05/24/2010 09:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Healthy Recipes: Meatless Monday & The Protein Principle (RECIPES, PHOTOS)

Wow, the numbers are startling. Americans consume an astonishing amount of protein. USDA statistics reveal that U.S. men eat as much as 190% of their recommended daily protein allowance, while women eat as much as 160%, the great majority of which comes from saturated-fat heavy meat and meat products.

Protein is essential to life; it builds and maintains muscles, bones and skin, and regulates metabolism and digestion. But the question remains, whether you look at it from the perspective of personal health, or environmental degradation, or cost savings, or animal rights, or veggie activism, or whatever else floats your boat: do we really need to eat all that meat?

I went to the top, to the nation's most influential nutritionist, Dr. Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, to get her take. "All proteins are made up of the same amino acids. ALL. No exceptions," she reasons. "The difference between animal and vegetable proteins is in the content of certain amino acids. If vegetable proteins are mixed, the differences get made up. Even if they aren't mixed, all you need to do to get the right amount of low amino acids is to eat more of that food. There is no 'need' for animal proteins at all."

So, when it comes to protein...if we don't need animal protein all the time, what other options do we have? It turns out that beans, legumes, whole grains, greens, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of protein -- plus they offer the added benefit of fiber (not found in meat), vitamins and minerals. Here's some examples of protein found in readily available foods:

Broccoli -- 4 grams in 1 cup
Brown Rice -- 5 grams in 1 cup
Refried beans -- 7 grams in ½ cup
Soymilk -- 7 grams in 1 cup
Peas -- 8 grams in 1 cup
Tofu -- 11 grams in 5 oz
Oat Bran -- 16 grams in 1 cup
Lentils -- 18 grams in 1 cup
Chickpeas -- 18 grams in 1 cup

The key factor, though, is what comes along with the protein. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak is an excellent source of protein -- 38 grams worth. But along for the ride are 44 grams of fat, 16 of them saturated! That's almost three-fourths of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat. The same amount of salmon gives you 34 grams of protein and 18 grams of fat, 4 of them saturated. A cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein, but under 1 gram of fat!

That pretty much tells the story right there. It's what comes along for the ride that we need to play closer attention to. Indeed, if Americans are consuming nearly double their protein need, primarily from meat and meat products with their concomitant high saturated fat levels (not to even get into the hormone-administered meat topic, saved for another post), you can see why the nation is staring down the barrel of an obesity epidemic.

Let me leave you with a few low-fat food combos, followed by some interesting recipes from the Meatless Monday movement, where the idea is to cut back on meat consumption by 15% to limit saturated fat intake and to start the week off right -- and light!

• Hummus and pita
• Rice and beans
• Almost any legume-whole grain pair
• Trail mix
• Low-fat yogurt with granola
• Peanut butter on whole wheat bread or rice cakes
• Lentil soup and a roll
• Vegetarian chili with corn bread
• Tofu-vegetable stir fry over rice or pasta