If you don’t eat meat and you’re trying to lose weight, you might worry whether you’re getting enough protein to keep your muscles strong and aid recovery. Not to worry: “All plants contain protein in their whole form,” says Whitney English, M.S., R.D.N., and Los Angeles-based certified personal trainer.
Plant-based proteins have some advantages over animal sources. They provide more fiber and less saturated fat, and they’re also less calorically dense. So even if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, you may want to include them in your meal plan, as a plant-based diet may even help you lose weight.
“My favorite sources of plant-based protein are those that come straight from nature,” says English. “When you consume food in its ‘natural packaging,’ you get a variety of nutrients.” You also cut out extra salt, fat and sugar, which can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. Here are some plant-based proteins to include in your diet when you’re trying to lose weight:
1. PULSES (AKA, LEGUMES)
Affordable and low in calories, beans and legumes contain about 100–125 calories per 1/2 cup, plus about 8 grams each of protein and fiber. “Eating pulses can help with weight loss,” says Amy Gorin, RDN. owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area.
If you’re concerned about bloating, start with lentils, split peas and canned beans, which seem to be easier to digest. Then keep eating them, says Gorin. One study found that gassiness mostly went away after a few weeks of eating beans daily. Rinse canned beans to remove gas-causing starches (this also reduces sodium), and soak dried beans to help digestibility. “You can also add digestion-helping spices, such as ginger, turmeric and fennel, to your recipes,” says Gorin.
READ MORE > EAT BEANS FOR BETTER BELLY HEALTH
2. TOFU AND TEMPEH
Avoid processed soy, and choose whole soy products like tofu and tempeh, which contain a lot of protein per calorie, says English. “They are also a great source of other nutrients like calcium – important for those following a vegan diet,” she says. Tofu contains about 100 calories, a gram of fiber and 11 grams of protein per 1/2 cup, and tempeh contains 160 calories per 1/2 cup, plus 16 grams of protein and about 5 grams of fiber.
Gorin also likes edamame (young soybeans), which have 17 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber in a 1/2 cup. Eat them steamed and lightly salted (a perfect movie snack) or in a smoothie.
3. WHOLE GRAINS
“Grains are also an overlooked source of protein,” says English. Quinoa is tops — 1 cup cooked offers 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber for about 220 calories. But don’t stop there: “All whole grains contain a good amount of protein,” says English. Even a slice of whole-wheat bread boasts 4 grams. Oatmeal contains 6 grams of protein per ½ cup, plus 4 grams of fiber, for 150 calories.
READ MORE > VEGETARIAN QUINOA CHILI
4. NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds are calorically dense but they’re also packed with nutrition — so don’t rule them out, even if you’re counting calories. Eating a variety of nuts and seeds in moderation may actually help with weight loss and aid satiety, says English. Bonus: “The monounsaturated fat in nuts has been shown to support heart health and reduce inflammation,” she adds.
To keep servings in check, Gorin reaches for pistachios, which take effort to shell and eat and offer more nuts per ounce. (Peanuts in the shell are another snack that takes time to eat.) You can also mix nuts with lower-calorie foods or chop and sprinkle them over your food, says McKercher.
Seeds like chia, flax and hemp offer heart-healthy omega-3s as well as protein (hemp, for example, provides 170 calories, 3 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons). English eats all three daily in her Super Seed Oatmeal.
5. NUTRITIONAL YEAST
Stephanie McKercher, M.S., RDN, uses nutritional yeast as a common cheese substitute in vegan dishes. In 2 tablespoons, you’ll get 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber (for 60 calories and 1 gram of fat), and some varieties are fortified with B vitamins, which plants do not provide. Sprinkle “nootch” on steamed veggies, pasta (in place of Parmesan) or baked potatoes.
Since most plant-based eaters consume a lot of vegetables, it’s good to know they offer plenty of protein. They’re also low in calories and packed with phytochemicals, so they’re great for weight loss and overall health. “Peas, broccoli, Swiss chard and spinach are a few superstars,” says English, adding you get about 2 grams of protein per ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables — so your salad or smoothie might increase your daily intake more than you realize.