Plant-Based Protein: Foods and Natural Supplements for Vegetarians and Vegans

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by Karolina Zaremba, CNP


As a vegan or vegetarian, getting enough protein in your diet can be confusing, especially if you’re new to eating this way. It’s certainly possible when including high protein vegetarian foods, and vegetarian or vegan protein supplements as needed.

Adding some vegetarian protein sources to the mix is beneficial for omnivores as well. Ensuring a varied diet filled with nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, can help you avoid food intolerances.

Here’s what you need to know about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet, including how to find the right vegetarian protein supplement.

yogurt bowl with peas, chickpeas, naan bread

Eating a varied plant-based diet helps to ensure you get the protein your body needs.

Not all protein is created equal

Protein is made up of components called amino acids. During digestion, your body will break down the protein into these amino acids and will use them for different processes in your body. Some of these uses include building bones, muscle, and other body tissues, creating hormones, and supporting neurotransmitter function.

There are 22 amino acids, 9 of which your body can’t make, so they need to come from your diet. These are commonly called essential amino acids.

Many plant-based protein sources contain some, but not all of the essential amino acids. This makes it important to eat a variety of these vegan or vegetarian foods throughout the day. Get your protein from the options listed below.

six brown eggs in white carton, one egg is broken

Your body uses nutrients found in the whole egg, including amino acids, omega-3 fats, and choline.

Vegetarian foods high in protein

Eggs

Eggs are a nutrition powerhouse. A large egg contains about 6 grams of protein, and it provides omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, as well as choline. On top of that, consuming one egg per day has been found to reduce the risk of stroke. (1)

Yogurt

Protein content in yogurt can vary from about 6 grams to 13 grams per four-ounce serving (the higher amount found in Greek-style yogurt). The probiotics in yogurt benefit gut health, making yogurt easier to digest, even for those who may be sensitive to dairy. (2) Buying plain, unflavored yogurt can help you avoid the added sugar and processed fruit typically found in it.

Beans and legumes

Foods such as lentils, mung beans, chickpeas, black beans, and navy beans are excellent protein sources. According to the USDA Food Composition Database, these options contain over 20 grams of protein per 100 grams. (3) Soy is found high up on the list of vegan protein sources, but it’s not for everyone. Soybeans contain isoflavones, which are plant compounds that mimic the estrogen hormone in the body. This can be beneficial in some cases, such as for women going through menopause, but others may prefer to keep soy consumption to a moderate level. (4) Both soy and peanuts (which are also a legume) tend to be allergenic, so opt for other vegetarian protein if you don’t tolerate them well.

Quinoa

This gluten-free food is actually a seed that we consume like a grain. There are 14 grams of protein per 100 grams of uncooked quinoa. Quinoa also supplies minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, making it a great choice if you eat vegan or dairy-free. Consuming quinoa has been shown to lower weight gain and improve lipid profiles (lipid levels in the blood). (5)

Almonds

These nuts have 6 grams of protein for ¼ cup, and are high in unsaturated fat. The protein paired with healthy fats helps to control your appetite and blood sugar levels. Almonds make for a great snack on their own, or you can enjoy almond butter in baking or as a delicious spread.

green pepper cut in half with quinoa inside on white plate with a fork

Quinoa provides protein and minerals, which makes it a great vegan food for bone health.

Natural protein supplements for vegetarians & vegans

Your body can have higher protein needs at times, such as while trying to lose weight, when exercising, and as you age. For example, studies show that muscle loss occurs in aging people if protein intake is low. (6) Getting adequate protein from vegetarian whole foods alone can be difficult; this is where taking a protein supplement comes in. Some of the vegetarian and vegan protein supplements include:

Whey protein

Whey protein is a supplement known as an efficiently-used protein. It comes from dairy and is commonly used for exercise recovery. Research shows it can also improve cognitive function, especially in adults with high fatigue. (7)

Pea protein

This is a great hypoallergenic option, free from dairy, grains, soy, and egg. Pea protein is well-tolerated, so can be worth a try if you normally have a hard time digesting protein.

Rice protein

Rice protein is fairly neutral in flavor, making it easy to have on-the-go or blend into smoothies. This is also a great choice for those on a vegan diet.

Chia seed protein

These tiny seeds ring in at about 6 grams of protein per ¼ cup, and are increasingly used in protein powders. Chia protein is often sprouted, a process of soaking the seed which can help with digestion.

Soy protein

If soy is right for you to include in your diet, you can use it as another dairy-free and gluten-free option. Some people find it has a slightly nutty taste to it.

The bottom line

There are many options to keep protein levels high while being on a vegetarian or the vegan diet. Options and alternatives are available to ensure enough protein is consumed on a daily basis. As always, we recommend checking with your practitioner to see if a new supplement is right for your treatment plan.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

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