Over the last couple of years lots of us have been trying to reduce our meat intake. Some of you may still be eating fish and dairy but others of you may be trying to cut out all animal products and follow a vegan diet. The one question I often get asked is ‘what can I replace meat with but still ensure I get enough protein in my diet?’
Protein is an important part of our diets. It’s the main structural component of cells and provides the essential building blocks to grow and maintain muscle and bone. In the UK we are recommended to consume 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight, so if you weigh 70kg (154Ibs/11st) then you should be consuming around 52.5g of protein per day, with athletes consuming slightly more.
Most people associate protein with meat and fish and therefore when they remove both from their diet they often wonder where they get their protein from. Luckily there are lots of protein alternatives that taste great and you can buy easily. Here are my top 6 protein alternatives, including vegan options.
1. Beans and lentils
In places like India and Africa, legumes such as beans and lentils make up a large portion of the diet but in western societies such as the UK we do not eat enough of them. Legumes are not only a great source of protein but they are also incredibly versatile, easy to get hold off and inexpensive.
Proteins are made up of 20 types of amino acids and 9 of these are considered an essential amino acid, as our bodies cannot produce them and they must come from food. Unfortunately legumes are not considered a ‘complete’ protein as they are deficient in one or more essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean they are inferior, as we can combine proteins to provide the body with a balance of essential amino acids. These proteins are then referred to as ‘complementary proteins’. Popular examples include houmous and wholegrain pitta breads, and brown rice and beans. Complementary proteins don’t necessarily need to be eaten together but as the body doesn’t store amino acids it's worth trying to eat them throughout the day.
Protein content per 80g cooked serving:
• Chickpeas: 6.2g
• Kidney beans: 6.2g
• Black beans: 7.4g
• Red lentils: 7.1g
2. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are known for being a good source of heart healthy fats, which are great for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, but what many don’t realise is that they are also a good source of protein. Unfortunately they don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids and are therefore not considered a ‘complete’ protein. However, combining them with legumes provides the body with a complete protein.
They are also a good source of fibre for our digestive health and vitamin E which is good for our skin, as well as lots of other vitamins and minerals.
Protein content of various nuts and seeds per 25g portion:
• Almonds: 5.3g
• Pistachios: 5.2g
• Cashews: 4.6g
• Hazelnuts: 3.7g
• Brazil nuts: 3.6g
• Walnuts: 3.8g
• Pumpkin seeds: 7.6g
• Sunflower seeds: 5.9g
• Linseeds: 5.75g
• Chia seeds 5g
• Sesame seeds: 4.6g
• Poppy seeds: 4.5g
3. Yogurt and cheese
As long as you’re not following a vegan diet, dairy such as yogurt and cheese can be a great source of protein. They are considered a high quality or ‘complete’ protein as they contain all 9 essential amino acids.
Dairy also provides the major source of calcium in the British diet, which is good for our bones. Not only that, yogurt contains prebiotic bacteria which help to keep our digestive system functioning properly and support our immune system. 1 Its useful to bear in mind that Greek yogurt has been strained and therefore contains more protein than regular yogurt.
Protein content of various dairy foods (per portion size indicated):
• Greek yogurt 100g: 9g
• Natural yogurt 100g: 5.1g
• Quark 60g: 8g
• Cottage cheese 60g: 5.7g
• Cheddar 30g: 7.62g
• Parmesan 30g: 9.9g
Eggs are also a high quality or ‘complete’ protein and have been shown to be one of the best breakfasts for keeping you full till lunch.2 Both the white and yolk of an egg is rich in nutrients. As well as protein, eggs contain essential fatty acids and a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are an extremely versatile ingredient in cooking and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Two medium eggs contain roughly 13.2g of protein.
Soya beans are technically a legume but unlike other legumes they contain all 9 essential amino acids and are therefore a high quality or ‘complete’ protein. They are a good source of fibre, which is great for our digestive health and iron for our oxygen carrying red blood cells, manganese for healthy bones and vitamin K for our cardiovascular health.
Soya beans can be eaten as they are or used to make soya milk, tofu, miso and tempeh. Edamame beans are soya beans that are picked when they are young.
Protein content of various soya products (per portion size indicated):
• Soya beans 80g: 9.9g
• Soya milk 250ml: 8.5g
• Tofu 100g: 12g
Veggies are a great source of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. What many people don’t realise is that they also contain protein. The protein content of veg is very small compared to meat but it’s something worth considering when eating a vegan diet.
Please see the protein content of varies veggies below per 100g:
• Green peas: 5.7g
• Broccoli: 4.4g
• Kale: 3.4g
• Spinach: 2.8g
If you’re looking for some inspiration for meat-free protein recipes, check out the recipe section of our blog here. Please remember that if you’re thinking of reducing the amount of animal protein in your diet, it’s important to ensure that you are consuming enough protein, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 from other foods.
Speak again soon,
Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist
- Meydani, S N and Ha, W K. (2000) Immunologic effects of yogurt. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 71: 861-72.
- Ratliff, J. Leite, J. De Ogburn, R. Puglisi, M. VanHeest, J. and Fernandez, M. (2010). Consuming eggs for breakfast influences plasma glucose and ghrelin, while reducing energy intake during the next 24 hours in adult men. Nutrition Research, 30(2), pp.96-103.