If you’re looking for foods that fit any diet, protein tops the list. On Paleo and Atkins, you can load up on lean meat and eggs. Vegetarians and vegans know that protein-rich beans are their best friend. Protein is essential for repairing muscle, staying energized, and taming hunger, says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The nutrient’s utility helps explain why food makers are squeezing new forms into more and more new products. And the three hottest new protein sources are algae, quinoa, and pulses (beans, peas, lentils), according to the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT).
“Plant protein sources are gaining popularity thanks to the health benefits of plant-based diets,” says Pritchett. “They can lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” she says. In fact, the National Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee’s 2015 recommendations emphasize a plant-based diet and suggest that Americans scale back on their meat intake for both health and environmental reasons. “Plus, these plant-based proteins often provide higher fiber than their meat-based counterparts, and they can be cheaper,” she says.
Expect to see algae, quinoa, and pulses turn up as ingredients in many of your supermarket favorites (think cereals, breads, crackers, and other typically protein-free or low-protein foods). Here, Pritchett breaks down what you need to know about each, how much protein you’re really getting per serving, and how to sneak more of these plant-based proteins into your diet:
Otherwise known as spirulina and chlorella, microalgae is rich in nutrients and vitamins; according to the Food and Drug Administration, they contain significant amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. While you’ll see claims that microalgae can replace veggies or even a daily multi, don’t change your diet or vitamin habits just yet, says Pritchett. Scientists aren’t sure about the bioavailability of algae (read: it’s unclear how much the body actually absorbs). It’s smartest to include the green stuff as part of varied and healthy diet.
Protein content: About 8 grams in 2 tablespoons
Where to find it: Supplements, powders, and green drinks
Use it to make … A protein-packed green smoothie. Try this recipe from The Blender Girl, and keep her smart tip in mind when adding a heaping scoop of algae into your blender: Mixing in some mint, creamy nut milks and coconut meat help to tame the strong flavor and add some sweetness.
From bowtie pasta to breakfast cereal, this gluten-free grain is showing up in a host of new products. It’s low-fat (one serving has a mere 3.4 grams of fat compared to about 33 grams in ground beef!), cholesterol-free, and also a great source of iron and fiber.
Protein content: About 8 grams in 1 cup (cooked)
Where to find it: In the bulk aisle, cereals, pastas, breads, crackers, baked goods, protein bars, and more
Use it to make … Healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods. Two we love: This guacamole recipe by the blogger behind Foxes Love Lemons, which creates a fiber- and protein-rich take on the go-to dip; and this quinoa brownie recipe on Skinny Mom that lets you indulge without the guilt.
This category includes all beans, peas and lentils, says Pritchett, and it’s got the highest amount of protein per serving of the three. “Pulses are also a great source of fiber, healthy carbohydrate, B vitamins, and iron,” she says, which helps explain why a growing body of research shows that regular consumption of pulses may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer.
Protein content: About 16 to 18 grams per serving, depending on the source
Where to find it: In the bulk aisle, pastas, breads, crackers, chips, protein bars, and more
Use it to make …A homemade power bar, like this one from Power Hungry that uses pea protein powder. “This, and the other protein sources, can be incorporated into either a pre- or post-workout meal or snack,” says Pritchett. “Just keep in mind that the high fiber content means you’ll want to have it 2 to 3 hours before you exercise.”