Athletes know the importance of protein -- it provides our bodies with the building blocks (amino acids) it needs to build and repair all the tissues (including hair, skin, nails, and muscles) that make us, us. Typically, we think that to get in enough daily protein that we need to shovel down pounds and pounds of chicken, steak, and turkey. But that's not necessarily true. While meat certainly is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and an incredible source of muscle-building protein, it's not the only way to get protein. Besides, it can be tiring for some individuals always to have to eat meat to get protein, both from a physical and mental standpoint. And, furthermore, some people are interested in lowering their meat intake. So, how can you get in enough daily protein without having to fire up the grill and cook a bunch of steaks or chicken breast? You’re about to find out as we present 10 of our favorite non-meat protein sources. Let’s get started!
Top 10 Protein-Packed Foods That Aren’t Meat
Wild SalmonIf we had to pick a top-tier protein source that wasn't meat, it would unquestioningly be wild salmon. This fish is a nutritional powerhouse, as it's high in protein, micronutrients, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). The average 3-4 ounce piece of wild salmon contains ~2.6 grams of omega-3s. Why are omega-3s important? Well, for starters, they are an essential fatty acid, meaning our bodies cannot produce them and must obtain them through the diet. Beyond that, omega-3s have been noted in research to help <1,2,3>:
- Reduce Inflammation
- Decrease Blood Pressure
- Lower the Risk of Various Cancers
- Improve Cardiovascular Function
ShrimpShrimp is one of the leanest, meanest protein sources on the planet. These shellfish contain a paltry 84 calories per 3-ounce (85 gram) serving, with 90% of those calories coming from protein! Moreover, shrimp contain over 20 different vitamins and minerals, including 50% of your daily requirement for selenium. Shrimp are also rich in iodine, a mineral that plays a significant role in thyroid function and your overall metabolic health. <5,6> And, as we also mentioned with salmon, shrimp also contain omega-3 fatty acids as well as astaxanthin, which offer a variety of health benefits. Shrimp do contain a fair amount of cholesterol, but recent studies note that dietary cholesterol may not impact blood cholesterol levels as much as previously thought. And, a recent study found that people who consume shrimp regularly do not have a higher risk of heart disease compared to those who do not. <7>
EggsEggs might be the most super of all the “superfoods” on the planet. They’re loaded with micronutrients, and the protein in eggs is among the most bioavailable proteins on the planet, matched only by whey protein. <8> What that means is that our bodies use the protein in eggs very efficiently -- very little of it is wasted. Eggs also contain two potent antioxidants in lutein and zeaxanthin, which play an essential role in the eye where they here they protect against harmful UV rays. They also help decrease the risk of eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration. <9> Now, a lot of people are wary of eggs, due to their high cholesterol count (the average egg contains 212 mg of cholesterol). Because of this, eggs have been unfairly demonized in the media as "unhealthy" or a causative factor of heart disease. However, numerous studies have found that dietary cholesterol in eggs does NOT adversely affect blood cholesterol levels. Eggs have been shown to raise "good" HDL cholesterol and alter "bad" LDL cholesterol from small and dense to large, which is not harmful. <10> Finally, a meta-analysis of 17 studies found no connection between eggs and either heart disease or stroke in healthy individuals. <11> Scrambled, baked, broiled, poached, over easy, or hard-boiled. We'll take them all!
Greek YogurtAs great and as versatile as eggs are, sometimes you’d like a change of pace for breakfast. We’ve been there, too. When you’re not in the mood for eggs, Greek yogurt represents a creamy and delicious way to get your day started with a heaping helping of protein. Your average cup of Greek yogurt contains about 18 grams of protein. Greek yogurt also supplies high amounts of calcium (important for bone health <14>) and probiotics -- beneficial bacteria that support gut health and function. <15> Greek yogurt makes a delicious base for a parfait with some fresh fruit, granola, and a drizzle of honey, but it can also be used as a high-protein base for salad dressings, dips, and sandwich spreads instead of mayonnaise. Now, when purchasing your Greek yogurt, you need to keep an eye out as not all Greek yogurts are the same. There are a lot of junk ones on the market that is loaded with sugar. Check the ingredients label and find one that is free of any added sugar, flavorings, or thickeners. You want the plain stuff.
Cottage CheeseThe bodybuilder's bedtime staple, cottage cheese has been a non-meat muscle building snack for decades. And, it's easy to understand why -- each cup packs in 26 grams of high-quality casein protein. Casein is a slow-digesting protein (that takes up to 7-8 hours to digest), which helps keep you feeling fuller for longer and provides a steady flow of amino acids to your muscles while you sleep at night. Similar to Greek yogurt, cottage cheese can be used as a base for salad dressings, dips, or sandwich spreads (after it’s pureed in a food processor, that is). It can even be used to make a high-protein mac and cheese recipe!
CheeseWho doesn’t love biting into a creamy, salty piece of well-aged cheddar or savoring the subtle funk of a good bleu cheese? Like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, regular cheese is a protein powerhouse, rich in a number of vitamins and minerals (especially calcium). Just one ounce of cheese contains between 8-10 grams of protein, and for those on a low-carb or ketogenic diet, cheese is an excellent snack as most varieties contain little to no carbohydrates. Aside from its high calcium content, cheese is also high in fat-soluble Vitamin K-2. Vitamin K-2 is critical for bone and heart health as it prevents calcium from being deposited on the walls of your arteries and veins, leading to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). <12,13>
BeansBeans of all varieties are eaten around the world and provide an excellent replacement for meat when looking to get protein in the diet, as each cup of beans provides between 12-17 grams per cup (depending on which variety you eat). Beyond their high protein content, beans are also incredible sources of fiber, B vitamins, and several other essential micronutrients (including manganese, copper, and iron). <16> If you needed another handful of reasons to consider upping your bean intake, consider this: Several studies find that bean consumption significantly lowers blood sugar and insulin levels as well as improve cholesterol levels. <17,18,19> Beans are delicious on their own, mixed into rice or added to salads or scrambled egg tacos. They can also be pureed to make a delicious, low-calorie, high protein party dip.
Edamame (Soybeans)You might say that soybeans are the “king” of the beans, as unlike the other beans we just discussed, soybeans are a complete protein! Our preferred way to eat soybeans is in the form of edamame -- whole, immature soybeans that are green in color. Fully mature soybeans are generally light brown or tan. One cup of cooked edamame contains an impressive 18.5 grams of protein per cup. <20> The protein-packed powerhouses are also dense sources of micronutrients. A whole cup (155 grams) of edamame provides over half of the RDI for vitamin K and more than 100% for folate! Edamame is a perfect snack on their own, or a great appetizer before your primary course of sushi or sashimi. They can also provide a fun textural addition to soups and salads, too.
Pumpkin SeedsPumpkin seeds are delicious when toasted. They're great on their own or tossed on a salad. And, much like nuts, they are great on the go snack when you need a quick hit of muscle-building protein, but don't have time to stop, sit, and eat. One of our favorite ways to eat them is to combine them with sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and some dark chocolate chips for an energizing snack during early morning or late afternoon hikes. Here’s one other reason to love pumpkin seeds -- they’re a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle tissue. Pumpkin seeds contain 12 grams of protein per cup and eating 1/4 cup provides you with half of your daily magnesium needs. This is especially noteworthy as significant portions of the population are deficient in this essential mineral. <21>
Whey Protein PowderLast, but certainly not least, is whey protein powder. Used for decades by fitness enthusiasts looking to build muscle and improve their recovery, whey protein powder is the ultimate on-the-go, post-workout snack. Derived from cow’s milk, whey protein powder is fast-digesting, highly bioavailable (rivaling that of egg protein!), and rich in BCAAs (particularly leucine). <22> Whey protein has been shown in numerous studies to help increase strength, gain muscle, and lose body fat. One study noted that swapping other sources of calories with whey protein, combined with weight lifting, led to greater fat loss and muscle gain. <22,23> One of the great things about whey (aside from its high protein content) is its versatility. It mixes easily into the water for a simple shake, but it can also be used in smoothies, pancakes, protein bars, protein cookies, oatmeal, and yogurt! Of all the types of whey protein on the market (and trust us, there are a lot), our preferred one is SteelFit® Steel Whey™. Steel Whey™ is a 100% whey protein concentrate using only WPC-80 -- the highest grade concentrate available. Concentrates supply a high amount of protein, generous amounts of immune-boosting factions naturally occurring in milk, and a superior taste and texture compared to other types of whey protein. Steel Whey™ comes in three delicious-tasting flavors and provides the ultimate "don't have time, but need protein now" option! No cooking, no cleanup, add water and Steel Whey™ to a shaker and you have a quick, low-calorie muscle-building meal at the ready!
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