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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Top Non Meat Sources of Protein (Best of 6 Food Groups)

Nearly every type of meat is an excellent source of quality protein. Beef, poultry, fish, you name it. They all contain significant quantities of all essential amino acids in a highly digestible form.

But meat isn’t your only source of protein. Non meat sources of protein are quite extensive, and may surprise you with just how much protein they can provide.

In fact, the often-held view that vegetarians and vegans need to “carefully combine” foods in order to meet their protein needs is outdated and false.

It is true that many plants are often low in one or more amino acids. But as Dr. Katz of Yale and Dr. Gardner of Stanford retort in a New York Times Op-Ed,

“This would be of practical importance if someone ate only grains or beans throughout entire days. Such a diet would be inadvisable for many reasons beyond amino acid distribution. There is no more reason to stress the “complementary” choices required of vegan diets than to remind omnivores that they must carefully “combine” their meat with citrus fruit to avoid scurvy. A diet of wholesome foods in a balanced, sensible assembly is the only combining required in either case.”

Almost every diet naturally combines different foods that inevitably add up to meeting your full amino acid requirements.

And some fruits and vegetables contain surprisingly high concentrations of quality protein with a breadth of essential amino acids.

If you are a vegetarian, a vegan, or perhaps just looking to cut back on meat and you’re looking for some non meat sources of protein, we’ve got some lists for you.

But first, we’ll clear up some confusion you might have over this argument by understanding what is meant by protein quality.

What is Protein Quality?

The macronutrient labels like fat, protein, and carbohydrate, are categorical terms that embody a range of molecules.

For example, fats include fatty acids with different chain lengths and degrees of saturation (e.g., palmitic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid), and carbohydrates include subcategories like sugars, starches, and fibers.

Similarly, the term protein includes amino acids, nine of which are deemed essential meaning they can only be obtained from your diet.

Protein, like carbohydrates and fats, are important for a healthy, well-balanced diet..

The bioavailability of a nutrient – the body’s ability to access, digest, absorb, and use that nutrient – can be affected by other nutrients in foods that interact with them or the nature of what those nutrients may be chemically bound to in that particular food item.

Therefore, according to a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), protein quality is a term designed to incorporate both the breadth of available essential amino acids within a food item, as well as the body’s ability to digest and absorb those amino acids.

This takes into account limiting amino acids. All amino acids need to be present to work together during various metabolic functions. If one amino acid isn’t there, it can slow down the entire process of protein production.

Therefore, a limiting amino acid is the amino acid in the lowest concentration (i.e., it does the limiting).

This limiting amino acid, along with each amino acids digestibility score that is unique to food and processing method, are used in part to assess the protein quality of a food.

Non meat sources of protein tend to have lower digestibility scores than meat sources, but not low enough to cause protein malnutrition.

And while vegetarians and vegans tend to consume less protein than meat-eaters, they tend easily meat their needs entirely from non meat sources of protein.

With that in mind, here are the top non meat sources of protein for each of 6 food group categories.

High Protein Fruits

We certainly don’t tend to think of fruits when it comes to protein, but they are not all devoid of it.

Some fruits, in fact, even meet the USDA’s recommendation for protein on a calorie-per-calorie basis.

See our interactive charts below to see the protein in 75 fruits.

Protein in Fruit (Data on 75 Fruits)

Non-meat sources of protein - fruit.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

High Protein Beans

Beans are excellent non-meat sources of protein.

In fact, beans are some of the best non meat sources of protein due to their high concentrations of quality protein.

The following interactive charts show the protein content and amino acid profile of 23 beans.

Protein in Beans

Non-meat sources of protein - beans.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

High Protein Nuts

Many nuts are great non meat sources of protein. They also contain high quality fats and dense in many micronutrients, too.

Below you can find our interactive chars for ranking the protein content of 15 different kinds of nuts.

Protein in Nuts

Non-meat sources of protein - nuts.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

High Protein Cheeses

Cheeses, like other dairy products, are often great non meat sources of protein. Although off-limits for vegans, cheeses can be good sources of protein for vegetarians and omnivores alike.

Below you’ll find our interactive charts for ranking the protein content of 29 cheeses.

Protein in Cheeses

Non-meat sources of protein - cheese.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

High Protein Breads

Breads are made from grains that can have surprisingly high concentrations of protein. Although bread can get a bad rap in some circles, whole grain breads can be an excellent source of quality nutrition.

Below you’ll find our interactive charts for ranking the protein content of 20 breads.

Protein in Bread

Non-meat sources of protein - bread.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

High Protein Vegetables

Many vegetables are actually quite high in protein content, particularly when compared calorie-by-calorie. Combined with their typically dense array of micronutrients, fiber, and other beneficial phytochemicals, vegetarians and vegans should rest easy knowing these can be some of the best non meat sources of protein you can find.

Below you’ll find our interactive charts for ranking the protein content of 191 vegetables.

Protein in Vegetables

Non-meat sources of protein - vegetables.

Click here to use the interactive chart from above.

The Top Non Meat Sources of Protein: Conclusion

Yes, meat is a good source of protein.

But don’t let those carnivores fool you. You can certainly get plenty of protein in your diet from non meat sources.

While the protein concentration and protein quality (amino acid distribution, bioavailability, digestibility) also tend to be less in non meat sources, they won’t leave you in need.

And in fact, some non meat sources of protein are actually very protein dense. The top non meat source of protein from eat category reviewed is:

  • Fruit: Kiwano (Horned Melon)

  • Bean: Winged Bean

  • Nut: Almond

  • Cheese: Cottage Cheese

  • Bread: Whole Grain

  • Vegetable: Watercress

Looking for more info? Learn more facts about protein, or how to track your protein.

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