Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivore, find protein-packed foods for your diet.
No matter which particular diet you choose to follow, getting enough protein is necessary for building lean muscle, keeping your organs functioning and your immune system operating. It also means you’re more likely to have healthy hair and nails.
If you have restrictions — food allergies, food sensitivities, diet preferences or a medical condition — you can adjust the types of protein you eat so you’re not missing out on essential nutrients. We asked nutritionist Erin Palinski-Wade, author of “The Belly Fat Diet for Dummies,” to share some easy ways to work protein into every meal and snack. Here they are …
If you’re on a vegetarian diet, try …
Beans: In just two cups of kidney beans, you consume 26 grams of protein. That’s more than you would find in a small hamburger. Beans are not only rich in protein, but they’re also a terrific source of fiber and iron. Incorporate them into recipes such as chili, soups, salads or even veggie burgers.
Firm tofu: With 20 grams of protein per half cup, tofu is one of the richest sources of plant-based protein. Because it absorbs the flavor of most foods, enjoy it in stir-fries, as a substitute for ricotta cheese in pasta dishes (like lasagna), or use a silken tofu blended into your breakfast smoothie.
Sunflower seeds: These seeds are the highest-protein seeds around at seven grams per quarter cup. They also provide a good source of healthy fats, as well as zinc.
If you’re following a vegan diet, try …
Edamame: With eight grams of protein per half cup, enjoy edamame (soybeans) steamed or dry-roasted as a healthy snack on its own, as an appetizer or tossed in a stir-fry.
Quinoa: This seed is one of the only plant-based sources of complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Adding quinoa to a vegan diet is an easy way to help you meet your protein needs. Mix it together with steamed or stir-fried vegetables and your favorite seasonings for a delicious, protein-rich meal.
Almonds: These nuts are a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and protein. Enjoy an ounce of almonds (about 20 nuts) as a snack or sprinkle slivered almonds over a salad for a protein boost.
Green peas: In just one cup you can get eight grams of protein, which is the same amount of protein you would take in from one cup of cow’s milk. Try adding peas to pasta dishes and on salad, eating them dried, or enjoying them as a side dish on their own.
If you’re going dairy-free, try …
Eggs: These breakfast favorites are a good source of complete protein. Select eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet to help you take in an additional source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your brain and heart health. Even though eggs are sold in the dairy section at the grocery store, because they’re not a byproduct of milk, you’re in the (dairy) clear.
Fish: Packed full of lean protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, aim to take in two servings of fish per week. Seafood Watch, a sustainability consumer guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommends Atlantic mackerel because its consumption isn’t likely to cause habitat destruction; Alaskan salmon, because strict quotas and water quality make for healthy fisheries; and wild-caught sardines, a superfood which packs protein, vitamin D and ample omega-3s.
Soymilk: While controversial to some due to the processing required, non-dairy milk alternatives can help you to enjoy milk without the concern for dairy. Soymilk contains a similar level of protein to cow’s milk (about eight grams per cup). You might want to look for soymilk brands that are fortified with vitamin D and watch out for sweetened varieties, which can contain a lot of sugar. (While you may want to try almond milk but be aware that it only has about one gram of protein per cup.)
If you’re following an eco-conscious diet, which includes only Earth-friendly protein sources, try…
Cashews + cashew butter: When it comes to nuts, locally grown options are best. In California? Go for walnuts. Live in Georgia? Pecans are right around the corner. Opt for nuts with healthy fats and high protein. Palinski-Wade recommends cashews as an all-around good choice. Use cashew butter as a spread, mix it into smoothies, or blend two tablespoons with two cups of warm water to create your own homemade cashew milk.
Chickpeas: With seven grams of protein per half cup, chickpeas are a great, versatile plant-based protein source. Use chickpea flour in baked goods to boost your protein intake. (Use it as you would flour in fritter or pancake recipes, for example.) Roast chickpeas for a high-protein snack, or enjoy them mixed into a soup or salad.
Hemp: These can be enjoyed in the form of hemp seeds mixed into smoothies, salads or trail mix. You can even drink hemp milk as a non-dairy milk alternative. This food provides a good source of low-calorie, plant-based protein.
Chia seeds: With almost five grams of protein per ounce, chia seeds are a great way to boost your protein intake as well as your intake of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They’re delicious mixed into smoothies and salads, and you can even make chia pudding by adding the seeds to liquid (like cashew milk) or oatmeal since they absorb a significant amount of water and take on a gelatin form – and pudding is a great snack or dessert you can feel good about eating.
If you’re an omnivore …
Chicken: This lean poultry is a favorite among healthy eaters looking to amp up protein consumption without a lot of extra fat and calories. Start with organic boneless, skinless breasts and add grilled chicken to salads, pastas, fajitas and more. A three-and-a-half-ounce portion of a boneless, skinless chicken breast has 21 grams of protein says the National Chicken Council.
Pork: If you’re calling to mind crispy bacon slices and wondering how pork can be part of a healthy diet, look to lean pork options like boneless pork chops and pork tenderloin for juicy, high-protein meats to base meals around. There are about 22 grams of protein in a three-ounce serving of pork tenderloin.
Red meat: Keep red meat portions to about the size of a deck of cards (three ounces). Look for words like “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” as those are leaner cuts. There are about 23 grams of protein in a three-ounce portion of round steak.
And remember, get informed and make conscious choices. It doesn’t matter what type of diet you’re following, we all need protein to train, survive and thrive.