In a world where you can buy a meatless burger at the drive-thru, it’s easier than ever to get protein without eating meat. Products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat claim to taste like a real burger, and grocery stores carry delectables like faux chicken nuggets and meatless meatballs.

Sam Spain is a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville.
Sam Spain is a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville.

Whether you’re a vegetarian, someone who wants to eat less animal protein or just wants to get their meat “fix” in healthier form, registered dietitian Sam Spain explained how these products stack up to traditional sources of meat, like beef and chicken.

Some meatless alternatives are "much lower" in saturated fat, Spain said, which can help decrease the risk of cancer, a cardiac event or heart disease.

Spain, who works at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville, offered advice on some of the healthiest options.

Veggie burgers

Spain said to stick to brands that use fewer ingredients, such as MorningStar or Amy’s, and watch out for sodium.

“Those MorningStar burgers don’t quite look like a burger, so therefore contain less ingredients and are often lower in calories, as well, compared to something like the Impossible Burger,” Spain said.

Most veggie burgers have 10 to 15 grams of protein, compared to a serving of chicken which contains 20 to 25 grams. Not only does protein reduce appetite and hunger levels, it provides the amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle.

Soy products

Tofu, tempeh and seitan (pronounced say-tan) are also rich in protein. Tofu is made from soybeans and contains about 6 to 8 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving.

Tempeh is fermented tofu, which Spain said more closely resembles the texture of meat. Tempeh has double the protein as compared to tofu.

Seitan – hydrated wheat gluten – is similar to the look and texture of meat when it’s cooked.

“The wheat flour is washed to eliminate the starch component, so it’s actually very low in carbohydrates,” Spain said. Seitan is comparable to animal protein, with 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving.

Just like meat, all three products can be marinated to build flavor.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds are rich in protein, fiber and healthy fatty acids such as omega-3s. By weight, hemp seeds provide a similar amount of protein to beef. Spain said to think of them as a topping.

“They’re often in smoothies, that’s a very common way, but it can even be added into something like granola, sprinkled on to yogurt or something like that. I’ve seen it tossed in a salad,” Spain said.

A few tablespoons of hemp seeds contain more than 10 grams of protein.

While many meatless alternatives are healthy, others are highly processed. Spain said the meatless burgers that claim to taste like an actual burger are the worst offenders – in some cases, containing more saturated fat and sodium than a hamburger. However, products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger usually contain more protein than other veggie burgers. They are comparable to a serving of chicken.

The good news: meatless alternatives have come a long way. They can be tasty and filling. Just remember to read the label.

Getting better and staying healthy

Learn more