I’ve eaten meat my entire life. I enjoy it, and it’s played an important role in helping me reach my health and fitness goals.
But, I think like most people, in the back of my mind I’ve always felt uncomfortable about where my meat comes from. We all know about those horrific slaughterhouse abuse videos, but we choose not to watch them because we’d rather not deal with the consequences of examining how they make us feel.
Recently, however, I picked up a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It’s a fantastic book in which Foer sets out to find the answers to questions about where meat comes from, and ultimately decide whether he should feed meat to his newborn son.
There are a lot of books that discuss the ethics of consuming animal products (The Omnivore’s Dilemma being another popular one), but what I particularly liked aboutEating Animals was that Foer lets vegetarians, vegans, animal rights activists, meat-eaters and factory farmers all have their say. You get both sides of the story, so to speak.
Personally, I don’t agree with all of the conclusions Foer arrives at, but he does present a number of powerful arguments in favour of eating less – or no – meat:
- It’s estimated that 2 out of 3 of all animals produced for food globally each year are factory farmed. In the US, it is thought that 99% of all meat consumed comes from factory farms.
- Since 1946, factory farms have been adding antibiotics to livestock feed to make animals grow faster and more efficiently, resulting in greater profits. In the US, as much as 80% of all antibiotics sold are for use on livestock and poultry, not humans (in the EU it’s closer to 66%). Overuse of antibiotics accelerates the emergence of infections that affect humans, meaning that eventually many standard medical treatments will fail or turn into very high risk procedures.
- Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cows, pigs and chickens. About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption.
- There is a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming – outstripping even the transportation industry.
- And of course, the animals on factory farms suffer. Cows, pigs and even chickens are capable of feeling a host of emotions like fear, pain, joy, love, despair and grief.
It’s the last point that really divides people. Nobody can tell you how to feel about it. You either feel good about eating meat, or you don’t. But objectively, there are good reasons for all of us to eat less meat, especially when it’s factory farmed.
Reading Eating Animals reminded me of our stay on a WWOOF lifestyle farm in New Zealand. Our hosts kept a small number of cows that they raised for beef. They told us that a single cow gave them enough meat to feed them both for an entire year. And yet – despite having an almost unlimited supply of the highest-quality meat available – they chose to eat meat only every other day.
Whether or not regular consumption of meat is healthy is hotly contested, but our hosts wanted to steer on the side of caution. Over-consumption of meat has been correlated(correlation does not mean causation) with certain health risks, including an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall increased risk of mortality.
In contrast, plant-based diets high in fiber and proteins like beans and lentils have been linked to lower mortality risk and improved diet quality. And while this didn’t matter to our hosts, plant-based diets are cheaper than those revolving around high-quality meat.
Although there are a lot of great things about vegetarian and vegan diets, their major shortcoming is that they are often low in protein. This is an issue because protein plays a very important role in overall health, building muscle and losing fat:
- Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of tissues in the body. They are used to make bone, skin, nails, hair, muscle, cells, and enzymes.
- When you create a calorific deficit, your rate of tissue breakdown exceeds your rate of tissue growth and you lose weight. Those who eat more protein lose less muscle and burn more fat.
- Protein is satiating, meaning that you need to consume fewer calories to feel full.
- Protein has a high thermic effect (TEF). When compared to carbs, your body burns nearly twice as many calories to breakdown protein.
Not all vegetarian and vegan diets have to be low in protein, however. In fact, there are numerous high-protein meat-free foods out there. And when compared to factory farmed meat, they are almost always much healthier.
Top 10 High-Protein Vegetarian Foods
One thing to note is that not all plant-based proteins are ‘complete’. In order to be considered ‘complete’, a protein must contain all nine of the essential amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own.
That doesn’t mean that incomplete proteins are useless – far from it. You only need a sufficient amount of each essential amino acid every day.
Consuming a variety of protein sources – as opposed to just one – will ensure that you get all of the essential amino acids. That said, most dieticians agree that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegans are virtually guaranteed to get all of their amino acids with very little effort.
With that out of the way, here are 10 of the top high-protein vegetarian foods (based on availability, the USDA Nutrient Database and raw, uncooked ingredients):
1. Quinoa (14g of protein per 100g)
Unlike most grains, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a complete protein. It also provides plenty of fiber, iron and magnesium. It’s a great substitute for rice and is versatile enough to make things like muffins, fritters and cookies.
2. Buckwheat/Soba (13g of protein per 100g)
Buckwheat is, in fact, not a type of wheat at all, but a relative of rhubarb (making it gluten free). It’s a complete protein that may help lower cholesterol and treat diabetes, and is also the main ingredient in soba noodles.
3. Eggs (13g of protein per 100g)
I know eggs are a little bit controversial as they are still an animal product, and are therefore not vegan. But I’ve included them because they are vegetarian, and are associated with numerous health benefits.
4. Tempeh (18g of protein per 100g)
With its nutty flavour and firm texture, tempeh – made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into blocks – works well in a variety of dishes. It is a complete protein.
5. Lentils (23g of protein per 100g)
Lentils are high in protein (although it’s incomplete) and other essential nutrients, including folate, iron, potassium, and a slew of antioxidants. The iron may help fight off anemia, which is more common among vegans and vegetarians.
6. Tofu (8-15g of protein per 100g)
Tofu is made from soybeans and is rich in iron and calcium. It’s also a complete protein. Opt for the firmest tofu available – the harder the tofu, the higher the protein content.
7. Beans and Rice (5-10g of protein per 100g)
Beans and rice are both nutritious yet inexpensive foods that, when combined, form a complete protein. The average amount of protein in 1 cup of eight different beans – white, adzuki, pinto, kidney, black, navy, garbanzo and lima – is 15 grams
8. Nuts and Seeds (15-21g of protein per 100g)
Special mentions go to almonds, walnuts, cashews, hemp and chia. Nuts and seeds are packed with nutrients valuable to heart health and immunity, such as fiber, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. The only catch is that they are very high in calories.
9. Seitan/Wheat Gluten (75g of protein per 100g)
Gluten is demonized by a lot of people these days, but with the obvious exceptions of celiac-sufferers and the gluten intolerant, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seitan is made by mixing gluten (the protein in wheat) with herbs and spices, hydrating it with water or stock, and simmering it in broth. It is not a complete protein.
10. Mycoprotein/Quorn (11g of protein per 100g)
Originally developed to combat global food shortages, mycoprotein is sold under the brand name Quorn and is made by growing a certain kind of fungus in vats and turning it into meat substitutes that are packed with complete protein. However, since it’s usually bound together with free range egg whites, Quorn is not technically vegan-friendly.
Your Go-To High-Protein Vegetarian Recipes
You’ve got your foods; now it’s just a question of actually eating them.
To make it as effortless as possible for you to get these foods into your diet, I tracked down 19 of the most delicious high-protein meat-free recipes from the world’s top food bloggers. They were kind enough to let me share them with you here.
I should say that not all of these recipes are vegan-friendly. Some of them, while meat-free, contain other animal products like eggs and yogurt. In most cases, you can simply leave out those ingredients and you’ll still have a delicious, high-protein, vegan meal.
1. Ginger Roasted Pumpkin and Quinoa Salad with Mint, Chili and Lime
On its own quinoa isn’t the most exciting food in the world. It’s actually quite bland. But this recipe, with flavoursome roasted vegetables, a ton of herbs and a bright dressing is a surefire way to liven things up and boost your protein intake.
2. Quinoa Breakfast Bowl w/ Eggs, Avocado, Tofu Puffs & Miso Mustard Dressing
There are so many good things happening in this bowl. The quinoa, tofu and egg come together for a hefty dose of protein, and that’s to say nothing of the avocado and seaweed. As Steph from I am a Food Blog puts it, “Super protein-full and super delicious.”
3. Simple Poached Egg and Avocado Toast
I eat eggs and avocado almost every day for breakfast or lunch (although mine never look this good). They’re two of the most nutritious foods out there, taste amazing, and there are countless ways of serving them. This recipe from Pinch of Yum is a classic.
4. Genius Chickpea Tofu
Soy is a great source of complete protein for vegans and vegetarians, but it doesn’t ‘agree’ with everyone. Unlike regular tofu (which is made from soy) this is made from chickpeas instead (also called Burmese or Shan tofu), making it a genius alternative.
5. Harissa Roasted Roots with Crispy Chickpeas and Herby Millet Pilaf
Not quite your traditional holiday fare, but still perfect for the winter months. Millet is fairly similar to cous cous or quinoa, so if you like either of those, you’ll probably like millet as well. It’s packed with protein and is cheap and easy to cook with.
6. Swiss Chard & Quinoa Cakes with Yogurt
As far as vegetarian alternatives to burgers go, these quinoa cakes are some of the best. They’re high in protein, and are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals. If Swiss chard’s not your thing, you could try making them with kale instead.
7. Garlic Pepper Soba with Chili-Roasted Tofu
Made from buckwheat, soba noodles are a great source of protein in addition to the tofu in this dish. If you follow a gluten-free diet, be sure to check the label to make sure the brand of soba you choose doesn’t contain wheat ingredients.
8. Spaghetti Squash with Chickpeas and Kale
Almost every vegetarian I have ever met loves pasta. While Jeanine admits “spaghetti squash is not pasta and it never will be”, this high-protein, veggie-packed recipe makes a great alternative when you’re in the mood for something a little healthier.
9. Mango Salsa Black Beans and Red Coconut Rice
For vegans and vegetarians, beans and rice are a classic combination. Together, they offer a good dose of protein and all the essential amino acids. The only problem is that they don’t taste of much. This recipe is guaranteed to spice things up.
10. Black Bean Tempeh Tacos
This is the one that you feed to your carnivorous friends who don’t believe that you can get enough protein as a vegan or vegetarian. Tempeh and beans replace the meat, but it can be personalized with the toppings you and your friends already love.