Do vegetarian diets give you enough protein? Here are our favorite vegetarian protein sources that will fill and fuel you

  • 3 Minutes Read

Wondering if you can meet your protein needs from a vegetarian diet? Yes, you can, and here's how!

vegetarian protein sources

"How do you get your protein?" often comes up in conversations among those following a plant-based or vegetarian diet. Indeed, protein is critical for muscle rebuilding and repair and immune function. Rest assured, you can easily meet your needs with vegetarian protein sources.

What are the best vegetarian protein sources?

Dried beans and peas (legumes), soy, nuts, and seeds are especially high in protein and valuable vitamins and minerals.

Soy products (tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and meat substitutes) are highly digestible and provide higher and more concentrated protein content than soybeans and other legumes. Some "fake meats" closely mimic the flavor and texture of meat. While a welcome treat for people missing their favorite burger, these highly processed products do not come with the same health and nutrition benefits of other plant-based proteins.

Dairy products and eggs provide ample protein for lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Whole grains, preferably,and vegetables, provide protein in smaller quantities.

Fruits, fats, and oils provide essential nutrients but minimal protein.

You may consider protein powders from soy, hemp, pea, chia, whey (dairy-based) and other sources if you are on a reduced-calorie, vegetarian diet and have difficulty meeting your protein needs.

Examples of vegetarian protein sources and amounts

Food: Almonds
Portion: 1 ounce (about 23 almonds)
Protein (grams): 6
Calories: 162

Food: Beyond Burger®
Portion: 1 patty
Protein (grams): 20
Calories: 220

Food: Cottage cheese, 2%
Portion: 1/2 cup
Protein (grams): 12
Calories: 92

Food: Edamame
Portion: 1/2 cup
Protein (grams): 7
Calories: 90

Food: Egg
Portion: large
Protein (grams): 6
Calories: 72

Greek yogurt, plain
Portion: 7 ounce container
Protein (grams): 20
Calories: 146

Food: Hummus
Portion: 1/3 cup
Protein (grams): 7
Calories: 198

Food: Lentils
Portion: 1/2 cup, cooked
Protein (grams): 9
Calories: 113

Food: Peanut butter, smooth
Portion: 2 tablespoons
Protein (grams): 7
Calories: 193

Food: Peas
Portion: 1/2 cup, cooked
Protein (grams): 4
Calories: 67

Food: Pumpkin seeds
Portion: 1 ounce
Protein (grams): 9
Calories: 163

Food: Quinoa
Portion: 1/2 cup, cooked
Protein (grams): 4
Calories: 111

Food: Seitan (wheat gluten)
Portion: 3 ounces
Protein (grams): 21
Calories: 120

Food: Spinach
Portion: 1/2 cup, cooked
Protein (grams): 3
Calories: 21

Food: Tempeh
Portion: 1/2 cup
Protein (grams): 17
Calories: 159

Food: Tofu, extra-firm
Portion: 3 ounce
Protein (grams): 9
Calories: 98

Do I need to worry about complete proteins or combining proteins?

Fortunately, no. There are 9 essential amino acids (protein-building blocks) the body can't produce on its own. Plant-based protein sources, with a few exceptions like soy and quinoa, are low in one or more of these essential amino acids. As long as you eat a variety of plant protein sources throughout the day, there is no need for concern. Your liver stores a reserve of amino acids used to build proteins. Actively choosing foods with "complementary proteins" at each meal is not necessary.

Eggs and dairy products provide complete proteins. These products also tend to have a higher concentration of protein than plant sources.

How much protein do I need?

Protein needs for lacto-ovo vegetarians are the same as meat-eaters: 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. We recommend a minimum of 1 gram of protein per kilogram (or about 0.45 g per pound) per day for vegan diets. This goal is slightly higher than the RDA to account for decreased digestibility of some plant proteins. The truth is that most people eat well above the RDA for protein.

Example: If you are 170 pounds, which converts to 77 kg (170 lbs divided by 2.2 lbs per kg), then 62 grams of protein per day (77 kg x 0.8 grams per kg) is a reasonable target.

Another strategy to use is MyNetDiary's default protein target of making 20% of your calories from protein. While a healthy range of protein is 10-25% of calories, MyNetDiary incorporates a higher goal to help minimize muscle loss and help you feel full.

Example: For a 1400 calorie plan, 20% of calories would be 70 grams of protein.

Rather not do the math for every meal? MyNetDiary Premium can help you set your individual protein goal.

Note: If you have a kidney or liver condition, you may have a different protein goal. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for specific nutrition recommendations.

What if I am an athlete?

Vegetarian proteins fuel many elite athletes and may offer performance advantages. As an athlete, your protein requirements are likely higher, especially if you limit your calorie intake.

The goal for athletes is typically between 1.2-2.0 g per kg of body weight (or about 0.5-0.9 g per lb).

For more detailed information about protein and other nutrients for athletes, read this position paper.

What can plant-based protein do for weight loss?

Important for weight loss, protein foods take longer to digest than carbohydrates, so you will likely stay full longer if you eat some protein at each meal. Strength-training exercises and eating enough protein also helps prevent loss of muscle mass as you lose weight.

Plant-based proteins from legumes, nuts, and seeds can satisfy and fill you due to their high fiber content, keeping you within your calorie budget.

Beware of consuming too much protein. More protein isn't necessarily better. Exceeding your calorie budget with too many protein calories often results in weight gain.

Tip: Aim for at least 60g of protein per day on a weight-loss diet.

A sample vegetarian menu with plenty of protein

Protein (grams)
Breakfast
Steel-cut oats, 1 cup cooked7
2% milk, 1 cup8
Soy milk, 1 cup7
Blueberries, 1 cup1
Chia seeds, 1 tablespoon2
Almonds, 2 tablespoons sliced3
Total: 21 g
Lunch
Extra-firm tofu, 3 ounces8
Quinoa, 2/3 cup cooked6
Pumpkin seeds, 1 tablespoon3
Broccoli, 1 cup chopped3
Total: 20 g
Dinner
Whole wheat pasta, 1 cup cooked8
Olive oil, 2 teaspoons0
Spinach, 1/2 cup cooked3
White beans, 1/2 cup9
Dark chocolate, 1 ounce2
Total: 22 g
Snacks
Popcorn, 3 cups3
Nutritional yeast, 2 teaspoons3
String cheese, 1 piece6
Orange, medium1
Total: 13 g
Daily Total: 76 g

For more help planning a vegetarian diet:

Starting a vegetarian diet? Follow these steps
6 Essential nutrients for vegetarians
Position paper on vegetarian diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
MyNetDiary's Premium Recipe collection, which includes 160 vegetarian recipes.
Post a question in MyNetDiary's dietitian-moderated Community Forum.

Adapted from original content by Kathy Isacks, MS, RD, CDCES

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Meal Planning & Diets->Vegetarian
Aug 5, 2020
Sue Heikkinen
Sue Heikkinen, MS, RD, CDE, BC-ADE, ACE-PT - Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator

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