The key advantage of a vegetarian diet is that you’re getting enough protein and without the negative side effects

By Catherine Orda | Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel /Unsplash

In the ‘90s, the American Dietetic Association—the USA’s premier group of food and nutrition professionals—issued a definitive summary of existing scientific literature on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Here are the three key takeaways from that review, as presented in the book Eating Animals:

  1. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
  2. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium, and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.
  3. Vegetarians and vegans, including those who are athletes, “meet and exceed requirements” for protein, the paper notes elsewhere.

We’ve previously presented statements backed by similar pieces of scientific evidence, concluding in one of our articles that a vegetarian or vegan diet will give you more protein than an omnivorous diet. There are in fact vegan and vegetarian foods that have as much protein content as meat.

We have fears about not getting enough protein so much so that we tend to stock up on what is typically considered to be protein-dense foods like meat, failing to realize that protein is just as much about quality as it is about quantity.

But before we give you a list of those foods, let’s get one thing clear first: Assuming that your lifestyle doesn’t require it (i.e., you’re not a professional triathlete, Olympian, bodybuilder, etc.), you probably don’t need as much protein as most people think.

We have fears about not getting enough protein so much so that we tend to stock up on what is typically considered to be protein-dense foods like meat, failing to realize that protein is just as much about quality as it is about quantity. Sure, you might be getting “enough protein” from meat—but is it good protein?

Commercial meats, in addition to being linked with diseases like diabetes and cancer, are usually raised in horrid conditions: They’re fed unnatural diets, beaten up, and are injected with antibiotics and chemical additives. The price we pay for sufficient protein is our health.

The key advantage of a vegetarian diet then, at least in this context, is that you’re getting enough protein and without the negative side effects. Here’s a list of protein-dense plant-based foods that are a lot healthier than meat:

Black Beans

A cup of black beans contains 15 grams of protein, which is slightly more than the 13-gram protein content of a medium-sized chicken drumstick. It’s not a very impressive gap, but consider this: Black beans, unlike chicken, are rich in fiber and are low in fat and have no cholesterol.

Spirulina

This one-celled, nutrient-dense algae has been touted as a superfood among the health-conscious. Commercially, spirulina comes in the form of dark green powder. It’s usually added to protein shakes, juices, smoothie bowls, and the like. It’s high in zinc, potassium, calcium, and has eight essential amino acids. As for its protein content, this superfood is 65 to 71 percent complete protein compared to beef, which is only 22 percent. 

Tempeh

Tempeh, which is a lot like tofu, is a fermented soybean product and is usually eaten as a substitute for bacon. A cup of tempeh has about 33 grams of protein, while a slice of bacon only has about three grams.

Spinach

Not only is it rich in protein, folic acid, iron, and vitamin C, spinach is also very low in calories. A cup of spinach has about five grams of protein and only 30 calories. Looking at it in terms of calories, you’ll also find that spinach does in fact have more protein than meat: 100 calories of ground beef has about 10 grams of protein, while 100 calories of spinach has 12 grams of protein. This seems like good news, but eating 100 calories of spinach (that’s almost an entire pound of spinach) for 12 grams of protein may not be worth it. Consider, though, the amount of fat that comes with 100 calories of ground beef.

Quinoa

This versatile, gluten-free grain is well-known for its high protein content. A cup of cooked quinoa has more than eight grams of protein. It’s often marketed as one of the few vegetarian sources of complete protein (meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids), and though this is for a good reason (quinoa is a complete protein food and is a great source of amino acids), every plant-based protein source is, in fact, complete. Just as much as meat-based protein sources.

Lentils

A cup of lentils has about 18 grams of protein—that’s slightly more than the 17-gram protein content of a double-patty burger. Like black beans, lentils contain little to no fat, are high in fiber, and can help reduce blood cholesterol.

Seitan

Seitan is a wheat-based meat substitute that has a very similar texture (and even taste) to chicken and portobello mushrooms. A three-ounce serving of seitan has about 20 grams of protein, and while this amount doesn’t exactly exceed those of similar servings of meat (a three-ounce sirloin steak has about 26 grams and a three-ounce serving of lean ground beef has 21 grams), it comes pretty close, and has little to no fat content. The fat it does have (about 1.5 grams in a three-ounce portion) is heart healthy and not saturated unlike that found in meat.