At some point, you decided to eat less meat. But can you get enough protein without meat? If you’re already a vegetarian or a vegan, or if you’re following a whole-food or plant-based diet, then you know there is a world of difference between each diet (Table 1); but, the one thing each diet has in common is the absence of meat from your daily menu (Table 1); unless you’re a flexitarian, in which case you “flex” and eat meat or poultry every now and then.
Table 1. Vegetarian Diets: Definitions
|Flexitarian||Occasionally consumes animal flesh (meat, poultry) and fish, eggs, dairy|
|Pesco-vegetarian||Excludes animal flesh but does include fish|
|Lacto-ovo vegetarian||Excludes all flesh; includes dairy and eggs only|
|Lacto vegetarian||Excludes all flesh and eggs; includes dairy only|
|Ovo vegetarian||Excludes all flesh and dairy; includes eggs only|
|Vegan||Excludes all animal products|
|Macrobiotic vegetarian||Variable dietary restrictions; includes wild meat/game and fish in some variations of the diet|
|Fruitarian||Includes fruit, nuts, seeds and some vegetables|
If you think about it, removing meat from your diet means you’ll be replacing that part of your diet with something else. In other words, unless you have some other secret food type queued up, you’ll be eating a lot more vegetables and fruit if you stop eating meat. But how does that benefit you? First off, research shows that people who eat less meat have less belly fat, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol than those who eat meat frequently. In other words, eating mostly plants is really great for your health and (typically) less expensive. And, there are all sorts of other environmental and social benefits to reducing or eliminating your consumption of meat. If I got your attention, read on.
If you’re a vegan, how do you make up for the absence of milk, eggs, and cheese? And, if you’re an athlete and exercise frequently, does your body need more protein and macronutrients than if you spend most of your time couch surfing?
What Does the Research Say?
The first important point is that vegetables and fruit have protein—more than you might think. Truth be told, you can get most of your protein from eating fruit and vegetables. A recent article by the Harvard School of Public Health does a great job unpacking some of the benefits and keeps it practical by suggesting “You don’t need to go full vegetarian or vegan (avoiding all animal products, even eggs and dairy) to get the best heart health benefits. The focus should be on eating more of the right plants, avoiding the wrong kind, eliminating unhealthy foods, and moderating your intake of healthier animal products.”
Depending on your age, level of activity and willingness to select the right types of protein-rich vegetables, you might be able to get all your protein from meatless food choices. But if you’re an athlete, you must be careful to consider how many calories and how complete your diet must be to meet the needs of your specific level of activity and body type. As you do some research on the topic, be careful to weigh the claims you encounter, the source of the claim (Redbook is not the Harvard School of Public Health) and consider any counterclaims you discover along the way. Case in point, the recent What the Health movie makes some claims that many experts would consider inaccurate.
Let’s look at the challenges and benefits of a plant-based diet with respect to protein.
Because vegan and vegetarian diets are high in fiber and promote a feeling of satiety more quickly than when eating meat, it’s usually easier to lose weight on a vegan or plant-based diet than on a diet that includes a lot of meat. However, it’s harder to get enough calories without eating more energy-dense food such as nuts, seeds, and oils.
In terms of age, one recent study suggests that doubling the intake of plant-based foods resulted in a drop of protein intake by approximately 22% for males and females over 51 years old. And then there’s the issue of hair loss and mood swings.
Another issue that has been researched is low bone density (LBD). In a comprehensive (and expensive) book about veganism and vegetarianism, an entire chapter walks the reader through prior research focused on the effects of no-meat diets on bone density. The main point of this chapter is that is can be a challenge to meet daily dietary needs unless supplements, soy milk or other protein-rich foods are consumed regularly. Another recent research study that put men of similar age, size and BMI on either a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore diet found there was a significant decrease in muscle mass index and lean body mass in vegan compared to vegetarian and omnivore groups. This study also demonstrated that the vegan diet did not help prevent the onset of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Not a trivial point considering the life expectancy of Americans has dropped over two consecutive years.
There is a lot to say about this aspect of a plant-based diet. If you begin to experience adverse symptoms, please see your doctor.
Supplements and Powders
If you’re active and going full-blown vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based, most studies suggest you should consider using a protein powder and/or supplement. Here are some of the top sellers that will help you boost your protein intake without compromising your plant-based lifestyle.
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Organic Plant Based Vegan Protein Powder
- Super Greens Superfood Powder
- Pure Hawaiian Spirulina Powder
- PBfit All-Natural Peanut Butter Powder (one of our favorites)
- Blender Bottle Classic Loop Top Shaker Bottle (a great shake bottle)
One of the best examples of vegetarianism working its magic can be found in the 7th Day Adventist lifestyle. Seventh Day Adventists live on average 10 years longer than the rest of us and attribute this longevity to a priority on exercise, a Sabbath, and a vegetarian diet. This is no small matter since the average life expectancy for Americans has been dropped two years in a row. Read more about some of the 7th Day Adventist favorite foods. And watch In Defense of Food by Michael Pollin if you’d like to learn more. Another must-read book about this topic is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
Overall, it’s fair to say that most studies lean towards the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet. For example, one study looked at numerous studies about vegetarianism and found that a vegetarian diet confers a significant protective effect in terms of heart disease and cancer. Vegetarian diets are usually rich in carbohydrates, n−6 fatty acids, dietary fiber, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E and Mg, but relatively low in protein, saturated fat, long-chain n−3 fatty acids, retinol, vitamin B12 and Zn. Another 2017 study found numerous benefits of following a vegetarian diet: an increase in energy, total carbohydrate, sugars and fiber intake, and a decrease in fat intake alongside an expected increase in micronutrient intake.
Oh, and did we mention that eating less meat is really good for the environment? In one recent study, researchers found most people still aren’t aware of this fact. Even if you’re a hard-core omnivore, the issue of environmental sustainability should still be important to you. The destruction caused by large-scale meat production in terms of carbon emissions and carelesss land management practices is extensive.
A 2017 study, Vegan Diets: Practical Advice for Athletes and Exercisers, summarized much of the literature to date and concluded, “Through the strategic selection and management of food choices, and with special attention being paid to the achievement of energy, macro and micronutrient recommendations, along with appropriate supplementation, a vegan diet can achieve the needs of most athletes satisfactorily.”
While a Quarter Pounder (26 grams) at Mickey D’s or a chicken breast (34 grams per 4 ounces) pack a serious punch of P-power, some vegetables have as much as 8 grams of protein per cup. See Table 2 for some high protein food options.
Table 2. High Protein Foods
|Food||Protein per 100 ga|
|Pumpkin seeds (dried, uncooked)||30.2|
|Lentils (red, split, uncooked)||24.6|
|Black beans (uncooked)||21.6|
|Tofu (calcium set)||17.3|
Additional vegetarian protein sources
There are plenty of good vegetarian protein options to fill your grocery cart with.
|Vegetarian Foods||Protein (g)||Leucine (g)|
|Almonds (2 Tbsp)||4||0.3|
|Eggs (1 whole)||6||0.5|
|Black beans (1 cup cooked)||15||1.2|
|Cottage cheese, 2% (1/2 cup)||14||1.2|
|Oats (1/2 cup dry)||5||0.4|
|Greek yogurt, low fat (1 cup)||23||1.3|
|Green peas (1/2 cup frozen)||4||0.3|
|Lentils (1/2 cup cooked)||9||1.3|
|Pumpkin seeds (2 Tbsp)||4||0.4|
|Quinoa (1/3 cup dry)||8||0.5|
|Ricotta cheese, part-skim (1/2 cup)||14||1.5|
|Soy nuts (2 Tbsp)||9||0.7|
|Tempeh (3 oz)||20||1.4|
|Whey protein powder (1 scoop)||25||2 – 2.5|