Find out how to sneak extra protein into your meat-free diet without reaching for a supplement.
Lindsay Brown 1 / 11
You know that you need protein in order to build and repair muscle. But when you’re on a vegan diet you can’t lean on the old standbys like chicken, fish, and beef to satisfy your protein needs. Instead, you have to get a bit creative and look to plant-based foods like beans, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and soy products to get your protein fill throughout the day.
While it might seem easier to meet your protein needs by just downing a vegan-friendly smoothie packed with protein powder and call it done, “it’s important to spread out your protein intake throughout the day,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of Plant-Powered for Life. Studies have shown that those who space out their protein intake throughout the day yield higher protein synthesis than those who consume their entire intake in one sitting. What's more, vegans and vegetarians actually may need slightly more than the than meat eaters because digestibility of plant-based protein is slightly lower than animal protein.
With the help of Palmer and Ginny Kisch Messina, MPH, RD, we came up with ten easy and delicious plant-based hacks to increase your protein intake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and we threw in a couple snacks in for good measure.
“Try substituting quinoa for recipes that call for brown rice or other grains to boost your protein intake,” says Messina. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, contains all 9 essential amino acids (something that is usually only found in meat, fish, and poultry), and has almost twice the amount of fiber of brown rice. Something else to consider? Try adding a ½ cup of cooked quinoa to your already protein-loaded morning oats for a supercharged breakfast.
Both Messina and Palmer advise that you should snack on pistachios or roasted soy nuts throughout the day. A single one-ounce serving of pistachios contains 6 grams of protein and soy nuts have 10 grams of protein per serving.
Give your morning smoothie a boost by adding in a tablespoon or two of hemp seeds. When it comes to sneaking in big hits of protein and promoting a healthy heart, these little green seeds are the good stuff. Two tablespoons of hemp seeds deliver 5 grams of protein and are loaded with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids that are normally found in fish have been shown to lower triglycerides and reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease.
While healthy, your veggie stir fry is lacking in the protein department, so toss in some seitan (wheat gluten that is marinated in spices and other seasoning) to remedy it, says Messina. A ½ cup of this low-carb meat substitute will add 21 grams of protein to your dinner. Seitan is also high in iron and selenium, a trace mineral that has been shown to boost metabolism.
The name doesn’t sound appetizing, and the fact that it’s a flaky inactive yeast that looks like fish food doesn’t help the cause either, but trust us when we say that nutritional yeast is where it’s at. Its cheesy and nutty flavor—think parmesan cheese—is perfect for sprinkling on popcorn, baked potatoes, steamed veggies, pasta dishes, and whatever else calls for grated cheese (everything?). A ¼ cup serving contains 6 grams of protein and is loaded with vitamin B12, a mineral vital for muscle growth and repair and typically only found in foods like eggs, dairy, meat, and fish.
This soy product resembles and is similar in texture to ground beef. A single serving of TVP has a whopping 12 grams of protein, zero fat, and 4 grams of fiber. Messina suggests adding TVP to a jar of tomato sauce and serving with vegan-friendly pasta for a plant-based version of spaghetti and meat sauce.
Amp up your tofu scramble burrito by adding ½ cup of pinto beans for an additional 8 grams of protein, suggest Palmer. Beans are an important part of any vegan diet as they are protein rich and packed with antioxidants. If you’re using pre-cooked canned beans be sure to rinse before you use to reduce sodium.
Go old school and add peanut butter to some celery sticks for a muscle-building snack. “Two tablespoons of peanut butter contains 8 grams of protein,” says Palmer. “And not only is it great for building muscle, it’s also heart healthy.” PB is rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, “good” fats that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Instead of using this chickpea puree solely as a dip, try it as a spread on your wraps or tortillas as a mayo substitute. Three tablespoons will add 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber to your lunch. To make hummus at home, throw one can of rinsed chickpeas into a blender along with salt, lemon juice, and a couple dashes of olive oil; blend until smooth.