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Protein 101 for vegetarians

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Proteins are large, complex sets of molecules (amino acids) that serve as the body’s building blocks. Eating protein-rich foods helps keep you feeling full (thereby reducing the tendency to overeat), builds and maintains muscles and bones, and causes little to no insulin response.

In short, protein should be a priority in any diet.

Not too difficult, considering how abundant our protein sources are. Most people don’t have trouble getting the protein they need (typically between 50 and 70 grams per day). Meat, eggs, peanut butter, beans, and cheese are all common foods that have a good amount of protein, and they’re pretty easy to come by.

However, if you’re on a vegetarian diet, getting enough protein can be tricky—eating a quick burger isn’t going to give you your protein fix for the day. Fortunately, nature has provided plenty of plant sources of protein, enough for everyone to get the protein they need.

Plant vs. animal protein

Animal protein (which includes meat and dairy products) is considered a “complete” protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Most plant proteins, on the other hand, are incomplete proteins because they don’t provide all of the essential amino acids, or contain very low amounts of some of them.

This has led many to construe that those who don’t eat meat can’t get enough protein, but this isn’t necessarily true. A well-thought-out vegetarian diet can provide the protein an individual needs, as long as they’re eating a variety of plant-based protein sources. (In general, you can’t go wrong with the advice to eat a variety of foods, whether you’re vegetarian or not.)

Best plant-based sources of protein

So where does a vegetarian go for protein? You’ll find plenty of options from this list:

  • Nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts)

  • Seeds (sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds)

  • Legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils, tofu)

  • Most vegetables, especially kale, spinach, broccoli, green beans, peas, and potatoes

  • Whole grains (whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, wild rice, quinoa, oats)

  • Spirulina

If your goal is strictly to avoid meat products rather than all animal products entirely, you can also get protein from eggs and many dairy products, like Greek yogurt and milk.

Remember, variety is key for a vegetarian diet. The options above leave plenty of room for creativity, from soups and salads to pasta and sandwiches.

Need some ideas to get you going? Here are some easy ways to add protein to your meals and snacks.

  • Go nuts. Whether it’s a garden salad or a quinoa bowl, nuts go with just about anything. The extra crunch they provide could be just the thing your meal is missing. Keep plenty of nuts and seeds on hand so you can toss them into a salad at a moment’s notice.

  • Have fun with peanut butter. Peanut butter isn’t just for PB&J sandwiches. Slather it on celery and whole-grain crackers or add it to your favorite dessert or smoothie.

  • Experiment with soup. The great thing about soup is that you can throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot, heat it up, and you’ve got a comforting meal. Beans, lentils, and veggies all make great soup ingredients, so keep mixing things up!

  • Switch to whole wheat. Any time you’re given the option between whole wheat and white bread, ask for whole wheat.

  • Turn your smoothies green. Don’t forget to add a handful of spinach or kale to your fruit smoothies. The greener your smoothie, the better. (Soy or almond milk is another good protein addition!)

Protein supplements

Protein supplements can also come in handy if you need help filling in the gaps. Just make sure you study the labels first to verify that its protein sources are in fact plant based.

Need a quick but nutritious meal on the go? Unicity’s Complete Vegan Meal Replacement has got your back. You’ll get the protein you need plus other essential vitamins and minerals, meaning you won’t have to sacrifice nutrition for convenience—you get both!

All in on nutritional variety

Veggies, whole grains, nuts—most vegetarian foods, really—have the added bonus of providing plenty of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. This type of nutritional variety is just one of many reasons people adopt a vegetarian diet in the first place. Extra effort will be required to ensure you’re getting enough protein and other nutrients commonly found in meat. But with a well-planned diet, there’s no reason vegetarians can’t get the nutrients they need from a plant-based diet.

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