If you don't eat meat, getting enough protein might be a challenge for you. You might be wondering what the best protein sources for vegetarians are and how you can include them in your diet. Well, we have good news: You don’t have to eat meat to get the protein your body needs. There are a number of tasty, protein alternatives to meat. So, if you’re a vegetarian, are cutting back on meat or are just hoping to mix things up, try these 14 protein replacements for meat that are good for your body and your taste buds!
The benefits of protein
Why is it important to eat protein even as a vegetarian? For starters, getting enough protein delivers big benefits when it comes to weight loss.
Eating a diet full of protein can help you feel satisfied, research shows, and may curb your urge to late-night snack.1 Your metabolism may even get a boost from eating a moderate amount of protein-rich foods, especially when you’re exercising regularly.
Protein also might help preserve your muscle mass when you’re trying to lose weight. One review of research found that people who ate adequate protein, and incorporated strength training, particularly retained their muscle mass.2
Here are 14 of the best protein sources for vegetarians and how you can start eating them today. (They're also great for weight loss!)
Photo by See D Jan on iStock
For an easy snack to take on the go, fill a bag with one-half cup edamame, which delivers 9 grams of protein.3 Plus, you’ll also get 3 grams of dietary fiber, which, as a bonus, can also help you feel full — a perk when you’re out and about and don’t have time to stop and pick something up.4 Also, consider ordering them as a healthy appetizer when dining out (just watch for added sauces that can add unwanted fat and calories)!
Photo by tycoon751 on iStock
2. Black Beans
For your next taco night, why not swap black beans for meat? These legumes have 8 grams of protein for a one-fourth cup.5 Another perk: Eating a daily serving of beans can potentially lower your “bad” cholesterol levels, one review found.6 Just know that black beans are a starch, as well as an incomplete protein. That means they need to be paired with another plant-based protein source — like rice — to be considered a “complete” protein. No wonder rice and beans go so well together!
Photo by Cleanlight Photo on Unsplash
There’s no better way to start a chilly morning than with a bowl of oatmeal. And good news! A half cup of oatmeal has 5 grams of protein, plus 4 grams of dietary fiber7 to help keep your digestive system running smoothly.8 Worth keeping in mind: Oatmeal is a starch and also an incomplete protein. Pair it with a small amount of peanut butter to make it a complete protein source, and get some extra nutty flavor!
Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash
4. Greek Yogurt
This thick and creamy style of yogurt packs a big protein punch. A 6-ounce container of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt can have over 17 grams of protein!9 You’ll also get 187 milligrams of calcium to help your muscles, nerves and cells work at their best.10 Plus, eating yogurt as part of your healthy lifestyle may even reduce your cardiovascular disease risk if you have high blood pressure, research shows.11 You might want to consider throwing in a handful of berries for extra nutrients (like vitamin C) as well as a pop of sweetness.
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash
5. Unsweetened Soy Milk
If your go-to drink is dairy, but you’re looking for a plant-based alternative, unsweetened soy milk could become your new favorite beverage. Not only does a cup come in at just about 7 grams of protein,12 but you’ll also get just over 300 milligrams of calcium to keep your bones strong. Pour a splash in your coffee, or use some in your next bowl of cereal. Also, research indicates soy milk is currently the most nutritious plant-based milk.13 All the more reason to drink up!
Photo by trexec on iStock
Like beans? Well, there’s a good chance you’ll love lentils! A half cup of lentils is one of the best vegetarian protein sources and clocks in at almost 9 grams of protein in each serving.14 On top of that, they also have over 3 milligrams of iron and are considered a good food to eat if you have an iron deficiency.15 Not too shabby! Keep in mind that lentils are also a starch and an incomplete protein — so you’d need to pair them with another plant-based protein source like rice for them to be considered a complete protein source.
Photo by KarinaUrmantseva on iStock
Talk about a super dip! This chickpea-based spread clocks in at just over 1 gram of protein16 per tablespoon. Plus, people who eat hummus (or chickpeas) tend to have higher intakes of dietary fiber, as well as other nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate and magnesium one study found.17 Go on and dip veggies like carrots or cucumber slices in the hummus bowl to make your snack even healthier.
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash
It’s worth saying “yes please” to peas. Not only do these green dynamos have 5 grams of protein per two-thirds cup,18 but they also have 4 grams of dietary fiber to keep your digestive system working at its best. Another perk: Researchers found that a meal with veggie protein sources like peas were more satisfying than a meat-based meal.19 So throw a handful on top of your next salad, or blend them into a homemade soup!
Photo by Anna_Shepulova on iStock
By the looks of it, you might think it’s a grain, but quinoa is actually a seed, and a protein-filled one at that. A half cup of cooked quinoa has a little over 4 grams of protein.20 It’s also one of the plant foods that is a complete protein, meaning it has all of the essential amino acids (essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through foods). Like bananas, quinoa is high in potassium, which is an important mineral for blood pressure. Whip up a batch and use it to make a grain (or seed!) bowl — pair it with your choice of veggies, and dress with a little oil and vinegar. Yum! You can also make a batch ahead of time, for an easy meal prep hack.
Photo by Gesina Kunkel on Unsplash
There’s nothing plain about rice — at least when it comes to being a good source of protein for vegetarians. A quarter of a cup of brown rice has 3 grams of protein.21 Something to keep in mind: Rice is a starch and an incomplete protein, so pair it with beans to make it a complete protein source (and add some grilled veggies for a delicious, well-rounded meal). It’s also rich in vitamins B1 and B6, as well as important minerals like selenium and manganese.22 Try to opt for whole-grain versions of this tasty protein alternative to get the most nutrients.
Photo by Christine Siracusa on Unsplash
11. Nuts and Nut Butter
Are you nuts for nuts? Well, you’re in luck, because nuts come packed with protein. For example, just one teaspoon of almond butter comes with 1 gram of protein23 (remember to watch your portion size — stick to a teaspoon of nut butter per day if your goals include weight loss). Another nut perk? Research shows eating nuts may reduce cardiovascular disease risk for people with Type 2 diabetes.24-25
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
People think of this cruciferous veggie as a fiber-filled pick, but it’s also a protein-rich food. A half cup of cooked broccoli, for example, comes with almost 2 grams of protein26 (on top of its almost 3 grams of fiber). Serve some florets for dinner (here are 4 ways to make broccoli taste amazing) to get an extra protein boost. Another benefit: Eating broccoli five times a week may help protect against liver cancer, one animal study suggests.27
Photo by Andrijana Bozic on Unsplash
Here’s another reason you’ll want to eat your greens. One cup of spinach contains almost 1 gram of protein,28 not to mention 1 milligram of iron and vitamins like A, K, C, and folate. Also a bonus? Lutein, an antioxidant found in spinach, may fight against cognitive aging, one study found — all the more reason to whip up a refreshing spinach salad.29
Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash
Place a piece or two of tofu atop your next salad for an ideal protein alternative. One slice (approximately 85 grams) contains 8 grams of protein.30 You’ll also score 150 milligrams of calcium, and 2 grams of dietary fiber — not too shabby! There’s another reason to serve it — eating fermented soy products, like tofu, may reduce your odds of developing high blood pressure, research shows.31
The bottom line
Eating enough protein is a great way to support your weight loss efforts. And some of the best sources of protein for vegetarians are foods you might not even know are protein-packed! We hope you found this list of vegetarian protein alternatives useful.
For more information on how you can enjoy healthy protein alternatives (and for help with portion sizes and weight loss), contact Jenny Craig to schedule a free appointment.
Leslie Barrie has a health writing and editing background, and holds her master's degree from Columbia University Graduate Journalism School. Over the past 10 years, she has worked at various magazines in New York City, such as Woman's Day, Health, Seventeen, and more. When she's not writing about health, she likes living it — she enjoys running, hiking, swimming, and yoga (even though she's not the best at it, it helps her to relax!).
Favorite healthy snack: a piece of dark chocolate with some almonds
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.