My history is sprinkled with vegetarian and vegan stints. In the end, those bouts didn’t really work for me. I was hungry, a lot. And I ate lots of vegetarian junk food -- I mean, cookies, right?
Today, even while eating meat, I eat a lot more vegetables than my sprinkle-filled past.
Some folks thrive on a vegetarian or vegan protocol. And that's awesome. It's no secret, however, when following a plant-based diet, achieving a proper dose of protein can be tricky. Protein recommendations range from 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight, all the way up to 2.2 grams per kilogram of weight.
Following these recommendations, a person weighing 130 pounds could eat between 47 grams and 130 grams of protein. Someone healing from an injury, or involved in an athletic endeavor might be on the higher end of that protein recommendation, while a more sedentary individual might fall on the lower end.
Let's dig into some vegetarian protein sources to reach an optimal amount of protein while following a plant-based diet.
For a 130-pound person, let’s aim for 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 88 grams of protein.
If this person is eating 2,000 calories per day, 88 grams of protein would be approximately 18% of calories from protein. To reach these protein requirements, let's review some possible vegetarian sources of protein.
Vegetarian Protein Sources
Eggs are an excellent source of protein and nutrients, like choline; choline is important for nervous system and cell membrane health.
- 1 egg contains 6 grams of protein
If dairy is well-tolerated by an individual, full-fat, organic dairy is a good source of protein. If sensitive to lactose, a fermented dairy source like yogurt or kefir contains less lactose than non-fermented dairy. If sensitive to the protein casein, goat or sheep dairy may prove to be easier to digest.
- A 7-ounce, full-fat, organic yogurt contains 20 grams of protein
Legumes contain an antinutrient called phytic acid (AKA phytates). Phytic acid can bind to minerals and inhibit mineral absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and copper.
Legumes also contain lectins. Lectins are carb-binding proteins that can stick to the villi that line the small intestine and damage the lining. Over time, the delicate lining of the small intestine can become damaged and cause leaky gut and systemic inflammation.
The lectins and phytates are in the outer bran or seed coat of nuts, seeds, grains and beans. These anti-nutrients protect the plants from insects, predators, and invasion by bacteria and fungi. The concentration of anti-nutrients can be lessened by allowing the plant seed to germinate through moisture, warmth and acidity. If you have time, soak and sprout to decrease phytates and lectins for increased mineral absorption and improved digestion.
Lentils contain slightly more protein per serving than beans, like black beans, so lentils may be a better choice when looking for more protein in a vegetarian diet. And while beans are an OK source of protein, they contain a decent amount of carbohydrate which may raise blood sugar, if blood sugar control is of concern.
- 1 cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein, and 40 grams of carbohydrate
- 1 cup of cooked black beans contains 15 grams of protein, and 41 grams of carbohydrate
- 1 cup of cooked garbanzo beans contains 15 grams of protein, and 40 grams of carbohydrate
4. Soy Sources
Soy is often genetically modified, so finding non-GMO soy is important.
Edamame is an immature soybean, harvested right before the soybean hardens. Soy is often genetically modified, so finding non-GMO edamame is important.
- 1 cup of edamame contains 17 grams of protein
Tempeh and natto is fermented tofu, so digestion and mineral absorbtion is increased with the elimination of phytates.
- 3.5 ounces of cooked tempeh contains 18 grams of protein
Tofu is not fermented; some people can have trouble digesting it, as it contains phytates, which hinder the body's ability to absorb minerals. Fermentation of soybeans releases these phytates and allows minerals to become more bioavailable. Tempeh or natto is a fermented alternative to tofu.
- 1/2 cup of tofu contains 10 grams of protein
5. Brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, nuts, and seeds
Pseudograins, nuts and seeds all contain some protein, but also contain a hefty dose of carbohydrate and fat, along with gut-irritating phytates and lectins. Sure, you’ll get some protein, but it will be tricky to move the needle to achieve an optimum amount of protein.
- 1 ounce of almonds (23 almonds) contains 6 grams of protein
- 1 ounce of pecans (19 halves) contains 2.6 grams of protein
- 1 cup of cooked brown rice contains 5 grams of protein, and 45 grams of carbohydrate
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein, and 39 grams of carbohydrate
Vegetarian protein sources, when compared to meat, generally contain less protein and more carbohydrate. To achieve an equivalent amount of protein, the portion size will generally need to increase.
To consume 20 grams of protein at a meal, a non-vegetarian would need to eat 3-4 ounces of meat.
A vegetarian would need to eat 4-6 ounces of a vegetable-sourced protein like beans or tempeh to achieve the same 20 grams of protein.
Let's look at the grams of protein in 3.5 ounces of beans and soy, compared to chicken breast:
- 3.5 ounces Kidney beans, boiled = 9 grams protein
- 3.5 ounces Lima beans, boiled = 9 grams of protein
- 3.5 ounces Tempeh, cooked = 19 grams of protein
- 3.5 ounces Tofu, uncooked = 9 grams of protein
- 3.5 ounces Chicken breast = 21 grams of protein
Let's return to our 130-pound plant-based friend aiming for 88 grams of protein (18% of calories from protein). Here's a sample day of vegetarian protein sources which could get our fictitious friend to 88 grams of protein:
- 2 eggs = 12 grams of protein
- A 7-ounce, full-fat, organic yogurt = 20 grams of protein
- 1/2 cup of tofu = 10 grams of protein
- 1 ounce of almonds (23 almonds) = 6 grams of protein
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa = 8 grams of protein
- 3.5 ounces of tofu, uncooked = 9 grams of protein
- Lima beans, boiled = 9 grams of protein
- 1 cup raw goats milk = 9 grams of protein
= 83 grams of protein
What about the missing 5 grams? Well, vegetables do contain a bit of protein, so we'll chalk up those 5 grams to all those vegetables we're eating.
It is possible to thrive on a vegetarian diet.
But you have to be mindful of adequate protein intake, and know where you're obtaining vitamins and minerals, like iron and B12.
And for goodness sakes, don't be like me, and kid your way into thinking all non-meat containing foods are up for grabs.