Becoming vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily equal less protein in your diet. However, it can be difficult to ensure you’re getting enough quality sources of complete protein, especially if you’re trying to increase your protein intake.
What is protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient needed by the body to function. It is made up of amino acids, some of which the body is able to produce itself and some of which we need to obtain from our diet – these are called essential amino acids.
There are nine essential amino acids, the most complete sources of which are animal-based proteins like meat, eggs and poultry. Some plant sources are missing some of these amino acids, so eating a varied diet is important if you are vegetarian or vegan.
However, many plant-based foods can be excellent sources of protein. Products such as soy beans and quinoa are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids that the body needs.
Why do we need protein?
The main role of protein is to build and repair muscle but it also plays a crucial role in almost all biological processes in the body.
Protein is a building block for healthy bones, muscles, hair, teeth, cartilage, skin and blood. It is particularly important for preserving muscle mass during weight loss.
If you exercise regularly it is important to make sure you get enough protein in your diet, especially if you are weight training and/ or trying to build lean muscle mass and strength.
What are good sources of protein?
Animal-based sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts – these are known as ‘complete’ protein sources.
Most plant-based sources of protein are deficient in at least one of the nine essential amino acids – and are known as ‘incomplete’ protein sources. Vegetarians and vegans should combine and eat a wide variety of plant-based protein sources to make sure they are getting all of their essential amino acids through their diet.
Plant-based protein sources include:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Rice and beans
- Protein-rich vegetables
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame
Tofu, tempeh and edamame are all made from soybeans and are excellent plant-based protein sources. Soy products are among the richest sources of protein in a plant-based diet but the protein content varies with how the soy is prepared.
Tofu is made from condensed, unfermented soy milk that’s been processed into solid white blocks and comes in a variety of textures, including silken, firm, and extra-firm. While tempeh is made directly from cooking and fermenting soybeans. Some people prefer to use tempeh to tofu as a meat substitute because it has a heartier taste.
Edamame are baby soybeans that are harvested when ripe and sold either frozen, cooked, or shelled.
- Firm tofu contains about 10g of protein per 60g
- Edamame beans contain about 8.5g of protein per 60g
- Tempeh contains about 15g of protein per 60g
Tofu is completely versatile as it takes on the flavour of the dish it is prepared in. You can use it as a meat substitute in certain dishes, such as a curry, chilli or a stir fry, or in a sandwich or soup. You can grill it, pan fry it, bake it or scramble it.
Tempeh can be steamed, grilled, baked or crumbled into sauces and stews. Like tofu, it takes on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked in, making it a versatile way to add heartiness and protein to a meal. Add crumbled, grated, or cubed tempeh to spaghetti sauce, stew, chili, or curry.
Edamame can be boiled, steamed, microwaved or pan-seared. They make a quick and easy, protein-packed, tasty snack or appetizer. Whether you buy them fresh or frozen, you can cook them in minutes and flavour them to your taste with flaky sea salt, red pepper flakes, and/or sesame seeds.
All of the soy products mentioned also contain good levels of calcium and iron, which makes them healthful substitutes for dairy products.
Red and green lentils contain protein, fibre, and key nutrients, including iron and potassium.
- Cooked lentils contain about 8g of protein per 60g.
They are a great source of protein to add to a meal as they can be added to stews, curries, salads, or rice to give an extra portion of protein. Or they can be eaten on their own as a side, seasoned to suit your personal taste.
Quinoa is a grain with a high-protein content, and is a complete protein. It is also rich in other nutrients, including magnesium, iron, fibre, and manganese. It’s naturally gluten-free, making it a great option for those with coeliac disease.
- Quinoa (uncooked) contains 12g of protein per 80g.
Quinoa is highly versatile and can be used in many recipes. Plain quinoa has a nutty flavor and it can cook in less than 20 minutes, making it a good alternative to pasta or rice for a quick meal.
The basic ratio to cook quinoa is one-part dry quinoa to two-parts liquid – just like rice. It can be used in savoury or sweet dishes.
It can be sprinkled on salads, used to make porridge instead of oats, added to buddha bowls, stews, soups and even stuffed into peppers and baked. It has a naturally binding and filling texture so it is the perfect base for veggie burgers along with beans and herbs.
And finally, not only can you use quinoa flour to bake desserts, but you can add whole toasted or cooked quinoa to treats like muffins and cakes.
Chickpeas can be eaten hot or cold, and are highly versatile as they can be added to loads of recipes, such as stews, curries and salads. Just search online for chickpea recipes and you’ll see how many options there are.
Hummus is made from chickpeas so this can be a great addition to a salad or a sandwich for an extra dose of protein.
- Cooked chickpeas contain around 7g per 60g.
Mycoprotein is most commonly known in this country as the meat substitute brand Quorn. Mycoprotein is a fungus-based protein used to make meat substitutes in the form of “chicken” nuggets, cutlets or a mince meat replacement (however some of these products contain egg whites so be sure to check the labels if you do not eat eggs).
- Mycoprotein products, such as Quorn mince, contain around 10.9g of protein per 75g.
It is a useful ingredient if you like to have a meat substitute in recipes such as chilli and spaghetti bolognese. However, a small number of people are allergic to Fusarium venenatum, the fungus from which the mycoprotein brand known as Quorn is made. People with a history of mushroom allergies or with other food allergies might want to consider another protein source.
Peanuts and almonds are both rich in protein and full of healthy fats. Almonds also provide a good amount of vitamin E, which is great for the skin and eyes
- Peanuts contain around 9g of protein per 30g.
- Almonds contain 8.7g of protein per 30g.
Nut butters are also rich in protein, with 8g per 20g tablespoon of peanut butter, making PB sandwiches a healthy complete protein snack. However, if you are watching your calorie intake, be aware that nuts and nut butters are very calorie dense!
Seeds are generally rich in fibre and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health. Chia and hemp seeds are a complete source of protein.
- Chia seeds contain around 3.3g of protein per 15g tablespoon.
- Hemp seeds contain around 4.65g of protein per 15g tablespoon.
Try adding either kind of seeds to a smoothie, sprinkling them on top of a plant-based yoghurt, or soaking them in water or almond milk to make a pudding. They can also be added to overnight oats or porridge for an extra protein and taste boost.
Chia seeds are available from some supermarkets, in health food shops, or to buy online. Hemp seeds can also be bought online. Again, if you are watching your calorie intake, be aware that seeds are very calorie dense!
Spirulina is blue or green algae that is high in protein and rich in nutrients, such as iron, some B vitamins and manganese.
- Spirulina powder contains around 6.68g protein per 10g tablespoon.
Spirulina is generally available to buy online, as a powder or a supplement. It can be added to water, smoothies, or fruit juice. You can also sprinkle it over a salad or snacks to increase protein content.
Beans with rice
Separately, rice and beans are incomplete protein sources but eaten together, they contain all nine essential amino acids to form a complete source of protein.
Rice and beans is a classic rice recipe, especially in Latin American cuisine, and there are loads of different ways to make this. The beans referred to are usually black beans but you could use different kinds of beans, such as kidney beans, or pinto beans.
- Basmati rice (uncooked) contains 6.4g of protein per 75g serving.
- Kidney, black, butter, or pinto beans contain (drained) 6-7g of protein per 100g serving.
You can make rice and beans as a side dish, or a main dish. You can use tinned beans or dried beans that need to be soaked in water before cooking with them. Rice and beans go well with burritos or tortillas but the recipe ideas are endless with different flavour combinations – from Mexican to Italian to Carribean.
What better comfort food than a baked potato with your favourite topping? Potatoes are high in other nutrients, such as potassium and vitamin C, and when combined with a high-protein topping and you’re on to a winner.
- A baked potato contains 5g of protein per 200g serving.
Try adding two 15g tablespoons of hummus or some Quorn chilli to your baked potato for a delicious topping!
Many dark-colored vegetables and leafy greens contain protein. Eaten alone, these vegetables are not enough to meet daily protein requirements but a few vegetable snacks added into your diet during the day can increase overall protein intake, particularly when combined with other protein-rich foods.
Vegetables that contain protein include (but are not limited to):
- Broccoli – contains about 4g of protein per 100g serving.
- Garden Peas – contain 5.7g of protein per 100g serving.
- Spinach and Kale – both of which contain g-3g of protein per 100g
- Brussel Sprouts – contain 3.5g protein per 100g serving.
Try a salad made from baby greens with some quinoa sprinkled on top for a protein-rich meal.
If I’m vegetarian or vegan, do I need to supplement with protein?
Protein supplementation really depends on how much protein you are getting in your diet already. If you’re getting enough protein from whole foods, you don’t need to take any protein supplements.
If you find it difficult to regularly hit your protein targets with whole foods, supplementing with a protein powder can help. There are lots on the market and choosing the right one for you comes down to personal taste, lifestyle, budget and allergies.
What exactly is protein powder?
Protein powders are powdered forms of protein that come from eggs, milk (casein or whey protein), or plants (pea, hemp, brown rice, soy). The powders often include other ingredients such as added sugars, artificial flavoring, thickeners, vitamins, and minerals.
Plant-based protein powders may be complete or incomplete proteins, depending on the plants used to make the powders.
When searching for vegan protein powder, think about these three factors: protein content, types of proteins used, and sweeteners. Look for a powder that contains at least 15 to 20g of protein per serving.
Vegan protein powders
- Pea Protein
Pea protein is made from yellow split peas.
A 28g serving of unflavored pea protein powder packs about 21g of protein and 100 calories, depending on the brand.
Pea protein powder is rich in BCAAs to support muscle building. Preliminary research suggests that it’s as effective as whey protein in supporting muscle gain. It may also help you feel full and lower your blood pressure.
- Hemp Protein
Hemp protein comes from seeds of the cannabis plant but from a variety bred to contain only trace amounts of the euphoric compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This means it can’t make you high like marijuana!
A 28g serving of unflavored hemp protein powder has around 12g of protein and 108 calories, depending on the brand. It’s also an excellent source of fibre, iron, zinc, magnesium and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant form of omega-3 fat.
As hemp is low in the essential amino acid lysine, it’s not a complete protein. However, if you routinely eat legumes or quinoa, you should be able to fill that gap.
- Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein powder is easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
A 28g serving of unflavored brown rice protein powder has about 107 calories and 22g of protein, depending on the brand. It’s low in the essential amino acid lysine but a good source of BCAAs to support muscle building.
A preliminary study suggests that brown rice protein powder may be as good as whey protein at supporting muscle growth when consumed after weight training.
- Soy Protein
Soy protein is a complete protein, which is uncommon for plant protein. It’s also high in BCAAs to support muscle strength and growth.
A 28g serving of soy protein isolate powder has about 95 calories and 22g of protein, depending on the brand. Additionally, it contains beneficial plant compounds, including some that may lower your cholesterol.
- Pumpkin Seed Protein
In their whole form, pumpkin seeds are relatively high in protein and healthy fat. When made into powder, most of the fat is removed, which reduces calories.
A 28-gram serving of unflavored pumpkin seed protein powder provides around 103 calories and 18g of protein, depending on the brand, but it’s not a complete protein.
- Plant Protein Blends
Different powdered plant-based proteins are sometimes combined and sold as blends. Often with added flavorings and sweeteners.
One of the advantages of blending plant proteins is that it can provide optimal levels of all essential amino acids in a single product. For example, pea protein may be combined with rice protein.
Quinoa protein is commonly used in combination with other plant proteins, too, as it’s one of the few complete plant proteins.
Blended plant protein powders often have added enzymes as well, to help you digest the product.
Vegetarian and vegan protein powders can help provide your body with the essential amino acids it needs to support protein synthesis, including that needed for muscle repair and growth.
Grains, legumes and seeds are typical sources of plant protein in powders, which are made by removing most of the fat and carbs while isolating the protein components.
Common plant-based protein powders include pea, hemp, brown rice and soy. Seed protein powders, including pumpkin, sunflower and chia, are now becoming more available.
Plant proteins are typically low in one or more essential amino acids, except for soy and quinoa, but this shouldn’t be an issue if you regularly eat a variety of plant foods or buy a blended protein powder.
Nutrition information varies by brand, so make sure to check the package labeling when you’re working out the best protein powder for you.
Going vegetarian or vegan may require some planning to make sure you get adequate amounts of protein in your diet. However, with the right plant-based protein foods, people who avoid animal products can eat balanced diets that support a healthy body.
WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends that we consume a minimum daily protein intake of 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. People looking to lose weight, maintain or build lean muscle mass, as well as pregnant or nursing women and older adults may need more protein than the daily recommended amount.
The human body creates 11 amino acids but must get another nine from food. Animal products are sources of complete proteins, meaning they contain all the amino acids. Some plant products, such as soybeans and quinoa, are also sources of complete proteins while others are incomplete proteins.
If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet you should eat a varied diet of plant-based foods to get the required range of amino acids. This could include high-protein foods, such as tofu, tempeh, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and leafy greens.