Photographed by Ingalls Photo.First thing is first: What is protein and why is it so darn important in your daily diet? “Protein is a micronutrient composed of building blocks called amino acids, which link together to form protein chains in different combinations,” explains Melissa Wood, a nutritionist at The Morrison Center in New York City. “All of which are used to maintain the growth of our cells and to make hormones and antibodies.”
So, why is it a staple on a worker-outer’s menu? Because not only do many of the go-to foods that contain protein (such as poultry, fish, and red meat) have few carbs and calories, but also because having high enough levels of this nutrient in the body means more — and better quality — muscles. “Protein has so many different functions within the body and one of its roles is building and repairing muscles,” says Elizabeth Jarrard, RD, a registered dietitian and content specialist at Vega, a plant-based nutrition company. “Your body also needs amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to form enzymes and hormones that are important for many responses within the body.”
While meat, fish, and poultry may have stellar amounts of this nutrient (about 42 grams in a six ounce steak, approximately 22 grams in a three-and-a-half ounce of a cooked fish filet, and 36 grams in four ounces of chicken), they are by no means the only sources of protein. In fact, protein is in just about everything we eat. Almost, anyway. “Protein is in meats, cheeses, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, and even vegetables — oils are the only food that do not contain protein,” explains Jarrard. And, it’s actually super-important to get protein from a range of sources — not just from chowing down on an Umami Burger or some classic chicken paillard. Because not all those types of amino acid chains your body requires should come from the same place — you need to change it up to get a broad range, too. “It is important to consume a wide variety of proteins because each food contains a different blend of amino acids, and by making sure you are getting a variety of sources, you are going to be the healthiest,” says Jarrard.
Photographed by Ingalls Photo.So, how much protein do we really need? “The RDA recommends that we take in 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram (aka 2.2 pounds) of bodyweight. Active people eat about one gram per pound of body weight,” says Wood. Yes, that’s right. If you weigh 152 pounds and hit the gym on a regular basis — like four to five days a week, using weights, and doing high-intensity interval training, etc. — then you should aim to consume about 152 grams of protein per day.
If you are a devout exerciser, but prefer slower-paced sweat sessions or Pilates and yoga, then you can stick to the one gram per kilogram rule, says Wood. And, while experts are clear that you can get all of your protein needs from plant-based foods, know that it is a whole lot speedier to just get it from a plate of poultry. “Vegans need to eat a larger abundance of vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds to meet the recommended daily dose of protein,” says Wood. And, athletes may need even more, says Jarrard. “Athletes can require up to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight,” she says.
So, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or just want to have a little more protein variety, these are some of the best plant-based sources of protein.
Greens And Other Vegetables
You may never look at a side of broccoli the same again — for every 100 calories, it has about 11.2 grams of protein, while asparagus has 3.08 grams of protein in about eight spears. And, you might not even need to add chicken to that Chopt salad after all — romaine lettuce has 11.6 grams of protein per 100 calories. “Vegetables are great when eaten raw, alone, or in salads — and cooked vegetables should be heated at low temperatures to keep their nutritional value,” says Wood.
Photographed by Ingalls Photo.Nuts And Seeds
“Best when eaten raw, nuts and seeds are a great source of protein,” says Wood. Pumpkin seeds contain 9.35 grams of protein per ounce; chia seeds have 4.4 grams of protein per ounce, and one ounce of almonds (about 24 nuts) contains 6.03 grams of protein. Add them to salads or steamed veggie dishes for a delicious crunch, suggests Jarrard. Or, try nut butters. “They’re a great way to add in protein and flavor to raw veggies, gluten-free quinoa, or brown rice crackers,” she says.
High Protein Tofu
This vegetarian and vegan fave is made from coagulating soy milk and then forming it into the spongey white cubes. It’s also considered a complete protein — the closest to that of animal sources — because it offers all nine essential amino acids. “Just a half cup of tofu can give you about ten grams of protein,” says Jarrard.
Photographed by Ingalls Photo.Beans And Legumes
Because who doesn’t love a lentil? “Lentils contain a whopping 17.9 grams of protein per cup,” says Wood. And, a close second are black beans with 12 to 15 grams per cup. “Beans are a nutritious addition to salads or cooked dishes — and there are hundreds of ways to eat them!” says Jarrard.
Chlorella And Spirulina
See, fish isn’t the only thing out of the ocean packed with protein: “Chlorella is a form of algae and it's about 65% protein,” explains Wood. “Spirulina is a blue algae that's about 60% protein, about six grams of protein per ten grams.” How on earth do you eat them, though? “Both can be added to a smoothie, in a powder form, or taken in the form of a supplement,” she says.
There’s a reason why oatmeal was a elementary school breakfast staple. “One cooked cup of oatmeal has just over six grams of protein and is also a great source of fiber,” says Wood. But, don’t go for the flavored, packaged, and microwavable kind, which can be loaded with extra sugar. Instead, opt for steel-cut and add in your own extras such as almond milk, walnuts, and fresh berries — and add a drop of honey or a little Stevia if you love it a bit sweeter.
Photographed by Ingalls Photo.Quinoa
Quinoa no longer has the wow factor it once did — it’s now a common cabinet requirement, no matter what type of diet or eating habits you subscribe to. While it’s often looked to because of its gluten-free status, don’t forget the stellar amounts of protein it has — a 1/4 cup of dried quinoa has six to eight grams of protein. And, you can eat it as more than just a side dish, too. Try forming it into patties (mix in sliced spinach and add some breadcrumbs, onions, and garlic. Then bake them) or as the main ingredient in a breakfast burrito (instead of eggs).
Dairy-Free Vegan Alternatives To Milk
There’s a long list of yummy "milk" options out there now — from almond and hazelnut milk, to rice, hemp, oat, and coconut milk. Almond milk falls lower on the protein scale (about one gram of protein per eight fluid ounces) and soy is the leader — with about eight grams of protein for one cup. Whether you add it to your coffee, get it in a latte, or pour it over cereal, any of these can help bolster your protein intake for the day.