Whether it’s a lifestyle choice or a diet change for health purposes, making the switch to a vegetarian diet can be challenging for many people. The decision to give up meat and rely on mostly plant food sources can be great for your health, but you need to know how to do it correctly in order to stay healthy and fuel your body with all the nutrients it needs.
One of the biggest points of concern about vegetarian diets is protein. Since meat is a major source of protein for non-vegetarian diets, many people question whether vegetarians can truly get enough protein each day.
In reality, it is quite easy for those following vegetarian diets to get adequate protein through non-meat foods.
The importance of protein
Proteins do a lot of different jobs throughout the body. Most notably, they help us repair our muscles, assist in the creation of neurotransmitters, create collagen and much more. The amount of protein you need each day will depend on your weight and activity level.
Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which can be considered the “building blocks” your body needs. These amino acids form peptides, which form different kinds of proteins. Our bodies create all the different proteins we need to function on their own, but in order to do that, we need to fuel them with the right combination of amino acids.
Different protein sources have different amino acids. Complete proteins have all nine “essential amino acids,” which are amino acids we do not naturally produce in our bodies (the other amino acids can be created in our bodies from other chemicals). All animal meats are complete proteins, which is why meat eaters usually don’t think twice about getting the amino acids they need.
Non-complete proteins have some, but not all amino acids necessary. For this reason, vegetarians may have a more difficult time ensuring they’re getting each amino acid they need. Fortunately, there are other, plant-based sources of complete proteins, as well.
Top non-meat protein sources
As mentioned above, there are many sources of protein outside of animal meats, which makes it easy for vegetarians to get all the protein they need. Some sources are packed with more protein than others, so you’ll want to make sure to portion appropriately based on your dietary needs. And, of course, be mindful of whether you’re eating complete or incomplete proteins so you can ensure you’re not missing any amino acids.
Here are some of the best ways to incorporate protein in your daily meals.
- Quinoa: Quinoa, often considered a “pseudograin,” is a fantastic source of protein with all the essential amino acids your body needs.
- Beans: Many types of beans, such as kidney beans, black beans and pinto beans, are a great source of protein, as well as many other nutrients. One cup of beans contains around 15 grams of protein.
- Greek yogurt: Greek Yogurt is packed with protein, providing over 20 grams of protein per cup, in addition to its calcium and other nutritional benefits. It’s also a very versatile food, so you can switch up how you prepare it.
- Nuts and seeds: Many types of nuts and seeds, including almonds, pistachios, chia seeds and hemp seeds, provide lots of protein in little amounts. For example, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds provides 3 grams of protein.
- Tofu: Tofu, made from soybeans, is often the vegetarian’s go-to source of protein because of how much it offers: roughly 10 grams per half cup. It is also a complete protein.
- Eggs: Eggs are an excellent addition to a vegetarian diet. One large egg contains around 6 grams of protein, which is mostly contained in the egg whites.
- Peanut butter: Peanuts, like many other types of nuts, contain healthy doses of protein and fat, and so does peanut butter. Peanut butter is another great food to use when cooking or on snacks.
- Cheese: Most cheeses contain all amino acids, but some sources contain more protein than others. For example, cottage cheese contains around 14 grams of protein per half cup. Not all cheeses will have a lot of protein, but eating them as snacks is a good way to boost your protein levels.
- Leafy greens: Many vegetables contain moderate amounts of protein, but leafy greens like broccoli and spinach contain the most.
One of the best ways to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids and protein you need is to vary your food sources. Eat a “colorful,” balanced plate each day and aim to eat a variety of food types, and your vegetarian diet will contain everything you need to keep you healthy.