Vegetarian Protein: A Complete Guide
A complete guide to vegetarian protein: the different types of protein, the best vegetarian protein sources, and high-protein vegetarian meals.
These days, more and more people are becoming interested in vegetarian diets, vegetarian meals, vegetarian protein sources and reducing their overall consumption of animal products. Although it might seem like a simple swap from chicken to tofu, there are some important things to know about vegetarian protein before making this transition. Here is a complete guide to vegetarian protein, how to include more in your diet, and the best sources available.
What is Protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient made up of amino acids that are required by the body. Along with carbohydrates and fats, proteins play many essential roles in the body. Proteins are the main building blocks of your body, used to make muscles, tendons, organs and skin, as well as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various molecules that serve many important functions. In total, there are 20 different amino acids that make up protein and are required by the body, 9 of which cannot be produced by the body and, therefore, must be obtained through our diet. (1) Protein can easily be found in animal products, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy, although it is also present in some plant sources, such as legumes and nuts.
What is Vegetarian Protein?
Certain plant foods contain higher levels of protein and are therefore considered sources of vegetarian protein. These forms of protein are considered incomplete sources of protein since they do not contain all 9 essential amino acids, however, they do contain protein. Since these plant foods contain varying amounts and types of amino acids, they can be consumed foods as sources of dietary protein. (2) Common sources of vegetarian protein include soy, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Vegetarian Protein vs. Animal Protein
Generally speaking, animal proteins are considered ‘complete proteins’ since they contain all essential amino acids, while vegetarian proteins are considered ‘incomplete proteins’ since they do not contain all essential amino acids. These 9 essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Animal products, such as beef, chicken and seafood, contain all 9 essential amino acids in abundant ratios, while many plant sources of protein are too low in or missing one or more of these essential amino acids. (1) For example, some vegetarian proteins, such as legumes, are low in methionine, tryptophan, lycine and isoleucine and, therefore, they’re considered incomplete protein sources. Although some sources report soy protein as a complete protein, two essential amino acids are only found in small amounts, so it isn’t completely comparable to animal protein. (3)
In addition to the differences in amino acid ratios, animal and vegetarian proteins vary in their macronutrient ratios. Generally speaking, animal proteins are primary sources of protein or contain a balance of protein and fat with very little, if any, carbohydrate. On the contrary, vegetarian protein sources are predominately sources of carbohydrate, as in the case of beans and lentils, or contain a balance of carbohydrate, fat and a moderate level of protein.
Another important point to consider is that proteins in food are rarely found in isolation. Foods that contain animal protein tend to be higher in certain vital nutrients which are lacking in many plant foods, these include; vitamin B12, vitamin D, DHA, heme-iron and zinc. (4) That being said, there are also nutrients found in plant foods that are lacking in animal foods, such as fibre, therefore, eating a balance of foods remains one of the best ways to ensure you are consuming all of the required nutrients.
|NUTRITION PER SERVING||STEAK||BEANS|
|Serving Size||100 g||1 cup|
|Calories||243 calories||227 calories|
|Protein||27 grams||15 grams|
|Fat||14 grams||1 gram|
|Vitamin A||–||10.3 IU|
|Vitamin D||7 grams||–|
|Vitamin B12||1.6 mcg||–|
|Iron||1.7 mg||3.6 mg|
How to Get Protein as a Vegetarian?
When following a vegetarian diet, or eating a vegetarian meal, consuming a wide variety of vegetarian protein sources is essential for overall health. Given that vegetarian protein sources are lacking in certain amino acids, consuming a range of these foods is the best way to ensure that you are consuming a well-balanced profile of all of the essential amino acids. (3)
Vegetarian Protein Sources
Here is a list of the some of the best vegetarian protein sources available:
Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made of condensed soy milk that is pressed into solid white blocks in a process that is similar to cheesemaking. Tofu can be found in soft, firm and extra-firm formats and, although it may seem intimidating, it’s quite easy to cook with. Not only can tofu be used as an alternative to meat, poultry or seafood, but it can be baked, grilled, fried or sautéed as an easy addition to any meal. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tofu provides approximately 13 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of tofu provides 145 calories, 16 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate and 9 grams of fat. (5)
Tempeh, which originated in Indonesia, is made of soybeans that have been fermented and compacted into a firm, dense block. Compared to tofu, tempeh has a chewy, nutty and earthy taste, and contains slightly more protein, carbohydrate and fibre per serving. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tempeh provides approximately 16 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of tempeh provides 193 calories, 19 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrate and 11 grams of fat. (6)
From black beans to kidney beans, beans are a great source of vegetarian protein and dietary fibre. Not only are they easy to find and relatively inexpensive, but they are also incredibly versatile and work well in everything from salads to soups to casseroles. Although considered an incomplete protein, when paired with rice, beans help to create a well-balanced source of protein. A 1-cup (172 gram) serving of cooked black beans provides approximately 15 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of cooked black beans provides 132 calories, 9 grams of protein, 24 grams of carbohydrate and 1 gram of fat. (7)
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are a good source of vegetarian protein. Much like beans, chickpeas can also be included in soups or stews, as well as roasted into snacks, added to dips or used to make hummus. Chickpeas are also a great source of fibre and source of complex carbohydrate making them a great source of energy. A 1-cup (164 gram) serving of cooked chickpeas provides approximately 15 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of cooked chickpeas provides 164 calories, 9 grams of protein, 28 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fat. (8)
Part of the legume family, along with beans and chickpeas, lentils are a good source of vegetarian protein, carbohydrate and fibre. Lentils come in a wide variety of colours and formats and are a versatile and inexpensive source of vegetarian protein that can be used in everything from hearty soups to spicy dahls. A 1-cup (198 gram) serving of cooked lentils provides approximately 18 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of cooked lentils provides 116 calories, 9 grams of protein, 20 grams of carbohydrate and 0 grams of fat. (9)
Although often considered a grain, quinoa is actually an edible seed that is part of the amaranth family. Pronounced KEEN-wah, it is a pseudocereal that is often used as a gluten-free substitute in baking and recipes. Given it is a seed, quinoa contains a higher ratio of fat and a lower ratio of carbohydrate to protein as compared to other vegetarian sources. A 1-cup (185 gram) serving of cooked quinoa provides approximately 8 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of cooked quinoa provides 120 calories, 4 grams of protein, 21 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fat. (10)
Be it traditional yogurt or Greek yogurt, yogurt is a good source of vegetarian protein that also delivers healthy fats and gut-supporting probiotic bacteria. Although Greek yogurt provides more protein per serving when compared to conventional yogurt, 19 grams vs 7 grams per 3/4 cup serving, both are considered good sources of protein. In addition to yogurt, other dairy products, such as cottage cheese, cheese and milk, are also sources of vegetarian protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of whole milk yogurt provides 61 calories, 4 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fat. (11)
Although all nuts contain protein, certain nuts contain higher levels of vegetarian protein than others. Gram per gram, peanuts, almonds and pistachios contain the highest amounts of protein per one-ounce serving at 7 grams, 6 grams and 6 grams, respectively. Not only can these nuts be consumed whole, but they can also be consumed in their nut butter forms as a good source of vegetarian protein. A two-tablespoon serving of peanut butter contains 8 grams of protein, while a two-tablespoon serving of almond butter contains 5 grams of protein.
Nutrition: 100 grams of dry-roasted peanuts provides 585 calories, 24 grams of protein, 22 grams of carbohydrate and 50 grams of fat. (12)
Much like nuts, not all seeds are created equal in terms of their protein content. Gram per gram, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds contain the most vegetarian protein at 9 grams, 6 grams and 4 grams per one-ounce serving. In addition to containing protein, seeds are also a good source of healthy fats and fibre, making them a great addition to any meal or snack.
Nutrition: 100 grams of sunflower seeds provides 584 calories, 21 grams of protein, 20 grams of carbohydrate and 52 grams of fat. (13)
10. Sprouted Grain Bread
Although all grains do contain some protein, certain grains contain more protein than others the process of sprouting grains helps to increase their protein content. Sprouting grains and legumes, such as wheat, millet, barley and spelt, helps to inhibit the negative impacts of anti-nutrients, in turn, increase their overall nutritional value and amino acid content. Compared to other forms of bread, sprouted grain bread contains the highest levels of protein at approximately 8 grams of protein per two slices.
Nutrition: 100 grams of sprouted grain bread provides 235 calories, 12 grams of protein, 44 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fat. (14)
High Protein Vegetarian Meals
Once you’ve got the basics of vegetarian protein sources down, creating a high-protein vegetarian meal is actually pretty simple. Here are 5 protein-packed vegetarian recipes made with whole food vegetarian protein sources.
1. Green Lentil & Spinach Curry
This vegetarian Green Lentil & Spinach Curry recipe is not only packed with protein but it’s quick and easy to prepare. Although this particular recipe calls for green lentils, this recipe could easily be made with red, brown or yellow lentils as well.
Protein Content = 24 grams per serving
2. Meal Prep Glory Bowls
The combination of tofu and brown rice in these Meal Prep Glory Bowls helps balance out the amino acid profile in the dish and boost the overall protein content to over 20 grams per bowl. Not to mention, the seed-based creamy tahini dressing helps to add a little boost of protein too.
Protein Content = 23 grams per serving
3. Vegetarian Stuffed Baked Potatoes
Not only are these Vegetarian Stuffed Baked Potatoes high in protein, but they are a great way to use leftovers for a quick and easy meal. Plus, the herbed yogurt sauce helps to add an additional boost of protein and healthy fats at the same time.
Protein Content = 20 grams per serving
4. Vegetarian Lentil Chili
Made with a combination of beans and lentils, this Vegetarian Lentil Chili recipe uses the power of legumes to create a high-protein meal. Not only does this dish work well for lunch or dinner, but it stores well in the freezer so you’ll have protein-packed vegetarian meals for weeks to come.
Protein Content = 18 grams per serving
5. Easy Black Bean Burgers
Made with canned black beans, these Black Bean Burgers are equally high in plant-based protein and fibre, making them a well-balanced meal. Plus, by serving them with a whole grain bun you can increase the overall protein content a few more grams per serving.
Protein Content = 16 grams per serving
The Bottom Line
From tofu to beans to lentils, there are many different ways to add vegetarian protein to your diet. Although not all vegetarian protein sources are considered complete protein sources, eating a wide variety of foods that contain vegetarian protein is a good way to ensure that you are consuming all of the essential amino acids in your diet. If you are looking to follow a vegetarian diet or simply eating a vegetarian meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, be sure to include a source of vegetarian protein to help ensure that is a well-balanced meal.