Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or simply looking to cut back on the amount of meat you consume, there are a plethora of options when it comes to plant-forward eating. Check out this guide to plant-based meat alternatives and learn how you can get your daily protein requirement while keeping your health, the planet and animal welfare in mind.
How Important Is Protein?
Humans need protein; it helps build muscle tissue and strengthen bones. The amino acids in protein also make antibodies, blood, connective tissue, enzymes and hair. There are nine essential amino acids, which our bodies cannot produce and therefore must come from food.
The recommended dietary allowance for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to the Harvard Health blog. To determine your daily protein intake, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.
You might need slightly more or less protein depending on how active or sedentary your lifestyle is.
Benefits of Eating Less Meat
Meat may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of protein, but it’s completely possible to get enough protein – and all nine essential amino acids – from plant-based meat alternatives.
Cutting back on the amount of meat you eat can improve your health in many ways. Individuals who don’t eat meat generally consume fewer calories and weigh less, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Consuming less meat can also help lower your risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, stroke, type 2 diabetes and various cancers, according to the American Heart Association.
Eating more fruits, vegetables and other plants – especially organic varieties – is better for the planet, too.
Raising livestock takes up a lot of room and resources. “If we combine pastures used for grazing with land used to grow crops for animal feed, livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land,” according to Our World in Data.
Livestock also contributes to 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Animal agriculture pollution occurs when animals naturally produce methane and when their waste accidentally gets into waterways.
Some people choose to go vegan or vegetarian for moral reasons. Factory farming is a major concern when it comes to the welfare of both animals and factory employees.
99% of U.S. farmed animals are living in factory farms at present, according to the Sentience Institute.
There’s also a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to “cage-free,” “free-range” and “pasture-raised” claims. “Except for ‘certified organic,’ the U.S. government does not set definitions or requirements for egg carton labels,” according to the Humane Society.
“The huge amount of antibiotics that keep animals on these farms from getting sick is leading to an abundance of drug-resistant bacteria,” according to the Humane Society of the United States. “And factory farms’ very nature – full of stressed animals, with poor sanitation – creates ideal conditions for diseases to thrive, including viruses that can infect humans.”
Recent examples are the COVID-19 outbreaks that occurred in meat and poultry processing facilities.
One way to get your daily amount of protein is to eat a variety of meatless and nondairy foods. These include grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and other plants.
Legumes are “loaded with protein, iron and zinc, as you might expect from other protein sources like meat,” according to NutritionFacts.org. “Legumes also contain nutrients that are concentrated in the vegetable kingdom, including fiber, folate and potassium.”
Half a cup of cooked beans has the same amount of protein – 8 grams – as a cup of milk, according to Harvard Health Publishing. “Beans are packed with fiber, folate and phytates, which may help reduce the risk of stroke, depression and colon cancer,” according to NutritionFacts.org.
Fresh, frozen, canned and dried peas and split peas are another option. Green pea protein powder can be added to smoothies or nondairy milk for a post-workout boost. European-grown lupin (or lupine) is another natural protein powder; however, it should be avoided by those with peanut allergies.
Popular soy-based foods include tofu and tempeh.
Tofu is made from soybean curds, similar to how cheese is made. It can be soft or firm, but it is relatively bland. It takes on the flavor of what you cook it with. One 3.5-ounce serving of tofu offers 8 grams of protein and 70 calories.
Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh has a nuttier flavor than tofu. One 3-ounce serving of tempeh boasts 15 grams of protein along with calcium.
Grains, Oats and Wheat
Spelt is an ancient whole grain that’s closely related to wheat. One cup of spelt has over 10 grams of protein. It can be added to baked goods or used to make polenta, risotto, grain bowls and more. Spelt is not part of a gluten-free diet.
Teff is a grain that comes from an annual grass, making it a gluten-free option. Just 3.5 ounces of teff flour has 12 grams of protein and fiber.
Raw oats can be a good source of protein, too. 3.5 ounces of raw oats offers almost 17 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.
Seitan, or hydrated wheat gluten, is low-fat and low-carb while being high in protein. A 3-ounce serving contains between 15 and 21 grams of protein, according to Healthline.
Nuts, Seeds and Yeast
Nuts – like almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios and walnuts – might feel like just a topping or snack, but these protein powerhouses can support and flavor an entire meal in the form of peanut sauce or pesto.
Quinoa is a seed that puffs up when cooked. It can add nice texture to a dish, along with all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa has been called a superfood, boasting more fiber than brown rice as well as antioxidants and minerals, including iron, folate, magnesium and zinc.
Nutritional yeast is a golden powder that adds a cheesy flavor to dishes and thickens soups and sauces. Nutritional yeast is a complete protein that boasts B vitamins and trace minerals like manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc.
Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, peppers, potatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes are all good sources of protein, according to the American Heart Association.
Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
There are more plant-based meat alternatives on the market than ever before. Some options are more meat-like than others, imitating the look, taste and texture of meat with various levels of nutritional value.
Check the Nutrition Facts
When looking for a vegetarian or vegan meat alternative, always check the nutrition facts and list of ingredients. Just because a product is labeled “plant-based,” “vegan” or “vegetarian” doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Salt is used to improve flavor and increase the shelf life of many commercial food products. Watch out for the amount of sodium, saturated fats and preservatives when shopping for meat alternatives.
Most veggie burgers don’t try to hide their lack of meat. In leu of meat, ingredients like beans, quinoa, potatoes and tofu are used to form a patty.
You can make your own veggie burgers at home – like these black bean burgers from the blog Sally’s Baking Addiction or the New York Time’s ultimate veggie burger. Or, consider store-bought varieties like Amy’s, Hilary’s or Dr. Praeger’s. Again, make sure to check the nutrition facts, as some makers and individual flavors are healthier than others.
“Meatless burgers are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals,” according to Harvard Health blog, adding that some meatless burgers are heavily processed and high in saturated fat.
There are a few popular meat alternative brands on the market that specialize in products that are made to imitate the look, feel and taste of real meat.
Impossible Products use a variety of ingredients to make burger, sausage and pork alternatives. There’s soy and potato for protein, heme and yeast extract for flavor, coconut and sunflower oils for fat as well as methylcellulose and food starch for binders.
Beyond Meat makes plant-based meat alternatives for meatballs, sausages, burgers and more. Protein comes from beans, peas and brown rice while cocoa butter, coconut oil and expeller-presses canola oil offer fat. Beet juice, apple extract and natural flavors make the products look like real meat. Calcium, iron, potassium chloride and salt provide flavor while carbohydrates like potato starch and methylcellulose offer structure.
Faux Chicken and Fish
Some chicken and fish alternatives are more convincing than others, but like faux beef products, you should look at nutritional info.
Plants With Meaty Texture
Although they aren’t the most protein-packed plants, mushrooms and jackfruit are vegetarian meat substitutes that can add a hearty “meatiness” to otherwise meat-free dishes.
Mushrooms – like button/white, cremini, maitake, oyster, portobello and shitake – are another superfood. Mushrooms are cholesterol- and fat-free as well as low in calories and sodium. They’re also packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Jackfruit is a popular choice among vegans and vegetarians due to its shredded meat-like texture. Jackfruit offers a decent amount of protein compared to other fruits and contains many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A and C, copper, magnesium, manganese, potassium and riboflavin.
Looking for more ways to mix it up in the kitchen? AAA members can save on Home Chef, a subscription box that provides everything you need to create delicious meals from home, from fresh ingredients to step-by-step instructions. Plus, Home Chef offers a wide variety of vegetarian options, including Impossible Foods!
Which plant-based meat substitutes do you like to eat? Tell us in the comments.