As a vegan or vegetarian, getting enough protein in your diet can seem challenging, especially if you’re new to this type of diet. Obtaining adequate protein while primarily or strictly following a plant-based diet is certainly possible, however, it may require some additional time and planning. Adding some plant-based or vegetarian protein options to the mix is not only beneficial for vegans and vegetarians, but also for omnivores. Incorporating variety in a diet provides a wide range of essential nutrients for health, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and anti-oxidants.
Here’s what you need to know about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet and how to find the best vegetarian protein sources.
What is Protein?
Protein is made up of components called amino acids. During digestion, the body breaks down the protein into these amino acids and uses them for various body functions. Protein plays an important role in building bones, muscle, and other body tissues, producing hormones, and supporting neurotransmitter function. (11)
There are 22 amino acids, nine of which your body can’t make, so they need to come from your diet. These are known as essential amino acids. Many plant-based protein sources contain some, but not all of the essential amino acids. This makes it important to consume a variety of these foods through your diet. (12)
Vegetarian foods high in protein
Numerous vegetarian-friendly foods are naturally rich in protein.
Eggs are an inexpensive and nutrient-dense protein source for vegetarians and omnivores alike. A large egg contains about six grams of protein. Eggs also provide omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and choline. An added benefit, consuming just one egg per day has been found to reduce the risk of stroke. (1)
Protein content in yogurt typically varies from about six to 13 grams per four-ounce serving. The fermentation process involved in making yogurt produces probiotics that benefit gut health, making yogurt easier to digest, even for those who may be sensitive to dairy. (17) Consider buying plain, unflavored yogurt to avoid the added sugar and processed ingredients often found in flavored yogurt.
Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes, which include lentils, mung beans, chickpeas, black beans, and navy beans, are great sources of plant-based protein. According to the USDA Food Composition Database, many beans and legumes contain over 20 grams of protein per 100 grams. (19)
Soybeans are among the best vegan protein sources, however, some individuals may prefer to keep soy consumption to a moderate level. Soybeans contain isoflavones, which are plant compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. The isoflavones in soy may be beneficial for both men and women. Research has indicated that soy isoflavones improve menopause symptoms in women, including hot flashes and irritability, and may reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men. (1)(20)(22) More research is needed to conclude the potential effects of isoflavones. Both soy and peanuts (which are also a legume) also tend to be allergenic, so opt for other vegetarian protein if you don’t tolerate them well. (24)
Consumed much like a grain, quinoa is a pseudograin and is actually a seed. There are approximately 8 grams of protein per one cup serving (185 grams) of cooked quinoa. (19) Quinoa also supplies minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, making it a great choice for individuals following a vegan diet. Consuming quinoa has been shown to prevent weight gain and improve lipid levels in the blood. (18)
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein and are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and healthy unsaturated fats. (16) Almonds and pistachios contain approximately six grams of protein per ounce and pumpkin seeds contain ten grams per quarter cup serving. (16)(19) The combination of protein and healthy fats in nuts and seeds helps to control your appetite and blood sugar levels. (5)
Vegan and vegetarian protein supplements
Depending on your age, activity level, or health goals, your protein requirements may change. For example, studies show that muscle loss occurs in aging people if protein intake is low. (13) If obtaining adequate protein from vegetarian whole foods alone is challenging, taking a protein supplement may help.
This protein supplement is sourced from dairy and is commonly used for muscle building and repair. (4)(23) Research shows whey protein can also improve cognitive function, especially in adults with fatigue. (7)
Pea protein 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. (3)
Rice protein is fairly neutral in flavor and is also a great choice for individuals with food allergies or sensitivities. (9) One study investigating the benefits of rice protein compared to whey protein found that both supplements produced similar changes in muscle strength, body composition, and post-workout recovery after eight weeks. (6)
Chia seed protein
These tiny seeds provide about six grams of protein per quarter cup, and are increasingly used in protein powders. Chia seed protein is often sprouted, a process that can improve the digestibility of the seed. Chia seeds are also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. (8)
Hemp seed protein
Harvested from the Cannabis sativa L. plant, hemp seeds are an excellent source of plant-based protein, containing approximately 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. These tiny, protein-packed seeds are available in several forms, including whole seeds, hemp protein meal, and hemp protein isolate. Hemp seeds are also rich in fiber, vitamin E, zinc, and heart-healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids. (15)(21)
Unlike most plant-based protein sources, soy is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. (10) Conventionally-grown soy tends to be genetically modified and heavily contaminated with pesticide residue, so choose certified organic soy products when possible. (14)
The bottom line
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may find it challenging to get enough protein. Eating a variety of protein-containing foods is best, however, protein supplements can help boost protein intake if needed. We always recommend speaking with your practitioner to determine if a new supplement is right for your treatment plan. To learn more about following a plant-based diet, visit the Fullscript blog.
- Ahsan, M., & Mallick, A. K. (2017). The Effect of Soy Isoflavones on the Menopause Rating Scale Scoring in Perimenopausal and Postmenopausal Women: A Pilot Study. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research : JCDR, 11(9), FC13–FC16.
- Alexander, D. D., Miller, P. E., Vargas, A. J., Weed, D. L., & Cohen, S. S. (2016). Meta-analysis of egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 35(8), 704–716.
- Babault, N., Païzis, C., Deley, G., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M.-H., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 3.
- Cintineo, H. P., Arent, M. A., Antonio, J., & Arent, S. M. (2018). Effects of protein supplementation on performance and recovery in resistance and endurance training. Frontiers in Nutrition, 5, 83.
- Hollingworth, S., Dalton, M., Blundell, J. E., & Finlayson, G. (2019). Evaluation of the influence of raw almonds on appetite control: Satiation, satiety, hedonics and consumer perceptions. Nutrients, 11(9), 2030.
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- Kita, M., Obara, K., Kondo, S., Umeda, S., & Ano, Y. (2018). Effect of supplementation of a whey peptide rich in tryptophan-tyrosine-related peptides on cognitive performance in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutrients, 10(7), 899.
- Knez Hrnčič, M., Ivanovski, M., Cör, D., & Knez, Ž. (2019). Chia seeds (Salvia Hispanica L.): An overview—Phytochemical profile, isolation methods, and application. Molecules, 25(1), 11.
- Michelet, M., Schluckebier, D., Petit, L.-M., & Caubet, J.-C. (2017). Food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome – a review of the literature with focus on clinical management. Journal of Asthma and Allergy, 10, 197–207.
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- National Institutes of Health. (2015, March 25). Dietary Proteins. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryproteins.html
- National Institutes of Health. (2020, August 4). Amino acids. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002222.htm
- Nowson, C., & O’Connell, S. (2015). Protein requirements and recommendations for older people: A review. Nutrients, 7(8), 6874–6899.
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- Simnadis, T. G., Tapsell, L. C., & Beck, E. J. (2015). Physiological effects associated with quinoa consumption and implications for research involving humans: A review. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 70(3), 238–249.
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