If you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian, or if you’ve already made the commitment, you’ve likely faced a popular question: Where can you get your protein?
Fear not – there are plenty of protein sources for vegetarians. You just have to know where to shop for your food.
Vegetarians don’t eat any meat at all, so they will not be getting protein from beef, poultry, fish, and other types of animal products. But that is not a problem. Instead, they arrange their diets to get the necessary macronutrients — fat, carbs, and protein — every day.
And it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
When you first become a vegetarian, you might struggle to find foods that you love and that align with your values. However, just like any skill, you’ll get better. Reading labels, preparing grocery lists, and cooking meals in advance can all help.
Let’s start by debunking a common myth so you’re ready to diversify your diet while living the vegetarian lifestyle.
But Isn’t Meat the Only Source of Protein?
When you ask someone how to get more protein in your diet, you’ll likely hear answers like steak, fish fillets, chicken breasts, and shrimp. That’s likely why people think that meat is the only source of protein.
But no. It’s not.
Protein is an organic compound composed of amino acids. Just like animals, we need protein to maintain muscle health, get sufficient calories, grow stronger, and maintain healthy hair, skin, and nails.
But here’s what most people miss. The protein that you eat doesn’t directly go into your muscle building. Instead, it is broken down during digestion to form peptides. These are then propelled through the liver to the muscles that need them. Any extra is the body attempts to throw away – because too much protein is harmful to your health.
For example, recent large-scale research among middle-aged men found that high-protein diets increased risk of heart failure by 49%. And they were tracked from the early 1980’s, so yes, they could really figure this out among the group of 2,400 men.
The 1960’s theory that we need increased amounts of animal-based protein was debunked already in 1972, but that hasn’t stopped the animal agriculture industry from forcefully telling us otherwise for decades. And that thinking has unfortunately stuck, to the point where many fast food restaurants (and even some pretending to be healthy) call their meat items “proteins”.
Animals that come from factory farming operations and are slaughtered for their meat eat largely plant-based diets. If those plants, from grass to grains, didn’t give those animals protein, we couldn’t get protein from the animal.
By adopting a plant-based diet as a vegetarian, you get a purer form of protein. Going right to the source, so to speak.
A vegetarian is not only healthier, but also reduces the money that goes into the pockets of factory farmers who don’t care about animal rights or animal cruelty. The necessary change starts with consumer behavior.
If nobody buys meat products, factory farming can’t survive.
Plant-Based Foods Are Great Sources of Protein
Every single plant contains protein and “14% of the total calories of every plant are protein,” according to Whole Foods. In fact, the calories from spinach are about 50 percent protein – the exact same ratio as that of chicken. Every plant has a different makeup, but by choosing plant-based foods, you can easily meet your protein quota every day.
That’s good news if you’re a vegetarian. Many vegetarians lose weight after switching to plant-based diets, but good protein sources from plant foods will keep you from losing lean muscle mass in the process.
The truth is that vegetables, fruits, and other plants can sustain your body’s needs while providing you with plentiful options for every meal. If you always have a pantry and fridge stocked with plants, you can make endless recipes without getting bored.
Furthermore, you help stop the animal abuse that has become so prevalent in the agriculture industry.
Here Are 27 of the Best Natural Protein Sources For a Vegetarian
You are either a vegetarian or considering the switch. What now? How do you make sure you get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy?
Everyone is different. Some people have trouble processing the more fibrous plant-based foods, such as kale and broccoli, through their digestive systems. Others have specific palates that endear them to certain plants and not others. You have to figure out how to keep your plate balanced.
Focusing on high-protein plants as well as sources of healthy fats will help you remain healthy. You should also add small amounts of carbs to your plate for fuel. Carbs get a bad rap, but they’re not dangerous to your health or your waistline if you choose them carefully and eat them in moderation.
With that said, what are the best natural sources of protein for a vegetarian? And for extra healthiness – all protein sources we picked here are actually vegan, too – completely free of any animal products.
These tasty nuts have a few things going for them. First, they’re excellent sources of protein. Every almond has approximately .25 grams of protein. If you consume a handful — perhaps 15 almonds, you’re getting just about four grams.
Almonds also have lots of healthy fats and few carbs. More importantly, they’re satisfying. You might feel full and satiated after eating just a few of these nuts, but you haven’t consumed many calories.
Add almonds to your oatmeal, salads, and dips if you prefer not to eat them plain. They’re even a tasty garnish for certain desserts. Not to mention toasted, or blended into almond butter.
If you’re not familiar with amaranth, don’t feel bad. Many people have never heard the name. However, amaranth grains are available in most supermarkets and prove to be good sources of protein and starch.
There are 14 grams of protein in 100 grams of amaranth. That’s about one cup or just over 3.5 ounces. You can use amaranth just like you would in any grain. They make excellent tortillas and tamales, for instance, and you can sprinkle the grains over your salad or vegetarian sandwich.
Let’s give beans a break. What do you say? They’re known as the “musical fruit” because they can cause gas to build up in your stomach and intestines, which leads to bloating and, in some cases, the inability to stop your body from expelling those gases.
Don’t remove beans from the plate just yet, though. Beans affect people in different ways, and not all beans are the same (summary: eat black-eyed beans). Combining them with carbs can help reduce the amount of gas that build up in your digestive tract. Preparation can also make a difference, such as with refried beans. Many over-the-counter medications, such as the suggestively named Beano, can also help you feel more comfortable after enjoying a black bean burger.
Many different varieties of beans exist, from navy and black to fava and kidney. Each bean has a different nutritional makeup, so figure out your favorites and add them to your favorite dishes. They can serve as sides or as complements to your main course.
4. Breads Made From Sprouted Grains
Whole-grain bread adds even more protein to a vegetarian diet. Remember, carbs aren’t the enemy. You must simply focus on the grains that aren’t processed or refined.
Maybe you don’t like wheat bread. That’s fine. Try rye, pumpernickel, sourdough, focaccia, and pita. They all have different tastes and can contribute to a delicious vegetarian sandwich. And their grains bring you lots of easily digestible, delicious protein.
5. Chia Seeds
No, I’m not suggesting that you time-travel to 1995 and eat your chia pet (anyone remember them?). Chia seeds, though, can introduce protein to your diet quickly if you sprinkle them on your favorite foods, such as salads, sandwiches, pastas, and even casseroles.
The chia seed contains about 16 percent protein. That makes it a delicious and easy source of protein for vegetarians, especially if your plate doesn’t contain much protein to begin with. Start slowly — if you dump too many of these seeds on your meal when you’re not used to them, you might experience stomach upset. They are potent nutrition, after all.
A single cup of cooked chickpeas contains about 15 grams of protein. You can use them to make hummus or just buy hummus from the store. Raw chickpeas retain even more nutrients and minerals when you eat them dried or raw. They go great on a summer salad.
For a super healthy snack, you can dip raw carrots in your favorite hummus recipe. Celery, apple slices, and even parsnips pair well with cooked chickpeas, as well, whether you flavor the hummus or eat it as-is.
The great thing about chickpeas is that they’re extremely diverse — and healthy. Instead of mayonnaise or mustard, smear your sandwich bread with a thick layer of hummus. You’ll get the smooth, creamy taste without the unnecessary calories.
This is another one that you either haven’t heard of or you’ve heard a lot about it. Edamame is similar to chickpeas in that it’s very diverse. You can eat dried edamame for a satisfying, crunchy snack or pour the cooked variety on your meal.
Essentially, edamame is cooked soybeans. This nutritional powerhouse food is used in recipes ranging from omelets to burritos. You’ll get lots of protein in your vegetarian diet as well as vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.
8. Ezekiel Bread
As long as you can tolerate gluten, you can reap the rewards of Ezekiel bread. Healthline calls is “the healthiest bread you can eat,” and for good reason. This bread contains no added sugar and is composed of both sprouted grains and legumes.
If you’re a carb-o-holic, Ezekiel bread might make your vegetarian diet healthier and less likely to cause weight gain. That’s a plus for everyone. It also tastes delicious. If you want the best variety, learn to bake it yourself (eliminate the egg coating and substitute honey with agave syrup in the recipe) .
9. Green Peas
Pass the peas, please.
Some people love peas. Others despise them. Regardless, these are the perfect protein source for vegetarians because of the variety of nutrients they offer. In addition to protein, you’ll get carbs, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Despite their name, hempseeds are actually nuts. And, like most nuts, they’re over-the-top packed with protein. They contain certain fatty acids that can improve skin and hair health, and hempseeds about a quarter of a hempseed’s calories come from protein.
Before you get scared of an accidental high, know that hempseeds contain no THC — the psychedelic ingredient in marijuana. Eating these bad boys won’t give you a case of the munchies or a bout of paranoia (on the flip side, no use trying to plant them and grow your own, either).
The unsung heroes of the legume world, lentils are perfect additions to soups, salads, sandwiches, and casseroles. You’ll find lentils in many Mediterranean dishes as well as in Mexican cuisine.
Uncooked lentils last for a long time — up to one year — and you can refrigerate cooked lentils for up to three days. Add them to your favorite vegetarian dish to up the protein quotient and to give your diet more variety.
Many people have never heard of mycoprotein — let alone tried it. It’s a fungus protein that increases satiety and helps you, as a vegetarian, get more protein in your diet.
Understand, though, that there are health concerns associated with Mycoprotein. Some varieties have toxins that can have negative impacts on those who eat it, so make sure you’re getting it from a trusted source. Quorn is a favorite brand available in many grocery stores.
13. Nutritional Yeast
Maybe you’re not just a vegetarian. You avoid dairy products, eggs, and other animal by-products as well. Veganism involves avoiding consuming any product that results in animal cruelty.
Nutritional yeast is a wonderful ingredient to keep in your arsenal. It’s perfect for making cheese substitutes because of its flavor. You might pick up nutty and savory flavors, as well.
Use nutritional yeast to get more protein into your vegetarian or vegan diet. You can sprinkle it over pasta or casseroles, flavor sauces with it to get that delicious creamy texture and flavor or stir it into your favorite soup.
We already talked about almonds, but other nuts are excellent sources of protein for vegetarians. Cashews, peanuts, walnuts, and pecans are particularly tasty — not to mention packed with protein.
You don’t have to eat nuts out of a can whole. Shave them on your salad, puree them with your favorite smoothie, or incorporate them into your vegetarian recipes in small chunks. The satisfying crunch helps you get full faster and allows you to enjoy more flavors with your food.
15. Oats and Oatmeal
When you want to start the day off right, you don’t have to rely on plain oats or oatmeal. Add decadent flavors with fruits and syrups that don’t contain animal products.
Oatmeal garnished with berries, nuts, and a quick pour of maple syrup gives you energy and allows you to tackle the day with a sated stomach. Mix and match different varieties until you find what works best for you. Just remember that the whole oats you cook yourself will provide more nutritional value than processed versions, and that many of the flavored, pre-mixed versions are overloaded with sugar.
The great debate continues. Some people say that potatoes — white, red, sweet, whatever — are dangerous to human health, while others champion these foods. Just don’t eat anything green from a potato plant! Regardless, potatoes are excellent sources of protein for a vegetarian.
If you’re also vegan, you won’t reach for the butter, sour cream, or cheese. Instead, opt for vegetables and legumes that give the potato more flavor. You can also find vegan-friendly versions of your favorite potato garnishes.
Slice sweet potatoes into cubes, boil them for a few minutes and serve them as a main course. They’re easily complemented by vegetable sides, such as broccoli or carrots. Plus, they give you tons of energy if you’re interested in even modest exercise. But don’t think you can eat five servings of french fries every day and call it your daily veggies.
17. Protein-Rich Fruits
Protein and fruits don’t seem to go together in many consumers’ minds. However, fruits contain more protein than you think.
The best contenders include tangerines, apricots, guava, kiwi, blackberries, bananas, and avocados. Use them liberally in your vegetarian diet to get your fill of protein as well as delicious whole fruits.
Notice that I used the word “whole.” Don’t buy canned fruit or any other processed food. Instead, shop your grocery store’s produce section for the best fruits. A farmer’s market can also help you save money and get even more delicious fruits.
18. Protein-Rich Vegetables
Certain vegetables, such as asparagus and broccoli, have very high levels of protein. They’re also highly fibrous, which can help improve your digestive system, and they’re perfect main courses or side dishes, depending on your mood.
Garnish vegetables with non-dairy butter, hummus, vegan cheese, or mashed potatoes for a new spin on the old shepherd’s pie. The sky’s the limit.
Over the last decade, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has taken the health food industry by storm. It’s a delicious alternative to rice and similar foods because it contains fewer carbs, but it’s loaded with protein and valuable vitamins and minerals.
Try quinoa as a part of a Mediterranean feast. Combine it with green and black olives, falafel, cumin, and tahini sauce. You’ll be surprised by how quickly this type of meal fills you up. Plus, you’ll load your system with muscle-building protein.
Sometimes, you just crave meat. Or something like it, at least. It’s natural, especially if you’ve been a meat eater for most of your life. Seitan is a great meat alternative that comes from a grain. It satiates your desire for meat while providing tons of protein.
Some people describe seitan as similar to a mushroom, while others liken it to chicken. Whatever the case, it’s a great main entree, especially if you know your family or guests prefer vegetarian or vegan diets. Look up receipes if you haven’t prepared it before, but be prepared for it’s versatility – you can sautee it, grill it like gyros, make patties out of it, slice it like deli meats, and load it with different spices and flavors unlike you ever could with meat.
21. Soy Milk
Cow’s milk contributes to dairy farming and the associated animal abuse, but milk substitutes don’t have a deleterious impact on our beloved animal friends (or the planet, or your health, for that matter). Soy is high in protein and healthy fats. Plus, soy milk has a very full taste with a slightly nutty aftertaste.
Use soy milk to cook as well as to fuel your desire for a glass of milk when you’re enjoying dessert. This cruelty-free milk alternative can help boost the number of grams of protein you consume while also delivering other benefits.
Unlike dairy milk, most soy milk brands and styles can taste very different. If you don’t like your first or second taste of soy milk, don’t give up – shop around for your future favorite.
Spelt, which is part of the wheat family, produces an insane amount of protein, and is one of the so-called “ancient grains” having been cultivated for 7,000 years already. It’s also delicious when it’s prepared as a bread or crust.
It’s also incredibly high in fiber, so be careful if you haven’t eaten a high-fiber diet. Introduce spelt conservatively at first to avoid stomach upset, then increase the amounts gradually.
You might not want to even contemplate eating algae, but spirulina can change your mind. It doesn’t taste great, but you can mask the flavor with other foods to hide its impact on your palate.
The main reason to add spirulina to your diet is to improve your protein intake. It’s rich in carbohydrates and other nutrients, too.
Human beings don’t often eat grass, but teff offers an exception. It’s high in protein and dietary fiber, which can help keep you regular while you lift weights or participate in cardiovascular exercise.
There isn’t much you can’t do with tempeh. It’s used all over the world as a nutritional supplement as well as a dietary staple. Instead of consuming meat, consider eating tempeh products, which pack in the protein and plenty of taste. A thorough and patient marinading is the key to culinary enjoyment here.
Like tempeh, tofu is extremely diverse. Tofu has long history in Eastern cuisines, but in the West has long had a slightly uninspiring reputation, which is undeserved. Tofu is very versatile and affordable – and packed with protein.
Use tofu to create stir-fries, casseroles, sandwiches, meat patties, soups, and more. It’s delicious and healthy, which makes it the perfect go-to item in your pantry.
27. Wild Rice
If you’re going to eat rice, choose the wild variety. It’s a common staple for vegetarians who want comfort food without the guilt. You can eat lots of wild rice without packing on the pounds, and each serving packs a serious punch in terms of protein.
Benefits of Eating Vegetarian-Only Protein
Yes, animal products contain protein. That’s no secret. However, vegans and vegetarians understand that the animals raised in factory farm environments experience extreme distress prior to death. That’s one reason to eat vegetarian-only protein. Other reasons are sparing the environment, and yourself – vegetarian diets are much healthier than diets based on slaughtered animals.
I mentioned above that the animals who still get slaughtered eat lots of plants. That’s where your dietary protein comes from. If you stop eating meat and switch to a plant-based diet, you cut out the middleman.
Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes have plenty of protein to offer, so you don’t have to worry about losing muscle mass when you become a vegetarian.
Switching to a vegetarian diet is a commitment. It brings you in line with your values, particularly concerning animal welfare, and allows you to enjoy foods without the guilt.
Reducing your consumption of animal products as a whole can help put an end to animal testing and factory farming. And those who say you won’t get enough protein just don’t know the facts. I’ve shared with you 27 amazing sources of protein for vegetarians.
Your diet is your choice. If you don’t want to eat meat, you have options. Don’t sacrifice your beliefs for your belly.
And if you’re visiting friends or family, use the foods above to fuel you while you’re away. You don’t have to break down and eat meat just because everyone else does.
Are you thinking about becoming a vegetarian? What do you struggle with?