Protein Sources For Vegetarian Diets: Meet Your Protein Needs Without Meat!

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meatless protein sourcesEating a vegetarian diet can be a healthy lifestyle choice for many people, but it is also important to find protein sources for vegetarian meals. Most people do not worry about how much protein they are eating, as they can usually obtain protein through meat. However, if you are not eating meat, then it’s easy to miss out on the protein you need.

Luckily, there are a variety of meatless protein sources that can be added to vegetarian dishes. It is possible to get high protein without meat!

Why Meatless Protein Is Good

Eating meatless protein has a lot of benefits. While meat is a good source of protein, it is usually expensive and high in calories and fat, making it a poor health choice when eaten too often. In comparison, vegetarian protein sources are usually more affordable and healthier. They are also better for the environment typically, as producing meat products requires a lot more resources.

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One of the reasons people typically believe meat is a better source of protein is because it’s a “complete protein.” There are nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce. Instead, we need to be eating these in our diets. Meat is a “complete protein,” meaning it has all nine of these essential amino acids.

However, there are also many vegetarian “complete proteins.” As well, mixing different vegetarian protein sources can easily provide all of the amino acids you need. As long as you have a varied diet with a variety of protein sources, you are almost guaranteed to get all of the amino acids you would from meat.

Meatless Protein Sources for Vegetarians

How do you get protein without meat? There are a wide variety of vegetarian protein sources that you can choose from. Here are some of the most common and best protein sources for vegetarians:

1. Eggs: Eggs are a “complete protein,” meaning they have all of the amino acids you need. Each egg has six grams of protein. Having a breakfast omelet or plate of scrambled eggs is a good way to get a protein-rich meal at the start of your day.

2. Dairy: Dairy products are also often “complete proteins.” Cottage cheese, in particular, is a healthy source of protein, with 11 grams of protein for every 100 grams. Cottage cheese can be low-in-fat and calories, and it is also a good source of calcium. Adding cottage cheese as a topping or ingredient to some of your favorite dishes will give you the protein you need.

3. Quinoa: Quinoa is often touted as a superfood, especially for people looking for gluten-free options. It is a “complete protein” loaded with nutrients, minerals, and fiber, making it an incredibly healthy food in general. It contains 14 grams of protein for every 100 grams. It makes a good substitute for rice or a good addition to salads.

4. Seitan: If you want a lot of protein, then you will not find anything better than seitan. With 75 grams of protein per 100 grams, seitan is the most protein-rich vegetarian option you will find. Seitan is commonly known as wheat gluten. While it is not gluten-free, it is low-in-fat and calories and high in iron and calcium. It’s a good meat substitute.

5. Lentils: Lentils are one of the vegetarian options highest in protein, with 26 grams of protein and a day’s worth of fiber per every 100 grams. They are also loaded with minerals like magnesium, iron, and potassium. Lentils are a great meatless protein source, as they can be added to almost any type of vegetarian dish. They can easily be mixed into salads, casseroles, rice, or soups.

6. Peanut butter: It may not be commonly thought of as a health food, but peanut butter has 25 grams of protein per every 100 grams. While it’s high in fat, it’s also loaded with fiber, potassium, and vitamin B-6. It is also one of the most affordable sources of protein. A large jar of peanut butter can be bought for as low as a few dollars!

7. Almonds: Many different types of nuts and seeds have high amounts of protein. Almonds are one of the most protein-rich nuts, with 21 grams of protein per 100 grams. They are loaded with nutrients and minerals. While they’re also high in fat, it’s fat that is good for you. Buy unprocessed, raw almonds, as dry roasted almonds will often have less nutrients and more sodium.

8. Milk: While it doesn’t have the highest amount of protein, milk contains 3.3 grams of protein for every 100 grams. This means that a glass of milk could give you close to 10 grams of protein, along with calcium and other important nutrients. The good news is that milk alternatives, such as soy milk, also have a similar amount of protein. Having a glass or two throughout the day can help boost the amount of protein you are eating.

Benefits of Meatless Meals

For some people who are stuck on eating meat and don’t want to give up their carnivore ways, it may seem like there’s no good reason to switch to vegetarian sources of protein. If you’re getting all your protein in meat, why go vegetarian?

The reality is that meatless meals have a lot of benefits. There are many reasons why everyone should be using vegetarian protein sources for at least some of their daily protein intake:

  • More savings: Meat is more expensive per pound than most vegetarian foods. This means that if you are getting the bulk of your protein from meat, you are likely spending a lot of money. Many vegetarian options, such as lentils or eggs, are very cheap and affordable. Even if you are a meat-eater, substituting a few roasts for some quinoa or sunflower seeds will help save you money.
  • More nutrients: Vegetarian options have more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients than most types of meat. Most meatless protein sources are loaded with minerals like magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium. You need these for good health. Eating a good mix of vegetarian options can be like taking a multivitamin.
  • Less saturated fat and cholesterol: Meat is a good source of protein, but it’s also often loaded with “bad” fat and high amounts of cholesterol. Vegetarian foods have less saturated fat and cholesterol. With meatless sources of protein, you do not need to worry about how much you eat.
  • Lower risk of death: People who eat less meat have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and death. For these reasons alone, cutting down on the amount of meat you eat is a good idea. While meat can be good in moderation, too much is unhealthy and has a negative effect on our bodies.

Protein Rich Recipes

The great thing about vegetarian protein sources is that you can create many different meals using them. There are many “protein without meat” recipes that are simple to make and which taste good.

1. Quinoa salad

For a simple, tasty dish that can be made differently each time, try a quinoa salad. Simply cook your quinoa by bringing a pot of water to boil, simmering it on low-medium heat; and then add in your quinoa and stir until it’s cooked. Afterwards, add a variety of different protein-rich vegetarian foods for flavor. You can add lentils, black beans, and spinach for protein, along with other vegetables that will go along well with the dish, such as bell peppers and avocados. Top off your quinoa salad with a light dressing, like vinaigrette, and you have a vegetarian meal loaded with lots of protein.

2. Omelets

Combine eggs and dairy for another protein-rich option that is perfect for breakfast. It is easy to make a good omelet. Simply crack some eggs and beat them in a bowl until they are mixed. In a frying pan, simmer some butter on low heat until it is melted, and then add your eggs. Once the omelet begins to firm, add about one quarter of a cup of protein-rich cottage cheese on top and continue cooking until firm.

Get the Protein You Need!

Not only are there plenty of ways to get protein without meat for vegetarians, but vegetarian options are usually healthier for you too. There are plenty of non-meat “complete proteins,” and you can create a variety of healthy, protein-rich dishes using vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

So if you are a vegetarian, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be getting your daily required amount of protein. If you’re a meat-eater, you may also want to think about switching out a few steaks for a quinoa salad or veggie-loaded chili. You’ll still get all the protein you need, and who knows—you might like these meals so much that you become a vegetarian!

Sources for Today’s Article:
“10 Meatless High-Protein Foods,” Cooking Light web site; http://www.cookinglight.com/food/vegetarian/protein-for-vegetarians, last accessed December 16, 2015.
“20 Meatless High Protein Foods (Good Vegetarian Sources of Protein),” Bembu web site; http://bembu.com/high-protein-vegetarian-foods, last accessed December 16, 2015.
Barnes, L., “Meatless Meals Benefit Your Health,” SparkPeople web site; http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=902, last accessed December 16, 2015.
English, N., “12 Complete Proteins Vegetarians Need to Know About,” Greatist web site, April 29, 2014; http://greatist.com/health/complete-vegetarian-proteins.
Haan, S., “How to Meet Your Protein Needs without Meat,” SparkPeople web site; http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=158, last accessed December 16, 2015.
Kelly, D., “Smooth and Cheesy Omelet,” All Recipes Canada web site; http://allrecipes.com/recipe/24349/smooth-and-cheesy-omelet/, last accessed December 16, 2015.
“Meatless meals: The benefits of eating less meat,” Mayo Clinic web site; http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/meatless-meals/art-20048193, last accessed December 16, 2015.


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Dr. Jeffrey Shapiro, MD

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After receiving athletic and academic awards at Yale and Stanford, Jeff has coached those seeking peak wellness, appeared on ABC News 20/20 and served as a consultant for CBS News 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. As the author of many research studies and practicing anesthesiology/critical care medicine for more than 20 years, Jeff can be your guide to common sense decision making regarding drugs, supplements and vitamins. With no corporate sponsors and no vitamins or supplements... Read Full Bio »