There’s no question that a healthy eating plan should include plenty of protein. The trick is to focus on real foods — that means foods from plants.
Animal meats like steak and poultry are common sources of protein. Because meat can be high in saturated fats and sodium, it’s not always the healthiest source of protein.
"What we find is that animal proteins are typically more likely to be associated with poor health outcomes than plant-based proteins," says Columbus Batiste, MD, an interventional cardiologist and Regional Chief of Cardiology at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California.
The good news is that plenty of whole, plant-based proteins don’t have these health risks. They also include nutrients like fiber and antioxidants. Here are 3 tips to consider if you’re thinking about adding more plant-based protein to your diet.
Find out where you’re already getting protein
Before making any major changes to your diet, break down the nutritional value of your favorite meals. You may be surprised by how much protein you’re already getting from things like beans, vegetables, and even some fruits.
"The fiber-rich foods that are good for your heart and vascular system are also great sources of protein," Dr. Batiste says of protein-rich foods. "Whether you’re talking about legumes, beans, seeds, grains, things like quinoa, brown rice, and amaranth — those foods are all rich in robust protein. You even have a fair amount of protein in your broccoli, kale, and cruciferous vegetables."
Common plant-based protein sources include:
- High protein (7 to 20 grams of protein per serving): Almonds, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, peanuts, peanut butter, soybeans, split peas, tempeh, and tofu.
- Medium protein (2 to 6 grams of protein per serving): Artichokes, broccoli, brown rice, cauliflower, chard, coconut, dried figs, oatmeal, peas, spinach, sweet corn, sweet potato, and yams.
- Low protein (1 to 2 grams of protein per serving): Cantaloupe, mango, mushrooms, oranges, and potatoes.
"The key is finding enough plant-based proteins on your plate at every meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner," says Dr. Batiste. "If you choose to eat animal-rich proteins, they need to be small amounts."
Not sure whether you’re getting enough protein? A tool like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online nutrition calculator can help you find out how much you might need.
Focus on protein "packages"
If you do need more protein in your diet, or if you’re looking for healthier protein choices, think about the whole picture, not just a number.
"We focus too much on carbohydrates, proteins, or fat, and that’s the wrong approach," Dr. Batiste says. "We need to focus on food, and say, ‘Is it healthful or not in general?’" In other words, where you get your protein is just as important as how much.
Red and processed meats like sirloin steak and chicken thighs are high in protein. They’re also high in saturated fat and sodium. Plant-based protein sources like beans and lentils have almost no saturated fat or sodium. They’re also rich in heart-healthy fiber. This is what the Harvard School of Public Health calls a better protein "package."
Always check the food labels on your nuts, beans, and other items. Prepackaged, ready-to-serve items are often high in sodium and sugar. So make sure the ones you choose are low in ingredients like sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar.
Try the bowl method
An easy way to start getting your plant-based protein at home is with the bowl method. It’s a quick, customizable approach to meals that Dr. Batiste uses at least once a day.
"I typically start off with choosing a whole grain like brown rice, some kind of legume, black beans, tofu, or tempeh," he says, adding that things like rice noodles or potatoes work too. "I’ll add in my vegetables as well, and then some type of sauce or flavoring on top of it."
Plus, it’s easy to keep the bowl method healthy. You can buy canned beans and rinse them off for a salt-free base, or frozen vegetables for easy prep. Sometimes Dr. Batiste will even use frozen rice if he doesn’t feel like cooking. "We’ve made food challenging," he says. But it doesn’t have to be.
Looking for more inspiration? Try one of these easy meat-free recipes:
- Spicy peanut veggie and grain bowl
- Shakshuka with chickpeas and lemon
- Roasted vegetables and heirloom tomato pasta
Balance is the key to a healthy diet. Make sure you’re combining your protein with other major nutrients like healthy fats and complex carbs. And before making any major changes to your diet, be sure to check in with your personal doctor.