Most guys looking to gain love a juicy piece of chicken breast, and with good reason. Your body needs protein to build and maintain lean muscle. Plus, the essential macronutrient helps keep you full, regulate your hormones, and build strong bones.
Loading up on foods like fish, chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, and milk is the most efficient way to get enough protein, and research suggests you ideally want to aim for 30 grams per meal. Meat and dairy often contain a much higher amount of protein per serving compared to plant-based protein, explains Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., a nutritionist and certified personal trainer, so you don’t normally need to eat as much to reach your daily needs.
However, making an effort to eat more plant-based protein offers some major health perks. “Plant protein is a great addition to your diet,” says Moskovitz. Plants are naturally lower in calories and often higher in other key vitamins and minerals such as fiber, potassium, and magnesium, she explains.
Your heart may reap the benefits, too, since plant protein typically contains more healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants, which “can help fight against life threatening diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and certain types of cancers,” says Moskovitz.
On the flip side, “many plant sources of protein such as beans, grains, and nuts are typically not complete on their own — meaning they do not contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs,” she says. In other words, you’ll just need to eat a variety of plant proteins to make sure you get all of the muscle-building amino acids found in your standard chicken breast or grill fare.
It’s possible to make room for both in your diet. If you’re a meat eater, bulk up your meals with some power plants by challenging yourself to make one vegan meal a day, suggests Moskovitz. (This vegan bodybuilder can serve you some inspiration.) Keep your other two meals balanced with animal sources, such as eggs, fish, or grilled chicken breast.
“Instead of having your usual turkey sandwich or salad with cheese and chicken at lunch, go for a quinoa bowl with veggies and beans, or have a plate of steamed rice and lentils with roasted vegetables.” To get the biggest protein bang for your bite, we asked Moskovitz to break down her top picks for plant-based protein.
1 | SOYBEANS
4 ounces tofu: 11 grams (g) protein
1 cup edamame: 18 g protein
Don’t worry, soy won’t give you man boobs. While soy does contain phytoestrogens (plant-based hormones that may decrease testosterone when eaten in excess), eating up to four serving a day shouldn’t do you any harm, according to Alan Aragon, M.S., Men’s Health nutrition advisor.
In fact, your diet may benefit from the addition of some non-processed soy, says Moskovitz. Think: edamame or tofu. “It’s a great source of complete protein, fiber, and iron,” she says. (We like this extra firm tofu from Nasoya.)
1 cup quinoa: 8 g protein
“Even though most of the calories from quinoa come from carbs, it’s one of the few complete plant protein sources, meaning it contains all essential amino acids,” says Moskoviz. It’s also super versatile. You can include it in an oatmeal-style breakfast bowl, a hearty lunch salad, or as a sub for rice in your stir fry. (Try this whole grain quinoa from Bob’s Red Mill.)
1 cup black beans: 15 g protein
Black beans are “not only high in protein, but also a great source of belly-filling fiber and other nutrients like fiber and iron,” says Moskovitz. If you’re sticking to a plant-based meal, pair them with whole grains, like brown rice, to ensure you get all of your essential amino acids.
1 cup chickpeas (garbanzo beans): 15 g protein
Chickpeas, like these from Eden Organic, make a filling meat substitute in salads or bowls and also contain lots of fiber (to keep you full), heart-healthy potassium, and magnesium to stabilize your energy levels.
1 cup lentils: 18 g protein
Like beans, lentils are also a solid, versatile source of protein. “They can be added to soups or salads or enjoyed on their own with a little bit of seasoning,” says Moskovitz.
3 Tbsp hemp seeds: 9 g protein
“These vegan-friendly seeds are a popular staple due to their high protein content among other nutrients, particularly energizing magnesium,” says Moskovitz. The best part? They require almost no effort to add into your diet. Slip them into your regular smoothie, toss on salad, or mix in with a serving of protein-packed Greek yogurt.
2 Tbsp chia seeds: 5 g protein
“For such a small food, chia seeds pack in so much nutrition,” says Moskovitz. They boast fiber, iron, magnesium, and calcium and “have been known to help regulate digestion, treating constipation instantly,” she adds. “Soak them in almond milk and enjoy in pudding form or sprinkle into smoothies, yogurts, or oatmeal.”