Children need protein to grow and adults need it to maintain and repair body tissue among many other health reasons. But what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of protein? For many, it’s probably meat, right? While you’re correct — meats like turkey breast, chicken and extra-lean sirloin are enriched with a ton of protein— meat doesn’t always fit into everyone’s diets.
Now, vegans and vegetarians don’t have to worry about getting their daily dose of protein, and meat-eaters can switch up their traditional protein-packed recipes. Registered dietitian Nicole Hopsecger, RD, LD, shares some of her favorite nontraditional sources of protein below and why they’re some of the healthiest sources of protein you can add to your diet.
Why is protein important?
First thing’s first. Why is protein essential for your health?
“A diet that’s high in protein can help lower blood pressure, decrease your risk of developing diabetes, help you lose weight and build muscle,” says Hopsecger.
Here are some other reasons why protein is important. Protein:
- Oxygenates red blood cells, helping to supply your body with nutrients.
- Regulates hormones.
- Aids in digestion.
- Speeds up exercise recovery and injury.
The best nontraditional sources of protein
1. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes — meaning all types of dried beans, split peas and lentils — are fair game for increasing your protein intake.
“Beans and legumes are fiber-rich nutrient powerhouses and an excellent source of protein,” says Hopsecger. “One serving (1/2 cup cooked) of beans provides about 7 grams of protein, the same as 1 ounce of meat.”
Beans and legumes also keep you fuller, longer because they are so rich in fiber. Animal sources of protein, in contrast, have no fiber at all. Beans and legumes are also much higher in antioxidants.
Research suggests that:
- One serving of beans per day helps lower “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
- Four servings (versus less than one) per week can reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Four servings a week can decrease the risk of recurrence for colon polyps that can turn cancerous.
Eating enough plant protein in general — including beans, peas, nuts, seeds, soy and 100% whole grains — helps protect against chronic degenerative diseases, notes Hopsecger.
“Plant proteins are loaded with nutrients and fiber, and are naturally low in cholesterol and sodium,” she says. “Plant-based diets promote weight loss and maintenance and are cost-effective when you’re eating on a budget. And many plant proteins are gluten-free.”
When relying only on plant-based proteins, she adds that some researchers recommend getting 0.9 grams, versus the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
2. Wild salmon
Wild salmon is the perfect source of lean protein and provides incredible benefits because of its anti-inflammatory fats.
Three ounces contain nearly 17 grams of protein and provide a key nutrient that your body can’t make on its own: omega-3 fat.
“Studies have proven that the high omega-3 fatty acid content in wild salmon helps to lower triglycerides and blood pressure, and decreases platelet aggregation (stickiness),” says Hopsecger.
That lowers the risk of plaque and blood clot formation in your arteries, which leads to heart attack and stroke.
“The omega-3 fats EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in wild salmon decrease the inflammation associated not only with heart disease but also with autoimmune diseases,” adds Hopsecger.
Omega-3 fats also benefit your brain and nervous system.
Aim for at least two servings of wild salmon per week. Try it in a salad, on its own or as a burger!
Eggs are a low-carb, low-calorie and low-cost source of protein. One egg provides 6 to 8 grams of protein with only 70 calories.
Extremely nutritious, eggs are a complete protein and have a rich supply of key vitamins and minerals.
“Eggs have battled a bad reputation over the years because of their cholesterol content (184 milligrams in one large egg),” says Hopsecger. “But we now know that the dietary cholesterol level in eggs has a minimal impact on serum cholesterol levels.”
Much of the egg’s nutrition, including vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and choline (which may contribute to mental clarity), is housed in the yolk.
Heart experts generally recommend limiting eggs to one per day or half a dozen per week.
4. Greek yogurt
If you eat dairy, don’t rely on cheese which is high in saturated fat for protein. Greek yogurt is a far more nutritious option.
“Six ounces contain 15 grams of protein — two to three times the amount you’d find in regular yogurt and more than the amount 2 ounces of meat or two eggs provide,” notes Hopsecger.
Greek yogurt also boasts probiotics, the healthy bacteria that support gut health. And it’s a good source of calcium and vitamin D.
She recommends fat-free plain Greek yogurt over the high-fat, high-sugar varieties in the store. Instead of high-sugar granola, add your own fresh or frozen fruit, slivered almonds or walnuts, and chia seeds or ground flaxseed.
For the greatest and most effective health gains, try adding some of the best sources of protein recommended above into your diet. Protein foods help you grow and develop, furnish you with energy and build and repair cells and tissues throughout your body. Check out our recipes for fun ways to implement these ingredients into your daily meals!