12 Best Vegetarian Protein Sources (Meal Ideas and Protein Powders)
- Many often worry about protein when they stop eating or limiting meat, but there are vegetarian sources of protein. There is protein available in most of the foods we eat every day. This includes vegan sources of protein as vegans consume no animal products at all, unlike vegetarians.
- Need vegetarian protein ideas or looking to supplement with vegetarian protein powder? You will be surprised at how many there are available. I also have easy ideas for you to try out.
- Low carb can be hard on a plant-based diet, look no further than these vegetarian sources of protein (low carb) with examples of how to do low carb on a vegan and vegetarian diet.
For many, vegetarian sources of protein is a mystery. When most people think of protein they usually think of meat, eggs, and protein shakes. But did you know that protein is available in most foods? In fact, all the essential amino acids are present in plant foods too, you just need to eat a wide variety of plant foods as they don’t always contain all 9 essential amino acids.
If you are looking to replace some of your meat with vegetarian meals, or if you have just become vegan or vegetarian, you have come to the right place. In this article, you will learn all about vegetarian sources of protein and get some ideas of how to make tasty meals and snacks.
What Are Amino Acids and Why Is Protein Important?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins which are necessary for building and repair muscle and other tissues in our bodies as well to make hormones and enzymes. You may have heard of animal foods being described as complete proteins, this means they contain all 9 essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids are the amino acids that our bodies are unable to make themselves meaning we need to get them from food. There are other amino acids present, usually in animal proteins, but our bodies are able to make on their own as long as we eat a healthy diet so that our bodies have all the nutrients needed to form these amino acids.
Cutting down on meat is beneficial for more reasons than just preventing cancer. Check out this science-backed video by Dr. Greger:
Vegetarian Sources of Protein
All information about the protein content of various foods come from the USDA food database and Self nutrition data. With the exception of eggs and cottage cheese, the rest are great vegan sources of protein too as well as other nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium, and some other vitamins too.
Please note that the way you prepare (such as soaking, necessary for all grains, seeds, and legumes) and cook various foods will impact how beneficial they are for you.
Though there are other vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods that contain protein, here are some of the top sources:
1. Cottage Cheese (25 g)
A cup of creamed cottage cheese contains 25 g of protein. Cottage cheese can be used as a dip, be put on top of potatoes or toast and be used to create a variety of other dishes. It makes a great post-workout snack too to replenish proteins necessary for repairing and strengthening your muscles.
2. Millet (22 g)
Millet is a gluten-free grain that can form the base of meals, in salads, and can even be made into a porridge. Per cup, millet offers 22 g of protein. Millet does not have gluten but a gluten-like protein, which can irritate the Gut. If you are healthy you can consume millet but if you have a digestive issue, avoid millet completely.
3. Lentils (18 g)
Lentils can be used in a variety of warm and cold dishes and per cup they offer 18 g of protein. They are great in salads, soups, and as a replacement for ground beef. Dried lentils are the best option as canned products are often full of excess sodium and many cans are lined with BPA. Personally, I find lentils easier on my stomach than beans, but do not forget to sprout your lentins and beans.
Different beans contain different amounts of protein but are all a good source. Navy beans when raw come to 6g of protein per cup and soybeans come in at 68 g per cup. All beans, including chickpeas, range between these numbers. Beans can also be used in soups, salads, stews, pasta, etc.
As with lentils, dry, organic, non-GMO beans are best. Soaking the beans helps to get rid of the anti-nutrients and also makes them easier on your stomach. Soy is one of the crops that are most frequently GMO along with corn, so keep an eye out if you are buying them.
5. Seeds (4.7 g -10 g)
Seeds can be put into your smoothies and juices, sprinkled over all sorts of dishes and cereals, they are even great in the occasional dessert. Whether you are eating sweet or savory you can put seeds into your meals. Here is the protein content of some of the most popular seeds per 28 g:
- Hemp seeds: 10 g
- Sunflower seeds: 5.8 g
- Pumpkin seeds: 5 g
- Flax seeds: 5.1 g
- Sesame seeds: 5 g
- Poppy seeds: 5 g
- Chia seeds: 4.7 g
Depending on the seed 28 g is between 2 and 3 tablespoons. Never roast your seeds as this will destroy the healthy fats in them.
6. Amaranth (9 g)
Per cup, amaranth offers around 9 grams per cup and is gluten-free. It is a very similar grain to quinoa but is cheaper, especially in India where it is grown. You can use it for all the same things as you would quinoa and even as a dessert or as a cereal. You can also pop amaranth as you would corn.
7. Quinoa (8 g)
Cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein per cup, in fact, it contains 20 different amino acids so if you don’t like taking protein supplements, quinoa is a great addition to your meals. Quinoa can be used for a variety of dishes such as salads and as a base for main dishes and is also gluten-free. It has a slightly nutty flavor so if you are in the mood for something different, quinoa is a great choice.
8. Eggs (6 g of protein)
A large egg contains 6 g of protein. As eggs are an animal protein, they contain all 9 essential amino acids.
When you have eggs, sunny side up with a runny yolk is best or even raw. This will protect the delicate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the egg. Only buy free range eggs from reputable farms to lessen the risk of harmful bacteria being present in the egg, especially if you do choose to eat them raw, for example, in a shake with milk.
9. Peas (6 g)
Per cup, peas contain 6 g of protein. You can eat them as a side or add them to your main dish or even some salads. They are also quick and easy to prepare whether fresh from a pod or frozen. Try this delicious coconut curry which uses snow peas. While the recipe calls for low-fat coconut milk, remember that minimally processed food is best, use the regular coconut milk.
10. Nuts (2.2 g-7 g of protein)
Nuts can make good snacks and can even be used in salads, cereals, and desserts. Afraid of the fat content? Fats have been demonized in the past, but full-fat foods most definitely form a part of a healthy diet. Just stick to one serving of nuts at a time, that would be 28 g or a small handful. The protein content of various nuts per 28 g is:
- Peanuts: 7 g
- Almonds: 6 g
- Pistachios: 6 g
- Cashews: 5 g
- Walnuts: 4.3 g
- Hazelnuts: 4.2 g
- Pine nuts: 3.9 g
- Pecan nuts: 2.6 g
- Macadamia nuts: 2.2 g
As with seeds, don’t roast nuts to protect the delicate fats. Walnuts are a good source of the ALA (plant) form of omega 3.
11. Oats (5.4 g)
Cooked oats contain 5.4 g of protein per cup of cooked oats. Uncooked it’s closer to 16 g of protein per cup. Oats make a great breakfast and can easily be made more interesting by adding cinnamon, berries, nuts, raw honey, raw cacao nibs, and even seeds. You can also use oats to make pancakes and biscuits. Choose rolled oats over instant oats when possible.
If you are gluten intolerant, make sure you choose gluten-free oats because oats are sometimes grown in the same fields as wheat or processed in factories that process wheat which can contaminate it with gluten.
12. Spirulina (4 g of protein)
Spirulina contains 4 g of protein per tablespoon. In fact, this blue-green algae, along with quinoa, is one of the few plant foods that are a complete protein. Add it to your smoothies, sprinkle over dishes (keeping in mind the strong flavor) or take it as tablet or capsule. Be sure to get it from a reputable brand where they get it from matters due to the amount of pollution in the water.
Vegetarian Protein Ideas
As mentioned, the best way to get all the essential amino acids you need is to combine different sources:
- Vegetables + beans/seeds/nuts
- Nuts and seeds + legumes and vegetables
- Legumes + nuts/seeds/grains
Here are a few examples:
- Amaranth, quinoa, or millet mixed with vegetables and beans
- Vegetables and hummus (hummus is made from chickpeas but you can get different varieties), why not make your own?
- Vegetable soup with beans or lentils
- Bean or lentil curry with amaranth, quinoa, millet, or even rice
- Oats with butter, raw honey, and nuts
- Green smoothie with ground flax seeds or hemp seed powder
- Vegetable stir fry on millet, quinoa, or amaranth
- Salad sprinkled with seeds
As long as you have a lot of variety in your diet you can also just eat different foods without necessarily combining them in one meal (vegan and vegetarian options):
- Sugar-free peanut butter with apple and seeds
- Greek yogurt with raw honey and nuts and/or seeds
- Cottage cheese with vegetables
- Cottage cheese on wholegrain toast
- Whey protein powder in your smoothie
With regards to dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and cottage cheese, raw varieties are best as pasteurized forms of dairy have lost some of the beneficial enzymes. Always purchase reputable brands as the hygiene of the farm is very important to prevent harmful bacteria from being in the dairy.
Vegetarian Sources of Protein Low Carb
It can be hard to be on a low carb diet when you consume a mainly plant-based diet, and especially so for vegans who only consume plant-based foods. But it is not impossible. If you find that your body is at its best when you lower your carb intake then there is no reason why you shouldn’t be on a low carb diet.
Be sure to increase your fat and protein intake when reducing your carbs and make sure that you eat enough food to cover your basic calorie needs. As a general rule, women should not go below 1200 and men should not go below 1500 calories per day as this is the minimum amount of calories that your body needs to function as it is meant to (at rest), you will need more if you exercise.
Your main sources of proteins to look out for are:
- Raw Dairy in moderation
Salads work well because you can eat a variety of vegetables and add healthy fats like olive oil, MCT oil, and avocado. Vegetables and hummus are also a great choice. Finding creative ways to use nut butter is also helpful. Another great option is creating a pizza using a cauliflower base and loading it with delicious vegetables. Try smoothies with avocado or coconut oil.
When you do eat carbs, eat starchy carbs like sweet potato or carrots, but keep them to a minimum.
If you choose to eat tofu (made from soybeans), make sure that it is organic and non-GMO to keep pesticides to a minimum.
Vegetarian Protein Powder
If you find that you need more protein and it is easier for you to supplement using a powder, there are options available. The most common are:
- Seed (hemp, pumpkin, chia, etc)
- Rice (usually brown rice)
- Various combinations of the above
Always look for low sugar or sugar-free options as protein powders can be packed with sugar. Add these to smoothies, make a shake using your favorite milk or some water, porridge, or cereals.
If you plan your diet correctly (by that I mean eating a variety of foods), there should be no reason to suffer any deficiencies in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Just be aware that there are some nutrients missing from plants, in particular, vitamin B12, that you will need to supplement with. For more information on which nutrients you may need to supplement, check out this article.
Do you have any delicious healthy vegetarian or vegan recipes to share with us?