April 22nd, 2010
01:15 PM ET

What are good non-meat sources of protein?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.


"What is the most effective way to get extra protein without meat, chicken or fish in my diet?”


Dawn,  I can tell you, it is a myth that you need to get all your protein from a meat source. And that rule of thought is something that a lot of people have, so I appreciate you reaching out to me to ask this question. There are many alternatives and ways you can incorporate extra protein in your diet.

First let me explain why it's so important for your health. A diet rich in lean protein is going help build muscle and bone mass that adults start to lose as we age. It is going to help prevent arthritis, and overall it is going to help you maintain healthy skin and organs.

Some of my favorite foods that are high in protein are nuts, soy products and even tofu. Yes, I know many people like to scrunch up their nose when they hear tofu but give it a try! Add it to some stir-fry; add a little sesame oil for some good flavoring. Also, check out the nutrition labels on some of your favorite low-fat dairy products. A cup of cottage cheese has 28 grams of protein; yogurt has 11 grams.

Another question that comes up quite a bit is whether protein shakes are also a good choice. I think they are potentially a good option when it comes to trying to improve your protein stores. However, you want to make sure to examine the ingredient label carefully. Let me give you a couple of quick tidbits when it comes to protein shakes. Look first at the type of protein in the shake. If the source of protein is an animal source (egg whites, whey, milk protein) or a soy protein, it can be considered "high quality" protein. And make sure the type of protein is the first ingredient listed and that it doesn't contain a laundry list of ingredients. The more ingredients, the less real protein it contains. A little rule of thumb to remember is that protein typically has about 4 calories per gram so if you're seeing a lot more than that in a particular shake, you're probably getting a lot of added stuff.

How much per day? Women over age 18 should consume about 46 grams of protein a day; 56 grams per day for men.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (253 Responses)
  1. Lincoln Brigham

    "How much per day? Women over age 18 should consume about 46 grams of protein a day; 56 grams per day for men."

    This is a massive over-simplification, typical of most mass-media nutritional advice. Many factors other than just sex determine protein requirements.

    Gupta neglects to mention eggs, which is one of the highest quality protein sources available.

    Soy protein is very controversial and not necessarily high-quality. Indeed, if the phytoestrogens in soy really do effect hormone levels like the soy marketing efforts try to protray then it's likely that men should avoid soy as if it were poisonous.

    April 22, 2010 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. threehorses

    Well, the article was about non-meat proteins. So neglecting to mention eating them alone isn't really neglect. He mentions them in respect to protein shakes, possibly for people who would be willing to have a shake but maybe not eat a recognizable meat.

    April 23, 2010 at 02:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Hally

    I LOVE being a vegetarian! I get my protein from beans and brown rice, whole grain breads and cereals, potatoes, and because I am not vegan, organic dairy products and eggs.

    As a vegetarian, I used to eat a lot of soy. I didn't want to believe concentrated soy was unhealthy, but now that I eat less, I do feel healthier!

    I have read concentrated soy (fake meat made from soy, tofu, soy milk or soy-yogurt, protein powders and bars made from soy, etc.) can adversely affect some people's health and fertility.

    I believe it is okay to eat concentrated soy sometimes, just not every day.

    A lot of people believe soy is healthiest when eaten as fermented forms in small amounts: miso soup and such.

    April 23, 2010 at 02:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. R

    Let's not forget that most people (read: meat-eaters) consume far more animal protein than necessary – and an excess can interfere with the proper absorption of calcium.
    As a vegetarian, I'm sick of hearing "But you need protein!" from people whose nutritional problems are far greater than any I may have.

    April 23, 2010 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Yummy

    I find it interesting that now soy is not that great for you. When just a couple of years ago, soy was so supposed to be wonderful. I really get sick of hearing medical information that is constantly changing. I don't know what is a dependable source anymore.

    April 23, 2010 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Raz

    It's called marketing. Bottom line, who is making the dollar at the end. We should look and listen to our ancestors in how they did it. Have you heard that the human lifespan has declined over the past years? why? Is it the type of food we eat or is it what is in the food we eat generally. Meat eaters, vegetarians, soy dieters whatever. Eat what you want moderatly. Excercise regularly. Stay away from grease and you will be fine. Your best doctor is your own body. The amount of vitamins and minerals in food we eat nowadays whether processed or not are not even equal to what is was 20 years ago? why? ask the source where the produce came from. When you have mass produce production, you will have a decline in quality becase of it's fast pace in money making.

    April 23, 2010 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jason Archer

    Lentils. Beans. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Brans (oat, wheat, rice, etc). Most of these are also good sources of calcium, fiber, and iron, and trace minerals.

    Best high quality meal: Kidney beans with rice bran – provides the entire complement of 20 amino acids. Or try brown rice with kidney beans instead.

    Vegans have no trouble with access to high-quality protein!

    April 23, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. D. Espresso

    Back to what Lincoln said; exactly, why does our expert here fail to mention eggs, the most perfect protein in existence? I'll venture one guess: because the yolks contain fat, and it's hip to urge a low-fat intake. Never mind that fat (of any kind, except trans fat crud) has never been proven to "clog arteries" etc. Fat fills a person up and is used for countless important physiological functions. So why exclude eggs, and then include, of all things, soy? One of the best foods you can eat are eggs, including the yolk.
    Also, Gupta states "lean protein," then proceeds to recommend nuts...nuts are very healthy, in fact, but the calories from nuts are mostly from fat...albeit beneficial fat. Why first say "lean protein"? Because it's PC to do so? Confusing to many readers I'd bet.

    April 23, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Lincoln Brigham

    Vegans have no trouble getting high-quality protein so long as they work twice as hard at meal planning as ominvores and flexitarians!

    April 23, 2010 at 17:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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  10. Katherine

    Quinoa – excellent source of protein – simple to cook and very tasty. I have heard of people who eat it as a hot breakfast cereal as well.

    April 27, 2010 at 01:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Steve M.

    To the people who criticized Dr. Gupta for failing to mention eggs as a protein source: Read the article again. He includes eggs as a "high quality protein."

    April 30, 2010 at 02:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Amanda

    I think this question needs a more thorough answer. I'm glad he mentioned nuts, but he should have mentioned that some are better than others when it comes to protein and good oils. Like walnuts and almonds, for example. Plus, why not mention beans? Beans are an EXCELLENT source of protein and their are so many varieties.

    May 4, 2010 at 10:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Carson Blue

    Very funny as always to read the comments on this page!

    Lincoln Brigham: I think you mean "affect", as in soy has an affect on hormones.

    Also the good Dr. does mention eggs, sadly he also mentions egg whites. I wish that the scientific community would give the masses a bit more credit with being able to recognize that whole eggs are better than just egg whites. The yolk contains at least half the protein of the egg, as well as the omega fatty acids, and all nutrients.

    May 4, 2010 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. @leahondemand

    I agree with Lincoln; being Vegan, my meals take extra time because of all the planning involved.

    I find that throwing little baggies of raw nuts in my car, purse, desk, etc. are a great way to get in my protein! Almonds also provide great health benefits for your heart. Just be careful with your intake; although healthy, they still contain fat.

    May 7, 2010 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Kathy L.

    Good article. I've been vegan for 10 years now and the variety of all my nonanimal meats & fish are very satisfying indeed. It took a while to find out what & where all "the good stuff" was but once I did, I was well on my way. Morning star makes great bacon substitutes and recently Whole Foods began carying Daiya vegan cheese.

    May 7, 2010 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Tyler Moore

    If you lift weights or are trying to build muscle, you need way more than 56 grams of protein a day for a man...more like 1 gram per pound of body weight.

    May 10, 2010 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Joanna

    Lincoln Brigham: If men were to avoid Soy at all cost... Men in Japan would all be dead considering their diet consist of mostly soy.

    Silken Tofu is good plain with soy sauce, hot chinese mustard, and green onion topping it. Eating it with hot rice is one of my favorites.

    May 19, 2010 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Oleg

    The problem (for most people in developed countries) is not getting enough protein, it's controlling carbs and total calories in their diet. If you are pregnant and must control blood sugars or have insulin resistance and don't want to become obese and/or diabetic, it's a tall order to accomplish that on a vegan diet. Most vegan sources of protein are also high in carbs. The situation is very different if you include at least dairy products and if you also eat eggs and fish you can certainly eat very healthy overall while managing your carbs.

    July 14, 2010 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Mary

    Soy in its whole form is safe as shown by the 25 year study of the Okinawans who are the longest living people on the planet..... but this is whole soy, not the processed soy eaten by Americans... Whole Soy is: edamame, miso, tofu, and fermented soy

    October 29, 2010 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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