Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
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March 13, 2019
There are so many opinions out there about protein—how much you should be eating, when you should be eating it—and everyone (yes, I mean everyone) has an opinion about non-meat-eaters getting their protein. Without a doubt the most common response to someone saying they don't eat meat is "Where/how do you get your protein?"
I've spent the last 11 years of my life as a vegetarian—trying every different level, from vegan to ovo-vegetarian, to pescatarian. At each level, I've had to think about where I'm getting my protein and even though I love vegetables, I cannot hit the protein numbers I need to recover from my workouts and function at my best by eating only vegetables (for reference, 1 cup of veggies usually has 2 to 5 grams of protein). And while there are plenty of conflicting protein opinions out there, my viewpoint is simple: if you have a protein goal, you should have healthy options to help you hit it, regardless of what that number is.
At present, I aim for 60 to 80 grams of protein a day. It may sound high, but this number was set for me by a naturopathic doctor, chosen specifically for my body and workout regimen (which is important because, according to Will Cole, D.C., the amount of protein someone should get in a day depends on many factors such as their body size, weight, and how much activity they do). Of course it's easier to hit 60 grams than 80, but I make it work and adjust as needed, mostly depending on how hungry I am and the intensity of my workout.
So if you're looking to increase your protein intake, or just looking for plant-based protein inspo, here are some tricks that have made hitting my numbers easy (without, of course, eating meat).
1. I always start my day with a protein-filled meal.
Until I had a protein goal, breakfast was a pretty low-protein meal for me. I used to eat oatmeal with fruit (virtually no protein) or some on-the-go bar (very little protein), but I soon realized that breakfast is one of the easier meals to pack protein into, regardless of your dietary preferences.
If you're a vegan, and not soy-sensitive, an organic tofu scramble with veggies is a solid option. If you are soy-sensitive, pea protein smoothies are the perfect go-to. As a currently ovo-vegetarian, I love making scrambled eggs and adding extra egg whites to up the protein count (two eggs alone have only 12 grams of protein, but each egg white adds ~3.6 grams). If you're a pescatarian, you can add some smoked salmon to your eggs for another 11 grams. Regardless of my dietary preferences, I always fill out my plate with sauteed vegetables, like mushrooms, spinach, onion, and sweet potato—these add negligible protein, but they're nutrient-dense and oh so delicious.
2. I have a protein powder that I love...and I mean really love.
My best advice to anyone looking to increase their protein is to find a protein powder that you love, now. Protein powder is one of the easiest ways to add more protein to your diet—what's not easy is finding one that you love the taste of, especially one with clean ingredients. After years of sampling, I've found my go-to's: specifically PEScience Vegan Select or the chocolate ALOHA protein, which are both plant-based. A shake or smoothie in the morning or post-workout will typically deliver anywhere from 20 to 30 grams of protein, which is crucial for muscle repair and recovery and, for me, knocks out a large chunk of my goal. I always have at least one protein shake a day, and sometimes I end up having two (they make a great afternoon slump snack). I usually mix protein powder with almond milk post-workout, and add spinach, banana, and chia seeds if I want something more substantial.
3. I pair lower protein sources with higher protein sources, because it really does add up.
Something I had to come to terms with when I started increasing my protein was that not every food out there is high in protein. Obvious, I know, but in the beginning I only ate foods that had the most grams per bite: protein powder, eggs, lentils, yogurt, anything that had 10 to 20 grams. As you can imagine, that strategy lost its sparkle fast, and I was eating large quantities of the same foods (which was as frustrating as it was boring).
So instead, I began adding smaller sources of protein like chia seeds (4 grams per tablespoon), hemp hearts (3 grams per tablespoon), almond butter (4 grams per tablespoon), and pumpkin seeds (10 grams per ¼ cup) to my meals. Of course, I thought that 4 grams wouldn't make much of a difference, but if I add some chia seeds to my smoothie, a tablespoon of hemp hearts to a salad, and snack on some pumpkin seeds, I've now consumed 17 grams of plant-based protein without trying—and that definitely makes a difference.
4. I eat more than one protein source at each meal.
Not to be too dramatic, but this tip has been life-changing for me (too dramatic?). With the protein goals I have, eating one protein source per meal just isn't enough sometimes. Who wants to eat 3 cups of black beans? Count my sensitive stomach out.
So instead of trying to throw back endless amounts of the same plant-based protein source, I try to mix and match. Chickpea pasta and chickpea rice are staples of mine, and they go with anything—I'll make chickpea pasta with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and a veggie burger or make a tofu vegetable stir fry with chickpea rice. I also love a good lentil Bolognese, or using bean-based spaghetti to make spicy peanut noodles (to which you can add hemp seeds or edamame for more protein, if you'd like). In our increasingly plant-based world, there are endless ways to combine various protein sources, and adding more than one to each meal ensures that I'm full and satisfied, both with the meal and with my protein count.
5. I make protein-filled treats that are sweet enough to curb my cravings.
I don't eat much dairy (and when I do, I try to save it for goat or sheep milk cheese), but I do love yogurt every now and again. If you're not sensitive to dairy, Icelandic yogurt is a protein-filled option, but if you're slightly dairy sensitive, try goat or sheep yogurt; I was skeptical, but it's actually tasty and easy on my stomach. I haven't found a clean, protein-filled vegan yogurt yet (sorry, coconut and cashew), but here's hoping.
At night when I want something sweet, I'll mix yogurt with some protein powder to make a sort of protein pudding, and I've had some success making vegan chickpea cookie dough from Pinterest. If neither sounds good, I'll search the blogosphere for protein cookies or truffles and then add them to my meal-prep plan (because if there's room for anything on the meal plan, it's dessert).