Interested in eating less animal protein? If so, you have your reasons: Improving your health, easing up on your carbon footprint, concern about animal welfare, or perhaps slashing your food bill a bit. Maybe you want to go full-fledged vegetarian or vegan, or maybe you want more variety in your eating plan.
There’s plenty of evidence that eating a plant-based diet is beneficial to health. For example, vegetarians have a lower risk of heart attack and death from heart disease. They also have a low incidence of cancer than non-vegetarians. Vegetarians are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, as well.
Vegetarianism has taken off over the past few decades: According to a 2016 Harris Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, there’s been about a 50 percent growth in vegetarians and vegans over the past 10 years (about 3.3 percent of adults in the U.S. are vegetarian).
But what about the protein?
One of the biggest myths about eating a plant-based diet is that you won’t get enough protein. Many of us have been engrained with the belief that you must eat animal protein in order to meet your daily protein requirements. Another myth? Plant protein isn’t as “good” as animal protein. You can absolutely get plenty of high-quality protein from plant sources. Still dubious? Ask a few elite athletes who happen to be vegan or vegetarian, including tennis star Venus Williams, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, and NFL defensive end David Carter.
But what about diabetes?
Plant-based diets can absolutely be appropriate for people who have diabetes. Eating plans that focus primarily (or solely) on plant foods tend to be high in fiber and low in saturated fat, which can help decrease insulin resistance and improve glycemic control. Obviously, the goal is to choose healthful foods that are minimally processed. In addition, if you’re thinking about switching over to more of a plant-based eating plan, check your blood sugars more often than you usually do.
How much protein do you need?
OK — back to the protein issue. How do you get enough protein by eating a plant-based diet? You may be surprised at how easy it can be. Most American adults consume about 100 grams of protein per day. The recommended protein intake for a healthy adult is 46 grams per day for a woman, and 56 grams per day for a man. There are people who do need more protein, for sure — these folks include body builders, older adults, and people who are recovering from surgery, for example. Some people with diabetes see improved blood sugars while following a higher protein, lower-carb eating plan, as well. (A registered dietitian can help you determine how much protein you need, as well as determine if a higher protein eating plan can help you better manage your diabetes).
Back to the plant protein
You might not be ready or willing to become a vegetarian, and that’s fine. However, everyone can benefit from going “meatless” at least one day a week (checkout the website “Meatless Mondays” for more information). Not only will your food bill thank you, you’ll do your body some good (due to eating more fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and prebiotics, and less saturated fat), and you’ll do your part in helping the environment. Eating livestock contributes to more than one-third of methane emissions, which contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions.
But where will get you get your protein? Relax — it’s definitely doable. For reference, a 3-ounce portion of meat, chicken, or fish has, on average, 21 grams of protein. Check out these plant sources of protein:
• Lentils: 18 grams protein per cup
• Edamame: 18 grams per cup
• Chickpeas: 15 grams per 1 cup
• Cannellini beans: 14 grams per cup
• Seitan: 18 grams protein per 3 ounces
• Tempeh: 16 grams protein per 3 ounces
• Tofu: 8 grams protein per 3 ounces
• Peanut butter: 8 grams protein per 2 tablespoons
• Nutritional yeast: 14 grams protein per ounce
• Spelt: 11 grams protein per 1 cup, cooked
• Quinoa: 8 grams protein per 1 cup, cooked
• Wild rice: 7 grams protein per 1 cup, cooked
• Oatmeal: 6 grams protein per 1 cup, cooked
• Hemp seeds: 10 grams protein per 1/4 cup
• Chia seeds: 12 grams protein per 1/4 cup
• Green peas : 8 grams per 1 cup
• Potato: 5 grams per medium (6-ounce) potato
Even vegetables such as asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and artichokes contain some protein.
Protein-fortified foods and supplements
If the above list of foods isn’t quite cutting it for you, another option is to turn to fortified foods or supplements. Here’s a sampling:
• Unsweetened soy milk: 7 grams protein per 8 ounces
• Unsweetened pea milk: 8 grams protein per 8 ounces
• Unsweetened plain soy yogurt: 10 grams per 1 cup
• High-protein bread: (for example, P28 bread) – 14 grams per slice
• Whey protein powder: 18 grams protein (on average) per serving
• Pea protein powder: 28 grams protein (on average) per serving
• Soy protein powder: 22 grams protein (on average) per serving
You’ll also find beverages (protein water, anyone?), shakes, bars, cereals, and even cookies that have been enhanced with protein. However, as with any food that comes with a label, read that label carefully. Just because a food contains protein doesn’t mean it’s healthful. Some of these foods may contain added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, preservatives, etc., without a lot of nutrition. Your best bet is to stick with whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible to support overall health.
Want to learn more about eating a plant-based diet? Read “Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan.”