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Do you need to eat meat to get protein?

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Do you need to eat meat to get protein into your diet? Protein is an essential building block that helps our body to grow and function. Most of us already know that eating meat and poultry is an easy way to get more of it into our diet

Here, we’ll be giving you the lowdown on why protein is so important, what other sources of protein are available to boost a healthy, balanced diet, such as dairy products and vegetables. We’ll also give you helpful tips on how to get more protein into your meals and snacks on a day-to-day basis.

Plus, our guide to the best protein powder can help if you’re looking for a quick and convenient source of extra protein for building muscle and managing your weight. Why not enjoy it on-the-go in the best protein shaker?

Why protein is important in a balanced diet

Proteins, often called the body’s building blocks, are crucial to a healthy and balanced diet. Getting enough protein helps your body to:

  • Grow and repair muscles and tissues.
  • Provide energy.
  • Create enzymes to assist essential bodily functions, such as digestion and blood clotting. 
  • Help fight infections by helping to produce antibodies.

The dietary intake recommendation for protein is around 50g per day (opens in new tab), based on a daily calorie consumption of 2,000 calories. People who are more active, and people who want to build muscle, may wish to increase their protein intake further than this.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (opens in new tab) says that people who are performing high-intensity exercise or resistance training should consume up to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day. This higher protein intake builds and maintains muscle during physical exercise, and also helps the body to recover after intense activity.

Do you need to eat meat to get protein in your diet?

In short, no, you don’t need to eat meat to get enough protein into your diet. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (opens in new tab), it’s better to vary your protein sources where you can. So even if you do already eat meat, you should try and get more protein from other sources in a varied and balanced diet.

As well as meat and poultry, there are lots of high protein foods, such as:

  • Soy products, such as tofu and tempeh
  • Beans, lentils, and peas
  • Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurts
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Seafood, such as fish and shellfish
  • Whole grains and vegetables

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, most Americans get enough protein in their diet to meet their needs. However, often these sources are highly processed and high in sugar, salt and saturated fats - examples including burgers or tacos.

Varying your diet to include more whole food sources of protein can help to meet your needs, as well as raising dietary fiber and lowering cholesterol. This will help to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and support weight loss too.

Tips for integrating protein into your diet without meat

Plant-based diets are becoming more popular as people move to a meat-free diet. As the Harvard School for Public Health (opens in new tab) highlights, evidence points to these protein sources as being a much healthier alternative to meat and poultry, which can often be processed or rich in saturated fats.

Dairy

Dairy foods are a rich source of protein for people who don’t eat meat but who aren’t vegan. They’re also a major source of calcium, which is crucial for building healthy, strong bones. A smoothie made with milk or yogurt can be a great breakfast or a post-exercise recovery drink. You can even add a spoonful of protein powder to increase your protein intake further. Check out these easy protein powder recipes for more inspiration.

However, it's worth noting that not everyone can tolerate dairy. Some people may find benefits from a dairy free diet, and prefer to opt for fortified plant-based options.

Meat swaps

Meat substitutes, or ‘fake meats,’ such as seitan, can also be a popular protein source for vegans and vegetarians. One 85g serving of seitan provides as much as 21g (opens in new tab) of protein. You can pan-fry, grill, or sauté seitan, making it a convenient alternative to beef and chicken.

Tofu is a well-known meat alternative and plant-based source of protein. It’s often used in curries as a meat substitute but can also be eaten raw. Marinating the tofu in advance will help it to soak up more flavor if you’re using it as the main ingredient in a dish. 100g of tofu contains around 19g (opens in new tab) of protein.

Here are some extra tips for getting more protein into your diet without eating meat:

  • Make eggs your go-to snack or include them as part of a main meal. One large, boiled egg contains over 6g of protein, while a 220g portion of scrambled eggs contains 22g of protein.
  • Nuts and seeds make a great post-workout recovery snack, or a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Adding a handful of seeds or nuts to your lunchtime salad bowl is a quick and effortless way to boost your protein intake. Almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and pistachios are all high in protein, which can leave you feeling fuller for longer. For seeds, choose pumpkin, hemp, sunflower and flax. You can pack around 8g of protein into a handful, especially if you choose seeds sourced from squashes.
  • Lentils are high in protein and can be used in a variety of ways in your cooking. Add them to soups, stews, grain dishes or curries to boost fiber and protein, or fry them up in lentil patties. One cup of red lentils can have as much as 46g of protein. You can even buy lentil cakes, like rice cakes, but packed with protein.
  • Swapping your usual butter or margarine spread for peanut butter can give you a protein boost with zero effort. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contain around 7g of protein.
  • The best protein bars can also be a convenient way to increase protein intake without eating meat. Protein bars contain powder derived from eggs, milk, plants or a combination of sources. However, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, so it’s important to read the label and know what ingredients are included. 

Joanne Lewsley is a UK-based freelance writer and editor, covering health and lifestyle news and features. She mainly creates evidence-based health and parenting content and has worked with a number of global sites, including BabyCentre UK, Medical News Today, Fit & Well, Top Ten Reviews, and Yahoo!