There are plenty of high-protein vegetarian foods

15 Best Sources of Protein for Vegetarians

By: Mia Syn, MS, RD

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

The idea that vegetarians cannot get enough protein is not true. It's entirely possible! In fact, there is not much evidence of protein deficiency in vegetarian populations in Western countries.

As diets emphasizing more plant-based whole foods continue to trend upward, many people can benefit from incorporating more plant-based protein sources into their diet.

Thinking about your protein macro is something all vegetarians and vegans need to do, however. Non-vegetarians easily hit (and often exceed) their recommended daily allowance with chicken or steak, without giving protein a second thought. Meat is considered the best source of protein, but animal protein isn't the only protein out there!

Vegetarians can certainly get enough protein from plant-based protein sources…if they plan their diet appropriately. There are plenty of high-protein vegetarian foods that can help fill your daily protein requirements on a vegetarian diet, as well as supplementation. Here's what you need to know to stay strong, the plant-based way!

How do vegetarians get protein?

Vegetarians get protein like everyone else—by eating! In addition to high-protein vegetarian foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products, whole grains, dairy and eggs, supplements such as plant-based protein powders can be a convenient way to incorporate more of this satiating macronutrient.

It is important for vegetarians, and particularly those on a vegan diet, to include a variety of these protein sources in their diet to ensure they obtain all the essential amino acids, otherwise known as protein building blocks, as not all plant-based protein sources are considered complete sources. By combining different plant-based protein sources throughout the day, vegetarians can easily meet their protein needs.

How much protein do I need?

The recommended daily protein intake varies depending on several factors, including age, sex, weight, activity level and overall health.

For the average sedentary adult, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, protein needs may increase for individuals who are physically active, athletes, or pregnant or lactating, for example.

Additionally, new research suggests that a protein intake of 1.0-1.2g/kg of body weight may be more optimal to maintain muscle mass and support overall health, especially in older individuals who may have increased protein needs.

It's important to note that individual protein requirements may vary, and some people may want more protein to meet health or weight goals or to build muscle. If you have specific health concerns or dietary needs, consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian who can give you personalized recommendations.

How can I increase my protein intake as a vegetarian?

You can easily increase your daily protein intake by focusing on protein-rich vegetarian foods at mealtime. Plan ahead to make sure each of your meals contains a protein source, such as black beans or lentils in salads and soups, tofu or tempeh in stir-fries and sandwiches, or a sprinkle of nuts and seeds in smoothies or oatmeal.

Prioritizing protein-rich snacks can also help you increase your overall intake, especially since some studies suggest that protein is more effective if you space it out over the day instead of loading up in one meal. Some snack options to consider are Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, roasted chickpeas, edamame, green peas, protein bars, and veggie sticks with hummus.

Additionally, consider adding a vegetarian-friendly protein powder supplement such as pea protein, rice protein or hemp protein to your diet. Besides adding it to smoothies, you can easily incorporate protein powder into a range of recipes, including chia pudding and baked goods like chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal bars, to increase their protein content.

What are the best sources of protein for vegetarians?

There are a variety of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly high-protein foods that you can incorporate into your diet.

1. Black beans

One popular vegan protein source is beans. All beans, including black beans, are naturally low-fat and good sources of plant protein, fiber and key nutrients such as folate, iron and magnesium.

2. Lentils

Another plant-based protein staple in vegan and vegetarian diets is lentils. In addition to protein, lentils are rich in dietary fiber, complex carbohydrates, iron and folate.

3. Edamame

This popular and versatile vegan protein source is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids that the body needs. Besides steamed or boiled and enjoyed on its own as a snack, it can be incorporated into salads, stir-fries and grain bowls.

4. Tofu

Tofu is made from soybeans and is a great source of non-meat protein for vegans and vegetarians alike. Its mild taste allows it to absorb flavors from marinades and spices, making it a versatile ingredient in stir-fries, soups and sandwiches.

5. Tempeh

While tempeh, like tofu, is also a soy-based vegan meat substitute, it is made from soybeans and is fermented. Due to its unique nutty flavor and firm texture, it holds up well in various cooking methods. You can even use it to make vegan-friendly, meat-free bacon that can be enjoyed in a plant-based diet.

6. Soy milk

For a protein-packed, non-dairy milk alternative, consider soy milk. This dairy-free, plant-based milk can be used just as you would use dairy milk in such foods as cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, coffee, cooked entrees and baked desserts.

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7. Nuts

Nuts are a good source of plant protein, but the protein content varies among the types of nuts. So, too, do the types of healthy fats nuts contain. For example, while most nuts provide omega-6 fats, walnuts are among the highest in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. These fats have many health benefits, including supporting brain and eye health.

8. Peanut butter

While peanuts are often referred to as nuts, they are botanically legumes. They offer about 7 grams of plant protein per 1-ounce serving. Besides with toast, you can enjoy peanut butter in smoothies, bars, and homemade dips and dressings.

9. Chia seeds

Though small in size, chia seeds offer a modest amount of plant-based protein. Because they are rich in fiber and highly absorbent, they may help you feel full longer and potentially help aid in weight management.

10. Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds are a great source of protein. In fact, they are one of the few plant-based sources of complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that the body needs. In addition to being protein-rich, hemp seeds are high in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids.

11. Milk and dairy

Among all types of milks, cow's milk comes out on top as being the most protein-rich in addition to being a complete protein source. While these animal-based products are prohibited in a vegan diet, you can consume them in a vegetarian, flexitarian or other non-vegan diets.

Dairy foods encompass a wide range of products derived from animal milk, including cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese. Cottage cheese can be enjoyed plain on its own or incorporated into savory dishes such as pasta and baked potatoes for a boost of satisfying protein.

12. Eggs

This animal protein is considered another great source of complete protein in a vegetarian diet, though it is excluded in a vegan diet. Eggs are known for being low-carb and nutrient-dense. For example, eggs are a good source of B vitamins, including vitamin B12, which is a nutrient found almost exclusively in animal-derived foods and is important for nerve function and red blood cell production.

13. Whole grains

While most whole grains do not offer as much protein as legumes, some types offer more than others, such as whole-wheat, quinoa, brown rice and oats. In addition to B vitamins, which help convert the food we eat into useable energy, oats also provide beta-glucan. This is a type of soluble fiber linked to many health benefits, including healthy cholesterol levels, satiety and weight management.

14. Nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that is commonly used as a seasoning or condiment in plant-based diets. This high-protein ingredient has a savory, cheesy flavor. It can be sprinkled over salads, pasta, roasted vegetables and popcorn or used as a flavor enhancer in soups, sauces and dips.

15. Protein powder

Protein powder can be a convenient and effective way to supplement vegetarian diets with additional protein. It can provide a concentrated source of protein, often with a complete amino acid profile, making it a suitable option for those looking for a low-calorie solution for increasing their protein intake. There are various types of protein powder available from plant-based protein sources that are suitable for vegetarians, such as pea, soy, rice and hemp protein.

Should vegetarians take protein supplements?

Anyone who is looking for an effective way to increase their protein intake, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, should consider incorporating a protein supplement. Those who are active may particularly benefit from supplements, as their need for protein and other nutrients is increased.

The best protein supplements include amino acids, such as the Wellness Code® Plant Protein Complete & Amino Acid Complex. This gluten-free, vegan protein supplement promotes satiety, boosts energy and supports lean muscle mass with 18 grams of high-quality, easily digestible, plant-based pea protein per serving and no added sugar.

Not sure what supplements you should consider? Our health needs quiz can help you determine what nutrients may be right for you.

About the Author: Mia Syn, MS, RD is a national on-air nutrition expert, host of Good Food Friday on ABC Charleston and one of the most recognized and trusted young dietitians in the media. With a master's degree in human nutrition from Columbia University and over 500 TV appearances, she has helped millions of viewers, readers and clients learn and implement healthier, sustainable eating habits.



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