to 15 g per 3 oz serving
Ah, tofu, the classic vegetarian blank slate made from curdled soymilk that’s wonderful pan-fried, sautéed in a stir-fry, and even scrambled. Though it’s not quite as protein-packed as tempeh, its taste may be more tolerable. Opt for organic varieties to avoid genetically modified soy and funky pesticides.
Protein: 9 g per ½-cup serving
Low-cal, high-fiber, and high-protein lentils can be morphed into a nutrient-dense side dish, veggie burger, or even whipped into a hummus-like dip. Bonus: They’ve been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce risk of heart disease.
Protein: 7.6 g per ½-cup serving (cooked)
Black beans are also packed with heart-healthy fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin B6, and a range of phytonutrients.
Peanuts or Peanut Butter
Protein: 7 g per ¼-cup serving (or 2 Tbsp peanut butter)
Not only are peanuts and peanut butter great for munching and whipping up classic childhood comfort food, they’re also super versatile—really, you can even use them in a pizza! They’ve also been shown to help you eat less at lunch if you consume them at breakfast—aka the second-meal effect.