Non-meat proteins

Originally Published: March 9, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 18, 2011
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Dear Alice,

What are the best non-meat sources of protein?


Dear Veggie,

Protein has certainly been the source of hot debate in the nutrition world as vegetarianism and veganism become more popular dietary and lifestyle choices for a growing number of people. There have been scores of arguments about protein in all its facets: how much you need, what kinds are most useful to the body, and how to prepare it. But what it comes down to is: every body is different, has different needs, and digests foods uniquely, so the best non-meat sources of protein for one person might be the worst for someone else.

Research has shown that we do best consuming between 40 and 65 grams of protein a day, those with very active lifestyles or who consume more calories consuming towards the higher end of the spectrum. Protein facilitates growth, metabolism, immune system functioning, repair, muscle contraction, and the transmission of nerve impulses and hormones in the body. It can also be a source of energy when the body runs out of carbohydrates and fat for fuel. And protein's not that hard to find, even for vegetarians. Almost every food contains protein: nuts, seeds, beans, soy products (tofu, soy milk, tempeh), grains (wheat, oats, rice), eggs, and dairy products all being excellent vegetarian sources.

The list below gives the protein content of some of the highest protein and/or most popular vegetarian foods:

  • Tempeh — 1 cup — 41 g
  • Lentils — I cup — 18 g
  • Chickpeas — I cup — 12 g
  • Tofu — 4 oz — 9 g
  • Peanut butter — 2 tbsp — 8 g
  • Soymilk — I cup — 7 g
  • Brown rice — 1 cup — 5 g
  • Whole wheat bread — 2 slices — 5 g
  • Broccoli, cooked — I cup — 4 g

Protein is a macronutrient made up of smaller parts, called amino acids. There are about 20 different amino acids, many of which the body can produce, but eight which the body cannot. These eight must be eaten, and are therefore called essential. Animal proteins contain all eight of these essential amino acids in appropriate proportions, while the proteins found in plants often do not. However, by mixing foods the amino acids in one protein can compensate for the deficiencies of another. The combinations are often intuitive and common, such as cheese or peanut butter on bread, or oatmeal with milk. The body can store a short-term supply of the essential amino acids, so it's not necessary to combine proteins at every meal.

Soy is a high-protein low-fat food, making it very popular, but it's not always easy to digest. The plant estrogens and in soy, and certain enzymes such as protease and phytates, can make it difficult to digest vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Especially affected are those who were not raised eating soy and only began it eating in later life . If you feel bloated or gassy after eating soy, try to rely on other foods for your protein.

You might find it helpful to consult with a nutritionist if you want a more specific evaluation of your diet and unique nutritional needs. Columbia students can log onto Open Communicator to make an appointment with a nutritionist through health services. There is also a wealth of information online about vegetarian recipes, philosophies, and nutritional facts about specific foods and food combinations. In addition, a vast buffet of books on the topic have been published, but two that have been especially helpful to many are Francis Moore Lappe's "Diet for a Small Planet," and Anna Thomas' "The Vegetarian Epicure."

People convert to vegetarianism for myriad reasons that include health, animal rights, environmental sustainability, and religion. You can rest assured that your participation in the movement will further all of these goals without depriving you of the protein you need. Enjoy!


March 18, 2011

To the reader:

A bunch of other good ways ('cause I noticed she mentioned tofu) is getting the soft, soft tofu and putting it in shakes (light protein shakes are possible). Plus nuts are...

To the reader:

A bunch of other good ways ('cause I noticed she mentioned tofu) is getting the soft, soft tofu and putting it in shakes (light protein shakes are possible). Plus nuts are phenomenal in the aspect of having protein, especially soy nuts (and the roasted ones don't taste half bad). The only really bad issues with eating nuts its lots of fiber... so I don't know if you know what that does but its not too bad I promise :)

—Non-Veggie but friend