With the popularity of high-protein diets and intense workout regimes, protein powders have become a staple supplement for many health enthusiasts. However, protein powders are not for everyone. Some find the taste unappealing, while others may be sensitive to common allergens like dairy.
Fortunately, there are plenty of nutritious protein powder substitutes to help you meet your daily protein needs.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Before diving into the best substitutes, let's briefly go over how much protein the average adult needs:
- The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound.
- For a 150 pound person, that equates to about 54 grams of protein per day.
- Athletes, bodybuilders, and older adults may need up to 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women also have increased protein needs.
While protein powders provide an easy way to increase protein intake, your diet should still emphasize whole food sources of protein. Let's look at some healthy alternatives.
Key Takeaway: Most adults need 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or about 50-70 grams total.
Eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense protein sources. A large whole egg provides:
- 6 grams of protein
- Healthy fats
- Vitamin A, selenium, riboflavin, and choline
Studies show that eating eggs supports muscle growth and strength as effectively as protein powders when combined with resistance training.
Eggs are highly versatile - fry, bake, poach, scramble, or add them to recipes like omelets and frittatas. Hard boil several at a time for an easy high-protein snack.
2. Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese is a fresh, soft cheese curd product that packs a hefty protein punch. Just 1 cup provides 28 grams of protein.
It's also a great source of calcium and phosphorus. Go for low-fat or fat-free versions to keep calories in check.
Cottage cheese makes a perfect protein-rich addition to fruit and salad bowls. Its mild flavor also works well in recipes like lasagna, pancakes, and dips.
Milk has long been touted for its bone-building calcium, but it also provides a good amount of protein:
- 1 cup of nonfat milk has 8 grams of protein
- 1 cup of 1% milk has 8 grams
- 1 cup of whole milk has 8 grams
Milk is one of the most well-rounded beverages you can drink. Along with protein, it provides carbs, fat, calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin D.
Enjoy it on its own or use it as a base for smoothies, shakes, oatmeal, and coffee drinks.
4. Greek Yogurt
Thick, creamy Greek yogurt packs nearly double the protein of regular yogurt. A 6-ounce serving provides:
- 15-20 grams of protein
- Vitamin B12
Greek yogurt can replace sour cream, cheese, milk, and oils in baking recipes. It's also great in parfaits, smoothies, dips, dressings, and as a base for seasoned chicken or tuna salads.
Just be mindful of added sugars in flavored yogurts - opt for unsweetened whenever possible.
These fun-to-eat green soybeans are a fan favorite appetizer for good reason - they're packed with plant-based protein.
A half-cup of shelled edamame provides:
- 8.5 grams of protein
- Vitamin K
Look for them fresh or frozen. Add edamame beans to salads, rice bowls, soups, noodles, and more. The possibilities are endless.
All legumes provide a healthy dose of plant-based protein, but lentils are one of the richest sources. Just 1 cup of cooked lentils gives you:
- 18 grams of protein
Research shows that swapping half of the meat in dishes like tacos and bolognese with cooked lentils cuts calories without compromising protein intake.
Lentils require no soaking and cook faster than other beans. Use them in soups, stews, pasta sauce, curries, salads, and more.
Made from pressed soybean curds, tofu is a versatile plant-based protein source. Firm and extra firm varieties are best for adding meaty texture to recipes.
A half-cup of raw firm tofu has:
- 10 grams of protein
Tofu readily absorbs flavors from sauces and marinades. It can be scrambled like eggs, added to stir fries, soups, and noodle dishes or grilled, baked, or sautéed.
8. Nuts and Nut Butters
All nuts provide a good amount of plant-based protein. For example:
- 1 ounce of almonds (23 nuts) = 6 grams protein
- 1 ounce of peanuts (28 nuts) = 7 grams
- 1 ounce of cashews (18 nuts) = 5 grams
Nut butters like almond butter, peanut butter, and cashew butter are another easy way to add protein on toast, oatmeal, fruit, or even by the spoonful.
Look for unsweetened, natural nut butters without hydrogenated oils.
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain famous for its high protein content. Just 1 cooked cup provides 8 grams of protein.
It's also a good source of fiber, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, and antioxidants.
Quinoa has a fluffy, mild, slightly nutty taste. Use it in place of rice in dishes like stir fries, curries, and pilafs or add it to salads and bowls.
10. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is a vegan-friendly seasoning that boasts 8 grams of protein per tablespoon.
It has a nutty, cheesy umami flavor and can be sprinkled on popcorn, roasted veggies, pasta, mashed potatoes, and more. Use it in place of cheese in dairy-free Alfredo or mac and cheese sauces.
11. Hemp Seeds
Tiny but mighty hemp seeds are packed with 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons.
They're also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, magnesium, and iron. Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, baked goods, and salad bowls.
12. Protein-Rich Food Combinations
You don't necessarily need a concentrated protein source to meet your daily needs. Certain food combinations can give you just as much protein as a shake.
- Oatmeal made with milk + 1 tablespoon peanut butter + 1 tablespoon hemp seeds = 13 grams protein
- Whole grain pita + hummus + lentils = 17 grams
- Brown rice bowl with tofu + edamame = 15 grams
Get creative with food pairings to easily incorporate more protein-rich foods into meals and snacks!
Key Takeaway: Popular protein powder alternatives include cottage cheese, greek yogurt, eggs, milk, beans, lentils, tofu, edamame, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Protein Powder Alternatives: Recipe Ideas
Now that you know some excellent substitutes, here are a few recipe ideas to help you meet your daily protein needs sans powder:
Breakfast Protein Boosters
- Overnight oats with milk, chia seeds, and almond butter
- Veggie scramble with eggs, spinach, and feta cheese
- Yogurt berry chia parfait
- Tofu breakfast burrito with black beans
- Quinoa breakfast bowl with walnuts and blueberries
Lunches and Dinners
- Lentil soup with chickpeas
- Burrito bowl with pinto beans, brown rice, avocado
- Tofu veggie stir fry over quinoa
- Greek yogurt chicken salad wrapped in lettuce
- Chickpea salad sandwich on whole grain bread
- Lentil sloppy joes
- Cottage cheese with pineapple
- Greek yogurt with granola and hemp seeds
- Apple slices with almond butter
- Hard boiled egg
- Edamame pods
- Trail mix with nuts and seeds
- Roasted chickpeas
- Peanut butter banana smoothie with milk
- Blueberry coconut smoothie with Greek yogurt
- Green protein monster smoothie with spinach, avocado, and hemp seeds
Benefits of Protein Powder Substitutes
Transitioning from protein powders to whole foods and minimally processed alternatives provides some excellent benefits:
- More nutrients: Protein powders isolate just one nutrient. Whole foods give you protein plus vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats, and more.
- Better digestion: Some experience bloating or digestive issues from whey or other proteins. Plant-based options are easier on the gut.
- More flavor: Protein powders can have a chalky, artificial taste. Whole foods provide natural flavors.
- Cost savings: Protein powders can be pricey. Whole foods may be cheaper long-term.
- Ingredients you control: With powders, you don't always know how they are processed and what's added. Cooking at home lets you control the quality.
FAQs About Protein Powder Substitutes
Are protein powders necessary to build muscle?
No, protein powders are supplemental. As long as you consume adequate total protein from a balanced diet, you can support muscle growth without powders.
Which substitute is best for athletes?
Eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk provide the most similar amino acid profile to whey protein. Lentils, edamame, tofu, and quinoa are excellent plant-based options.
Can I completely replace my protein powder?
For most people, yes. Occasionally using a powder as a supplement is fine, but the bulk of your protein should come from whole food sources.
What if I don't eat meat or dairy?
Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy foods can provide all the essential amino acids you need on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Are protein supplements better than food sources?
No. Whole foods provide more nutrients, fiber, and healthy fats than isolated powders. Protein quality depends on the food source, not whether it's whole or powdered.
The Bottom Line
While protein powders offer convenience, they are not required to meet your daily protein needs, gain muscle, or stay healthy. With a balanced diet that includes high-quality protein sources like eggs, yogurt, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, you can easily meet your needs through delicious whole foods.
Experiment with different substitutions and recipes to find options that suit your taste, health goals, and lifestyle. Your body will thank you for the natural protein boost!