What are the best high protein vegetarian foods? How do you get protein as a vegetarian? Are there better and best vegetarian protein sources?
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These are some of the many questions I get about following the vegetarian diet from clients. While I am personally not a vegan or vegetarian (we do eat small amounts of meat), I do incorporate many plant-based meals into my diet.
I love a good burger just as much as I love a good tempeh sandwich, and I’ve really learned to just listen to what my body wants in the moment (thanks to these tips for intuitive eating).
Honestly, though, I find vegetarian meals less intimidating and easier to cook, so they do win over more often than not, unless we seem to have copious amounts of chicken sausage on hand.
I do have several vegetarian recipes on the blog, so I do consider myself quite plant-based, and I work with many plant based runners.
Is It Easy To Make Healthy Vegetarian Meals With Protein?
Totally. With the list below, you’ll see how easy it can be to mix and match, and you don’t have to feel intimidated with cooking vegetarian sources of protein.
Whether you want a high protein vegetarian salad or a protein-packed snack, incorporate the foods below.
In this post on vegetarian sources of iron for runners, we even discuss how to achieve more than the RDA with pairing foods, as some research shows vegetarian athletes may need 1.8x more iron due to lower bioavailability.
What Are The Main Sources of Protein For Vegetarians?
Vegetarian staples are not only extremely high in fiber and nutrients, but research also shows that you can meet your protein recommendations (as well as other nutrients) without relying on meat (1).
Athletes have higher protein needs than non-athletes, so if you’re wondering, How much protein should athletes eat?, check out this post.
In other words, there are several vegetarian protein foods worth including in your diet so let’s talk about how to get protein as a vegetarian.
It’s also important to note that many vegetarian foods can be plant based iron sources. And if you want to go completely meatless, see how it’s important to be aware of certain nutrients in a vegan diet for runners.
I’ve reached out to some friends in the blogging world, and we’ve compiled some great ideas for incorporating more meatless meals into your lifestyle.
Many of these recipes do include eggs and dairy.
How To Get Protein As A Vegetarian
Eggs are one of those foods I eat every day and in my opinion, are one of the best vegetarian protein sources because they’re so nutrient-dense.
Whether it be mixing them in with oatmeal, having a hard-boiled egg for a snack on the go, a vegan sweet potato kale hash, or putting eggs over pizza, these little guys are nutrient-dense power foods.
Nutritionally speaking, 1 large egg provides:
- 6-7 grams protein
- Vitamin D, if you eat the yolks (one of few foods that you can find Vitamin D!)
- Micronutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin B6 and B12, iron, choline and more
Egg muffins, like these from Julias Album, are also great for on the go snacks and are very customizable.
Not all vegetarians will include eggs, but those who do are called ovo-vegetarians.
Tofu is a staple vegetarian protein food, with the most similar nutrition profile and amino acid profile to meat (2).
I used to think tofu was too watery, but there are so many flavorful and delicious ways to prepare it that it’s a staple in my normal diet now. It generally takes on whatever taste and seasoning you want it to, which makes it very forgiving.
Tofu can be baked, grilled, fried, steamed or sauteed.
When choosing tofu, know that the more firm versions will have slightly more protein.
1 cup of Tofu has:
- 20 grams of protein
- >70% daily needs of calcium and iron
- Healthy unsaturated fatty acids
You can use it and bread it like you would chicken in tofu parm.
Or, you can totally rock out with the plant based proteins and combine hemp and tofu, like in this Hemp Crusted Tofu from Food, Pleasure and Health.
Another soy product, tempeh, is similar to tofu in that it takes on whatever seasonings or flavors you’re combining it with.
What sets it apart from tofu is that it also has probiotics in it, as it is a fermented soybean. Probiotics are great helpers for our gut bacteria, and help outnumber the “bad” bacteria and toxins.
Personally, I prefer the texture of tempeh to tofu and love it blended in a vegan power bowl. Once it’s grilled up, you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from meat.
Or, chop it up like ground meat and throw it in tacos, like these black bean tempeh tacos, from The Garden Grazer.
One 4 oz serving of tempeh gives you:
- 20 grams protein
- 12 grams fiber
- High daily values for manganese, copper, magnesium
Edamame, or soybeans as most commonly known, are high protein vegetarian foods and are also fiber superstars. They are easy to add to any mixed dish, or even eat on their own. You can buy them frozen or dried and are one of my favorite on-the-go snacks!
1 cup of edamame provides:
- 17 grams of protein
- 8 grams of fiber
- Folate, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium
Use it in stir-fries or mix it with other grains and legumes for a vegetarian protein salad or high protein vegetarian lunch.
I’ve only recently realized how much I love lentils. I used to pass them in the grocery store and not even give them a second glance. But now, I’m careful to always have them on hand at home.
Aside from being virtually fat-free, a cup of lentils gives you:
- 18 grams of protein
- 16 grams of fiber
- Respectable amounts of potassium, iron, magnesium, folate and Vitamin B6
Lentils are one of the best vegetarian protein sources and easy to add to so many things. Try out lentils in meatballs, burgers, over salads, or mixed with rice or legumes.
This yellow lentil hummus is my easy, go-to lentil recipe.
It’s also super easy to use lentils in sauces, like in this lentil bolognese, via Nutritioulicious.
6. Grains and Legumes
I’ve paired these together because pairing grains and legumes ensure you are getting the complete amino acid profile. Unlike meats which have all the essential amino acids (building blocks for proteins) that we need, not all vegetarian sources have a complete profile.
For example, grains are usually low in the amino acid, lysine, while beans are normally low in the amino acid, methionine.
However, when you combine them, the complementary profile is complete (3). 1 serving of grains normally gives you between 4-8 grams of protein, while a 1/2 cup serving of legumes offers about 8 grams of protein. Adding both can easily help create protein rich vegetarian meals.
More recent research shows that it’s less important to have complementary proteins at each meal, but rather throughout the day (4).
Grains and legumes are also high in:
- B Vitamins, iron and magnesium
Whole grains can also help lower cholesterol and control blood glucose.
Think outside of the box when it comes to grains, beyond the normal brown rice and whole grain bread. There’s also farro, quinoa, barley, couscous, spelt, freekah, millet, and sorghum.
Some out of the box recipe ideas:
Sorghum chicken, veggie lettuce wraps from Nutrition Starring You.
Roasting chickpeas is another great way to enjoy legumes as well as add in extra veggies, like in this Buffalo Roasted Chickpea Bowl from Grateful Grazer.
Or, these roasted chickpea cauliflower pitas.
If you like hummus, hummus itself is not a high source of protein, but it blends well with other options. My favorite is this gluten free pasta salad with hummus.
7. Nutritional Yeast
In just two tablespoons, you get:
- 40 calories
- 6 grams of protein
- Daily recommendations for most of the B vitamins, as well as a healthy dose of zinc and selenium
While you can find it in bulk bins, I order mine off Amazon and have it within a day or two. It’s a great topping for oatmeal, soups, salads, dips, sandwiches, popcorn, etc. With its inherent cheesy taste, it’s a great topping on popcorn.
Since nutritional yeast imparts a cheesiness, it is a great option for vegan mac n cheese alternatives, like in this Cauliflower Mac n Cheese from Produce on Parade.
A few years ago, quinoa wasn’t even on the radar and now I’d venture to bet that you can find it in a majority of restaurant kitchens and even your cabinets at home!
It may not be the “fad” grain anymore, but unlike legumes and some other grains, it’s a complete source of protein, meaning it provides all of the essential amino acids your body can’t make.
A cup of quinoa boasts:
- 8 grams of protein
- 5 grams of fiber
- Manganese, B vitamins, potassium and iron
One of my favorite parts about quinoa is that it’s just as good cold as it is hot!
Quinoa is a great base for protein rich vegetarian meals, because you can add beans, lentils, nuts, tofu, tempeh, etc.
For another twist on the grain, or to serve it hot, try this Cauliflower Hummus Burger from Dishing Out Health.
9. Hemp Seeds and Chia Seeds
They are great as toppings on oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, salads, or even mixed in with cookies and rice/beans.
3 tablespoons of hemp seeds offers:
- 10 grams of protein
- 3 grams of fiber
- 20% daily iron, %45 daily magnesium and phosphorus, 20% of daily zinc, as well as a range of B vitamins
2 tablespoons of chia seeds:
- 5 grams of protein
- 10 grams of fiber
- 23% daily magnesium, 20% of daily calcium and 15% daily iron
As you can see, though they be little, they are fierce! The nutrients can add up quickly, and are great add in’s for protein granola, too.
Nuts can also offer great sources of protein, healthy fats and fiber. The healthy unsaturated fats in nuts have also been shown to reduce cholesterol, as well as a myriad of other benefits (5).
There are many different protein bars boasting nuts and high protein content, but always make sure that there is more protein than sugar! Otherwise, you’re basically buying a candy bar.
Along with seeds, nuts are perfect toppings for oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, salads and even in sauces. These spicy asian zucchini noodles from The Real Food RDs uses almond butter for the creamy sauce.
You can also easily find almond meal (I like this one) and other nut flours online or in most health stores, which add some variety to baking as well.
I love the texture of almond meal in baking, like in these almond flour banana muffins. These muffins with nut flours are also great sources of protein for vegetarian toddlers.
Dairy is also a great addition to a high protein vegetarian diet. Anyone who knows me well knows I can’t live without my greek yogurt. I rely on it every day as my mid-afternoon snack and for a protein boost.
For those who tolerate and eat/drink dairy, 1 cup of cow’s milk provides 8 grams of protein, in addition to other nutrient such as calcium, potassium and Vitamin D. It can be a great liquid for smoothies, and for cooking oats!
While those who follow vegan lifestyles may choose almond or coconut milk, beware that they have virtually no protein. Soy milk, though, is comparable with 8 grams of protein per cup.
This post talks about a comparison of the nutritional benefits of milk.
5 oz of greek yogurt provides 15 grams of protein, as well as calcium, potassium and probiotics. Smoothies with greek yogurt are the creamiest.
It can also be substituted for mayo and sour cream, perfect for chicken salad or tuna salad.
Greek yogurt can even be thrown in guacamole and other dips to meet protein needs for a high protein vegetarian needs.
Obviously, there are many other ways to incorporate this gem into your meals and snacks.
There are many more honorable mentions that may deserve a future post, like green peas and sprouted grains!
In the meantime, I hope you found this helpful and share it with someone who may be looking for it.
Favorite meatless meal?