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Going meatless: Am I getting enough protein?

Body, Together inspired

Eating less meat—whether it’s for one meal a week or for life—can be a big health booster, especially if it’s making room for more whole grains, beans, legumes and vegetables on your plate. In fact, going meatless more often may even help lower the risk for heart disease and other conditions.

Still, you might be wondering: Can I really get enough protein if I avoid meat? The answer: Absolutely.

Studies show that vegetarians usually meet—or exceed—their protein requirements. That’s true even for vegans, who steer clear of all animal products, including dairy foods and eggs. If you’re thinking about going meatless, here are some protein pointers to get you started.

Plant protein: It’s all about variety

Getting enough protein is easier than you might expect. That’s because most whole grains and vegetables contain at least some protein. And many plant foods, like legumes, are packed with it. This means that you can meet your body’s needs with some planning and a wide variety of plant foods.

If you only eat plant foods—no dairy or eggs—building variety into your diet is especially important. Most plant foods lack one or two essential amino acids—the building blocks of protein—that your body needs. So to get them all, you’ll need to mix and match different foods, like beans and brown rice. That doesn’t have to happen at each meal, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It’s the overall balance over the whole day that matters.

Protein foods: The heavy hitters

Plant foods loaded with protein include legumes (such as beans, lentils and peas), soy products (such as tofu and tempeh), nuts and seeds. So to pack your days with protein, you might:

  • Dip crunchy veggies in hummus.
  • Sprinkle slivered almonds on steamed vegetables.
  • Add tofu to stir-fries.
  • Dress up salads with kidney or garbanzo beans.
  • Treat yourself to a bean burrito in a whole-wheat tortilla.
  • Make a lentil and rice soup.
  • Add nut butters or spinach to smoothies.
  • Make a mock chicken salad using tempeh.

If you eat some animal products, then eggs and low-fat or fat-free dairy products can also be healthy choices. Like meat, they’re considered complete proteins, with all the essential amino acids you need.

Read the fine print

One last word of advice: Meatless doesn’t automatically mean healthy. Meat alternatives like veggie burgers and soy hot dogs may be high in sodium. And snacks like cookies may be meat-free, but they can be high in added sugar.

So be a label reader whenever you shop. Look for foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and sodium. And make fruits, veggies and whole grains the stars of your plate.

Need an energy boost?

When it comes to feeling fueled up and energized, it’s not just what you eat—it’s also how. Add more energy to your day with these healthy eating habits.