In a world where you can buy faux chicken nuggets at the grocery store or a plant-based burger in the drive-thru, it’s easier than ever to get protein without eating meat.

The Impossible Burger, meant to mimic a real burger, even carries the tag line: Made from plants for people who like meat. And just like a traditional hamburger or turkey patty, it can be cooked on the grill alongside your other summer favorites.

Chandler Nunes
Chandler Nunes

You don't have to be a vegan or vegetarian to eat less animal protein. In fact, some meatless alternatives are "much lower" in saturated fat, which can help decrease the risk of cancer, a heart attack or heart disease, said Chandler Nunes, a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions – Elizabeth in Charlotte.

Nunes shared some of the healthiest meat-free alternatives below, along with advice to sort through the endless array of options at the grocery store.

Veggie burgers

If you're a fan of veggie burgers, start by looking at the nutritional label. Choose brands that use fewer ingredients, such as MorningStar or Amy’s, and be mindful of how much sodium is in each serving.

“MorningStar burgers may not look (or taste) like a hamburger, but they have less ingredients and are often lower in calories compared to something like the Impossible Burger,” Nunes 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.

Keep veggie burgers interesting by adding hot sauce or fresh toppings like lettuce, tomato and onion.

Soy products: Tofu, tempeh and seitan

Tofu, tempeh and seitan (pronounced say-tan) are also rich in protein:

  • Tofu is made from soybeans. A 3-ounce serving contains about 6 to 8 grams of protein.
  • Tempeh, or fermented tofu, more closely resembles the texture of meat. And it has twice as much protein as tofu.
  • Seitan, or hydrated wheat gluten, is similar to the look and texture of meat when it’s cooked. It's comparable to animal protein, with 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving.

Counting carbs? Seitan is a good choice. “The wheat flour is washed to eliminate the starch component, so seitan is also very low in carbohydrates," Nunes said.

Just like meat, all three products can be marinated to build flavor. Here's one you might enjoy.

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Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds are rich in protein, fiber and healthy fatty acids like omega-3s.

By weight, Nunes said hemp seeds provide a similar amount of protein to beef. A few tablespoons contain more than 10 grams of protein.

Make hemp seeds approachable by thinking of them as a topping.

“They’re often in smoothies, but you can sprinkle them on yogurt, granola or overnight oats," Nunes said.

Another idea: Amp up your favorite summer fruit salad by adding hemp seeds and your favorite vinaigrette or poppy seed dressing.

Always check the label

While many meatless alternatives are healthy, some are highly processed. Nunes 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 an actual hamburger.

On the other hand, products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger contain more protein than other veggie burgers. They're typically comparable to a serving of chicken, Nunes said.

Meatless alternatives have come a long way. They can be tasty and filling, thanks to their high fiber and protein content. Just remember to read the nutrition label.