From multicolored varieties of hummus to the newly popular Impossible Burger, you’ve probably noticed plant-based protein steadily making its way onto grocery shelves and restaurant menus. And you’ve probably heard that incorporating more plants into your diet is beneficial for both for the health of the body and the future of the planet. It’s true: People who eat more plants and less meat have reduced rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Plus, most agricultural crops use far less water than livestock and create fewer harmful greenhouse gases. All told, there are plenty of good reasons to get more plant protein in our diet. It’s not surprising that nearly one-third of Americans report actively seeking it out.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore, the idea of replacing the beef in your burger with soy may sound off-putting or even depressing. But getting more plant-based protein really doesn’t have to be unappetizing—nor does it have to be difficult!
Here’s a look at several plants that pack high amounts of protein, and a variety of creative ways to incorporate them into foods and cuisines you probably already eat.
Seeds, Nuts, and Nut Butters
Seeds and their agricultural cousins nuts are regarded as health foods for good reason. One 2018 study showed that people who ate more nuts and seeds and less red meat had a threefold decreased risk of heart disease. Another revealed that eating nuts was associated with better chances of recovering from colon cancer.
In addition to fiber, micronutrients, and good fats, these natural bite-sized snacks contain plenty of protein—and a little bit goes a long way. Just a one-ounce handful of peanuts can contain up to seven grams of protein, and the same amount of pumpkin seeds packs five to seven grams. (For reference, the Daily Value for protein is 50 grams.)
Some protein-packed nuts and seeds to experiment with include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Need some inspiration for how to include more nuts and seeds in your diet? “Go nuts” by:
- Sprinkling chopped walnuts or pecans on top of cereal or oatmeal
- Adding a scoop of flaxseed meal to baked goods
- Trying a new kind of dessert with chia seed pudding
- Topping salads with almonds or pistachios
- Opting for a trail mix of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit as an afternoon snack
Nut and seed butters are another way to reap the benefits of plant proteins, and the options extend far beyond your basic peanut butter and jelly. Include nut or seed butters in meals and snacks by:
- Spreading sunflower seed butter on toast with sliced banana
- Adding peanut or almond butter to smoothies
- Experimenting with a nut butter in desserts, like hazelnut butter brownies or almond butter truffles
- Using tahini (ground sesame seeds) as a dressing on salads or to add flavor to vegetable dishes
If you don’t think of grains as a source of protein, you’re not alone. With grains and protein kept in their own separate categories on many nutrition educational materials (such as MyPlate), the messaging around these two food groups can be a bit confusing. But grains can provide surprising doses of protein all by themselves. Quinoa contains eight grams per cup, and the same amount of wild rice and whole wheat pasta each contain around seven grams. Make a meal centered around one of these options and you’ll knock out a substantial portion of your daily protein requirement.
Grains that pack significant amounts of protein include:
- Brown and wild rice
- Whole wheat breads and pastas
Go bold with high-protein grains in your diet by:
- Choosing whole wheat pizza crust or pasta over the white variety
- Making a zesty Mexican quinoa bowl
- Frying crispy couscous cakes in heart-healthy olive oil
- Switching out your morning cereal for higher-protein oatmeal
- Trying a less familiar grain like bulgur or freekeh as a hearty addition to a salad
Legumes are one of nature’s healthiest foods. Low in fat and packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, these humble plants deserve a lot more credit than they usually get. They’re also an excellent source of protein. One cup of chickpeas or black beans contains almost 80 percent of your Daily Value, while a cup of lentils can fulfill over a third of your protein needs for the day. While beans may cause digestive troubles for some people, in general they’re well worth adding to your diet wherever possible.
Some high-protein legumes include:
- Lentils (red, green, yellow, black, or brown)
- Black beans
- Cannellini beans
- Kidney beans
- Pinto beans
Work more legumes into your meals and snacks by:
- Substituting beans for beef (or going half and half) in burgers
- Filling tacos with spiced lentils instead of meat
- Mashing chickpeas with mayonnaise and herbs to serve in a wrap
- Making a savory bean soup, like Cuban black bean or a vegetarian chili
- Using hummus as a sandwich spread
- Rounding out pasta dishes with the addition of cannellini beans or chickpeas
Tofu has long been the poster child of the health food movement—and not necessarily with positive connotations. Anti-tofu sentiment has been fueled by consumer concerns about the effects of soy on breast cancer risk and reduced testosterone in men. For the record, however, research has actually shown that eating soy in moderation does not cause cancer and does not alter male reproductive hormone levels.
Despite its sometimes controversial reputation, soy actually boasts a number of health benefits, with sizable amounts of nutrients like calcium, iron, and, of course, protein. One cup of tofu provides 20 grams of protein, and you’ll get 17 grams from a cup of edamame.
There are multiple options for soy foods, such as:
- Soy milk
- Tofu (ranging from soft to extra firm)
- Soy nuts
Experiment with incorporating soy into your diet by:
- Blending silky tofu into smoothies for extra creaminess
- Whipping edamame with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil for an easy dip with crudites
- Using soy milk in place of cow’s milk in baked goods and sauces, and on cereal
- Replacing meat with tempeh or crispy tofu in Asian meals like stir-fries or noodle dishes
Even a slow-and-steady approach of increasing your intake of plant protein can yield dramatic results for your health. If you’ve always been a big meat eater, don’t be afraid to start small with just a few of these suggestions. The more you replace animal products with plants in your diet, the more you may find nuts, grains, legumes, and soy can make delicious additions to breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks—and, quite possibly, the better you’ll feel.