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.