Vegans, vegetarians and Paleo groups all have a shared common goal – making sure they get enough protein every day. Here are the best vegetarian-friendly protein sources we know.
While it may be more difficult for the non-meat eaters, finding high-quality protein sources is still essential for every type of eater.
That’s Not Enough Protein, Though!
The good news is that like most of the nutrients found in quality food, a little bit goes a long way. If we look back to our hunter and gatherer days, we find that our primitive brother ate a lot less meat, usually around 20% of his total diet, a far cry from how much the average American consumes daily today.
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One of the differences in how our Paleo ancestors ate is that the quality of their protein was always top notch. This shows us that, in terms of protein and food consumption, quality is far more important than quantity.
While protein is essential for our bodies to function properly, we only need so much. A lot of individuals have the idea that they are what they eat, but they are too busy counting macronutrients and not focused at all on the quality of their nutrients or whether or not they are bioavailable (meaning, if they digest well in the human body).
Studies suggest that we only need so much protein to stay healthy. For graceful aging we need about 30-40 grams of protein for the optimal dose to best promote (post-exercise) muscle protein synthesis rates in older adults. (1) Any more than that is likely to be too much.
If we ignore these things, we can end up with too much unusable and undigested protein, which is associated with several diseases such as kidney disease. (2) More importantly, we want to eat a diet that has plenty of variety, rather than isolate and specialize on any single nutrient. Including more protein sources from plants will also offer more health benefits, including more fiber and nutrients.
We don’t need to be worrying about protein intake so much, but should focus instead on a diet that is rich in a variety of whole foods. If you are consuming a whole food diet like a Paleo diet, then chances are you are getting enough protein, regardless of whether you are consuming copious amounts of meat or not.
The bottom line is that we can get lots of healthy protein sources from veggies, algae and other plant life. There are lots of nutrient-dense foods with high protein content; here are some of the top plant-based protein sources:
The Top 10 Best Non-Meat Protein Sources
Before we begin, let’s point out some non-meat protein options to avoid. It’s best to say no to both soy and most commercial whey. Unfermented soy can cause thyroid problems, and most commercial whey is high-heated, which denatures the protein. In addition, a lot of commercial whey contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, which have strong associations with diabetes and obesity. If you are going to consume whey, make sure it’s 100% grass-fed and non-denatured. (4, 5)
Other than that, there are plenty of other options for getting your protein; here is a list of stuff that’s really high in protein:
This green algae is loaded with protein. More specifically, it has a 62% amino acid content and is considered one of the most complete foods on the planet. It has every essential amino acid and is a complete protein. Plus, it contains minerals, enzymes, chlorophyll and almost too much to mention in just one bullet point! It has beta-carotene (vitamin A), C, E, K, B1, B2, B6, B12, niacin, pantothenic acid, RNA, DNA, folic acid, biotin, choline, and inositol; just to name a few.
Additionally, it boosts the immune system immensely, helps digestion, alkalizes, and heals intestinal lining, toxins and heavy metals from the body. It enhances health and muscle growth, Increases the concentration of hemoglobin in red blood cells (for iron and oxygen), helps reduce cholesterol, and helps the liver detox. It is best taken on an empty stomach at least 20 minutes before other food. (6, 7)
This cheesy-tasting topping also has all the essential amino acids. It also contains nucleic acid, which is vital for proper cell development. It’s a great source of B vitamins, high in minerals, protein, and helps the liver breaks down fats, which is good for acne and skin problems.
It’s a good plant source of glutathione, which boosts immune response and detoxification. Its chromium triggers insulin action, making it good for diabetes. It also neutralizes bowel irritation, soothes inflammation and restores normal bowel movements. Overall, it has great immune-enhancing properties and provides good energy. Put a couple tablespoons in water or a smoothie or on a salad every day. (8, 9)
Most seaweed is at least 50% protein and pound-for-pound can compete head-to-head with animal proteins. Sea greens have more minerals than any other food. They are also the best source of iodine, which is needed for healthy thyroid.
Examples include, kelp, kombu, arame, wakame, nori, and dulse. You can get powdered kelp and add it to smoothies, soups, and salads, or make entire meals out of it. Eat it every day if you can; add it to soups for an easy way to incorporate it into your diet!
Bee pollen is one of the most complete foods we have. It’s loaded with incredibly easy-to-digest amino acids and so many other wonderful benefits I will explain in the next article. To know whether you have a good batch or not you can do the water test – if it sinks, it is good, if it floats, it is likely rancid.
Otherwise known as rice bran solubles, they are a creamy powder that makes an excellent superfood ice cream. If you’re going to do protein powder, this is a good one. This is also the very best source of serious vitamin E. (10)
This delicious Amazonian berry is one of the only fruits that contains both an array of amino acids and fatty acids. It has almost an identical protein and amino acid profile as an egg.
Though to many, this fruit smells really bad, it is definitely worth it. Durians are a great source of protein and a favorite food of orangutans, elephants, tigers other powerful wild animals. They also have high levels of tryptophan, which is great for depression and insomnia.
This also raises brain serotonin levels, which makes you feel good. You can get them in Asian markets. Here’s a tip: the frozen kind are not as smelly. Leave them in the sink overnight to thaw and make a custard out of it in a high-speed blender for a protein-packed post-workout meal. (11)
This wonder seed packs 30 grams of protein per tablespoon! It’s a very popular source of protein in the health world and you’ve likely heard of this one. Hemp seeds contain many minerals, on top of containing all 9 essential amino acids and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
This smoky but sweet powder has been used as a staple food for centuries by desert dwellers. It is actually high in protein, with good quantities of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, as well as lots of the amino acid lysine. Best of all, it contains a sweet, rich molasses-like flavor with a hint of caramel, making it great for unique smoothie blends. Try pairing it with raw cacao and maca for a protein-rich and mouthwatering shake.
We can’t talk about non-meat proteins and not mention eggs; they are perhaps one of the world’s healthiest foods. Here’s a tip you might not know, though. The best way to consume the egg is of course raw, but not the whole thing.
Raw eggs contain strong enzyme inhibitors in the yolk membrane, which requires extra enzymes from the pancreas to digest. Cooking destroys these enzyme inhibitors. But once cooked, the delicate fats and nutrients like biotin in the yolk can be destroyed. One way around this is to poke a tiny hole in the yolk and suck out the contents into your mouth, leaving the yolk sac behind. Or, for a less primal way of eating them, you could poach them. Yum.
Fasting for Protein Digestion
Think you need to consume protein all day long? Think again. Studies performed at Cornell University showed that when a person fasts for 24 hours, the body doesn’t lose any protein, only fat. Bodybuilders who fast one day a week actually gain more muscle mass faster because the body is cleaner and more efficient. (12)
(Read This Next: How Much Protein Do You Need?)