6 Great Vegetarian Protein Sources

By Alan Frost, updated February, 2014

Healthy Diet Getting enough protein, particularly if you weight train, is often something vegetarians have to pay particular attention to. In this article I will look at six great vegetarian protein sources. Please note that I am going to assume that we are dealing with a pesco-ovo-lacto vegetarian, i.e. someone who does not eat meat but eats dairy, eggs, and fish. I will write an article for vegans (people who eat neither meat, dairy, eggs, nor fish) at a later point.

Protein Quality

Proteins consist of amino acids and nine of these amino acids are considered "essential". Essential in this case means that we cannot synthesise them, and if they are deficient in our diet, our ability to use protein is greatly compromised.

Animal products provide complete proteins while plant products are incomplete sources. Tofu and tempeh do appear to be complete sources however. This does not in any way mean that plant protein should be disregarded, but it does mean that when consuming incomplete proteins care must be taken to ensure variety over the course of the day. The idea is that by varying the protein sources, the body will have access to all the essential amino acids.

Beyond this, one can refer to higher and lower quality protein according to the ratio of essential to non-essential amino acids. Again, plant proteins (including tofu) do not provide the same protein quality as animal products when consumed alone. While this does mean that for the most part animal protein is superior as an individual protein source to plant protein, one concern with animal protein is that it often comes together with lots of animal fat (and animal fat is generally saturated and should be consumed in strict moderation).

Protein Supplements

Protein supplements are great additions to your diet particularly if you are weightlifting. Whey protein is a fast absorption protein best taken after (and perhaps also before) training. Milk and egg protein absorbs slower and is a great supplement during other times of the day and particularly before bed.

However, all this being said, I will limit this article to food-based protein sources.

6. Tofu

tofuTofu is an incredibly versatile food, which can be used to replace meat and dairy products. It is low on carbs and low on fat. The protein content varies drastically by product, so check the labels. Firm, silken tofu has about 7% protein, but other varieties have more. Tofu has the advantage that it is a complete protein source, although generally regarded as lower quality than dairy. Moreover, you can find tofu products that have been fortified with other nutrients useful for vegetarians and vegans (e.g certain vitamins).

One thing to watch out for though is processed tofu products. In general, processed food (whether vegetarian or otherwise) usually contains all sorts of additivies, preservatives, sodium, artificial flavors, etc. So be careful what you buy, just because something is made for vegetarians does not mean it is healthy.

5. Beans

tofuThis food with its explosive reputation is actually one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Beans come in many varieties and are a great source of protein, iron, b-vitamins, and the all-important dietary fiber. Furthermore, beans rank low on the glycemic index, keeping you fuller for longer. They are something that everyone should consider adding to their diet, and can be invaluable for weight loss.

As a protein source, beans vary from about 4 to about 9 grams of protein per 100g. The highest protein varieties include lentils, pigeon pea, and brown beans.

4. Low fat dairy

tofuDairy is an excellent source of protein, however it can also be an "excellent" source of saturated fats – which should only be consumed in small amounts. Low fat dairy includes products like skim milk, low fat cottage cheese, low fat yoghurts, etc.

The protein content in low fat dairy varies substantially. Skim milk has about 3.5 grams per 100grams (or 100ml) while low fat cottage cheese contains about 12 grams per 100grams. Low fat cottage cheese is a weight lifter's favorite, often consumed by the container, particularly before bed due to its slow-release protein and low fat content.

3. Tempeh

tofuTempeh in a fermented soy product with a firm texture and a slightly nutty flavour. The fermentation process increases the body's ability to absorb the nutrient's from soy and makes the protein more digestible. It is very versatile and can be cooked in many different ways. Tempeh is a particularly good protein source with 18 grams of protein per 100g. It also contains isoflavones, which are good for your heart.

Overall tempeh is also less processed than tofu (which is a good thing). It is also a complete protein source. However, tempeh can be quite calorie-rich due to its fat content, and even though the majority of this fat is unsaturated, you should still monitor your consumption.

2. Fish

tofuFish is a very high quality protein source – truly one of the best there is. Moreover, fish is also a great source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A and D as well as magnesium (an important mineral we often do not get enough of). Moreover, fish is naturallly low in saturated fats and the oilier fish are some of the best sources of the Omega 3 essential fatty acid. You will get about 20-30 grams of protein per 100g depending on the type of fish.

The only concern with fish is the presence of heavy metals, like mercury, due to pollution of the waters. This will vary depending on the source of fish and also on the species. Species of fish that are higher up on the food chain (like pike or shark) tend to have higher concentrations than species that are lower (e.g. salmon or flat fish). See this wikipedia article for more information.

1. Eggs and egg whites

tofuEggs are one of the highest quality proteins available. There is no concensus as to what the highest quality protein is, but on every list I have seen, eggs are at or near the top. A large egg contains about 6-7 grams of protein (or about 13%), with about 3-4 grams from the white. The yolk is a good source of vitamins and minerals including iron, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.

However, keep in mind that yolks also contain some saturated fat, so they should be consumed in moderation (e.g. 1-2 a day). No such restriction exists for whites, which are largely pure protein. Weight lifters have been known to supplement large numbers of egg whites to increase the protein content and overall quality of meals.

Organic eggs and eggs fortified with omega 3 can further improve this food's nutritional profile.


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