Meat is out, plants are in. At least that seems to be the consensus among people who want to eat food that’s healthier and more sustainable.
Research shows they’re onto something: Eating lots of red meat has long been associated with health problems, and data shows that most meats and even other animal products like dairy milk take a big toll on the environment.
“A lot of people are going vegetarian or vegan for sustainability. Research shows that makes a difference. But it’s important for people to know that not all vegan proteins are created equal,” says Erin Phillips, a registered dietitian at UW Neighborhood Clinics.
Whether you want to go full-on vegan or just reduce your meat intake a little, here’s how to pick the healthiest plant proteins that work for your diet.
First, get enough calories
In this age of Instagram influencers who act like they survive on diets of kale salads and green juice, it’s easy to assume that’s the epitome of health. Not true, says Phillips.
“If we aren’t meeting basic energy and calorie needs it doesn’t matter what we eat after that because our body will be in this state of starvation, which increases inflammation,” Phillips explains.
She recommends thinking about why you want to change your diet to incorporate more plant proteins. Is it because you want to be a little healthier? Be more environmentally friendly? Or because you think it will help you change your physical appearance?
Some ways to up your calorie intake if you’re eating mostly plants is to increase your intake of fats by eating things like avocados or adding some mayonnaise, dressing or oils to your sandwiches and salads.
You can also eat more healthy carbs like whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes.
And, perhaps mostly importantly, honor your feelings of hunger. If you’re hungry, eat, and listen to what kind of food your body is telling you it wants.
“Switching to a plant-based diet might mean you get hungry more often. Instead of feeling annoyed or worrying, respect your body by responding to hunger with the only thing that makes hunger go away: food,” Phillips says.
Try some legumes
One excellent source of plant protein that people often overlook are legumes, Phillips says.
Legumes include things like beans, chickpeas, edamame, lentils, peas and peanuts. (Yes, peanut butter counts.)
Aside from packing a serious protein punch, legumes also contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, plus fiber.
One thing to note if you start eating more legumes: Beans are definitely still, uh, the musical fruit.
Eating beans does indeed cause gas, and it’s something you’re likely to notice. Our bodies have enzymes to break down the gas that beans create, but, as Phillips says, those enzymes are “made to order” — meaning if you haven’t been eating a lot of beans then suddenly do, your body will need time to catch up.
“Starting slowly and ramping up is super important,” Phillips says, for your own comfort as well as the noses of those around you.
The truth about soy
Soy is an excellent source of protein, and it comes in many forms: Edamame, soybeans, tofu, tempeh and more.
You may have heard negative things about soy. Research shows that a compound in soy mimics estrogen, meaning soy can be an endocrine disruptor in some situations.
For most people, this isn’t a problem, and it may even be beneficial. Eating soy has been linked to lower risk for conditions like heart disease and breast cancer.
However, pregnant women or people wanting to feed their baby soy-based formula should talk with their doctor about it first, because soy could be potentially harmful in those situations.
Some people may notice that soy bothers their stomach; if this happens and you aren’t trying to go vegan, it’s fine to just avoid soy and seek plant protein elsewhere.
For vegans, Phillips says she would want them to see a doctor to try to figure out the root of the problem.
“It would be hard to be vegan and live without soy,” she explains.
Not all soy is created equal, however.
Some soy products, like edamame and tofu, aren’t processed at all or are minimally processed, which makes them easier to digest. Other products, like protein powders and bars, contain soy protein isolate, which is highly processed and may cause more gastrointestinal distress — and also isn’t as healthy.
Other non-meat protein sources
If you want to reduce or cut out meat but don’t mind eating other animal products, then dairy products like milk and cheese are a healthy source of protein, as are eggs.
Nuts, seeds and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and whole wheat bread are also great plant sources of protein.
In terms of environmental impact, plant proteins are pretty much always more sustainable than animal proteins. Eggs and dairy products still have a smaller environmental footprint than red meat and poultry, but actually have a larger footprint than fish.
How to know if you’re getting enough protein
You may be wondering how much protein you should eat in a day. National guidelines recommend 5.5 ounces per day for someone who follows a standard 2,000-calorie diet.
For vegans, Phillips recommends eating three or more servings of legumes each day; for people trying to be vegetarian, she recommends three servings of varied proteins — like tofu, dairy and eggs — each day. A serving is about the size of your hand.
Phillips doesn’t recommend actually counting how much protein you’re eating, but instead following an intuitive eating pattern.
“Our bodies are pretty good at telling us if we need more protein; we’ll be craving it. So we need to listen to that,” she says.
How to make the switch
Along with slowly incorporating more plant proteins into your diet, Phillips has other tips.
Don’t go cold turkey and cut out all meat entirely, especially if you’re someone who eats a lot of meat.
“If you eat meat every day and you try to stop altogether, it’s going to feel really stressful,” Phillips says.
If it feels stressful, you’re more likely to give up. Instead, be strategic with how often you eat plant proteins versus meat proteins. Try doing Meatless Monday, which is a popular eating pattern that, you guessed it, involves going meatless every Monday.
If you start small, like focusing on plant proteins one day a week, and then build up to two or three times a week, you’re more likely to establish long-term habits.
Another thing to keep in mind is how processed your plant proteins are. If you’re regularly eating things like veggie burgers and alternative meat options, that’s going to be less sustainable (and less healthy) than eating whole foods that have been minimally processed. Processing food takes energy and resources and often involves side ingredients like corn, Phillips says, which aren't grown in a sustainable way.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is try out different plant proteins and different ways of incorporating them into your diet and find out what works best for you.