How can I meet my dietary protein needs while on a vegetarian diet?

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Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine
The amount of protein and other nutrients in vegetarian diets can vary widely depending on what type of diet you follow. The strictest version is the vegan diet, which avoids all milk, dairy products and eggs, in addition to meat. Studies have shown that vegetarians may have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes than people who follow a typical Western diet. However, if you exclude animal products altogether, you run the risk of not getting enough vitamin B12, iron and vitamin D, in addition to protein. So no matter what type of vegetarian diet you follow, you have to pay attention to what you’re consuming so you meet all your nutritional needs.
 
The US Dietary Guidelines suggest 2-3 servings (5 ounces each) of protein-rich foods each day. Good sources of non-animal protein include beans, nuts, peas and soy products. Try a cup of lentils (18g protein/cup), chickpeas or black beans, nut butters and tofu, or quinoa to add some variety.
Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics

All foods except fruits, oils and sugar contain some protein. Beans, soy products like tofu, miso, and tempeh are good sources of protein. Whole grains and vegetables also contain protein. Seeds, nuts, nut butters, tahini also have protein. If you are a non-vegan vegetarian, dairy products contain protein too. Put all together, vegetarians generally get enough protein.

Marilyn Ricci, M.S., R.D.
Nutrition & Dietetics
Today with all the soy protein options, it is very easy to meet your daily protein needs. We, in the U.S., eat far more protein than is required by the Recommended Dietary Allowances. We have the mistaken idea that a lot of protein is needed each day. Actually, 4-6 ounces per day is enough for most people. It is not difficult to get this amount, even on a vegan diet. 
Cassie Vanderwall
Nutrition & Dietetics
There are many vegetarian sources of protein. The only complete protein source is soy and soy products. However there are many more sources that are incomplete. These It is important to eat a variety of vegetarian proteins to be sure throughout the day to not only meet your needs, but also to be sure that you create whole protein sources. It is not necessary to combine the protein sources in the same meal. Try the following sources:
  • Kidney beans, soy beans and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds or nut and seed butters
  • Soy milk and yogurt
  • High protein grains, such as quinoa, wheat germ, oats, brown rice, amaranth, and kamut
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics

Aim to include protein at most meals and snacks. Vegetarian protein sources include beans, legumes, tofu, eggs, fish, cheese, milk, yogurt, nuts and high protein grains such as quinoa or Ezekiel brand bread. Consider seeing a dietitian to assess your individual protein needs and assist you with vegetarian meal planning to ensure you obtain adequate protein, and vitamins such as vitamin B-12, which is found in animal products.

Nilima Desai
Nutrition & Dietetics
There are two types of protein sources -- animal and plant. Animal protein is complete, whereas plant protein is not. Plant protein lacks certain essential amino acids and therefore you would need to combine foods such as beans and legumes to make a complete protein. Soy products (soy milk, tofu) and textured vegetable protein are also a good source.

Also, if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you can consume eggs and non-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese).
Jim White
Nutrition & Dietetics
When looking for plant-based protein, quinoa, beans, soy beans, hummus, and nuts are a good source of dietary protein. If one is including dairy products in the diet, plain greek yogurt can provide up to 20 grams of protein per serving, regular milk, soy and almond milk are also a good source of protein. 
Alberta Scruggs
Nutrition & Dietetics
Learning what foods offer the essential and adequate amounts of amino acids will provide the roadmap to eating a protein-balanced vegetarian diet. 

There are 22 standard amino acids. Eight are essential. They cannot be made by the body and must be obtained via the diet. Below are the daily recommended amounts for essential amino acids according to the World Health Organization and a list of foods sources.
  • Isoleucine: You need 20 milligrams (mg)/killograms (kg), body weight. (Dietary sources include seaweed, soy products.)
  • Leucine: You need 39 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include almonds, chickpeas, legumes, oats, peanuts, soy protein, wheat germ, pinto beans.)
  • Lysine: You need 30 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include amaranth, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, legumes, navy beans and soybeans.)
  • Methionine: You need 10.4 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, soy protein concentrate.)
  • Phenylalanine: You need 14-39 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include peanuts, sesame seeds, soy, whole lentils.)
  • Theonine: You need 15 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include lentils and sesame seeds.)
  • Tryptophan: You need 4 mg/kg body weight. (Dietary sources include chocolate, dried dates, chickpeas, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, oats, white rice.)
  • Valine: You need 26 mg/kg of body weight. (Dietary sources include lentils, peanuts, sesame seeds.)
To determine your kg in body weight, take your actual body weight inpounds and divide it by 2.2.
I eat a lot of veggie meat from Morningstar Farms and Gardein. I also have and love protein drinks/meal replacements, soy milk, regular milk, etc.
Beans and nuts are the top vegetarian sources of protein, in addition to supplying many other key nutrients. That may be why the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend Americans triple their bean consumption from the current average of 1 cup weekly to 3 cups. While beans are a well-known source of heart healthy fiber and high-quality protein, they’re less famous for their off-the-charts antioxidant capacity. Most varieties provide half the folate you need, are an excellent source of phosphorus and a good source of potassium, and offer a decent dose of iron and zinc. The B in beans also stands for B vitamins: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), B5 and B6, which together help promote muscles and brain function as well as healthy skin and hair.

Nuts have also received a nod from the FDA , which found enough evidence to approve a qualified health claim to the effect that 1.5 ounces (a heaping handful)of nuts per day may reduce the risk of heart disease. Harvard researchers found that eating 5 ounces of nuts (including peanuts) weekly can lower the risk of gallstones by up to 34 percent. And the magnesium, fiber and phytosterols in nuts may help keep the gallbladder from overloading with cholesterol, which can crystallize into painful gallstones.

All nuts are cholesterol-free yet calorie-dense (ranging from 240 to 300 calories per 1.5 ounces, depending on the type of nut).

Continue Learning about Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian Diets

When you look at vegetarian diets, it's hard to do so without understanding that many of the practitioners believe that it is not only healthful, but more to practice vegetarianism. This is true even if the diet may include occasi...

onal meats or fish as in the Macrobiotic diet with it's Zen beliefs, or the Indian Ayurvedic diet, which finds milk and dairy central to good health along with plants. Anyone considering a vegetarian diet should learn about the food values of different vegetables, and consider getting advice on whether or not to supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals, particularly if you have special nutritional needs like growing children or pregnant or lactating women.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.