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How to Get Protein As a Vegetarian

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When I first started shifting away from eating animal products and toward eating more plants, I got the same question from many people in my life: "Where will you get your protein?" Anyone who has ever gone vegetarian or vegan is familiar with that question — but as more and more people transition to compassionate, animal-friendly lifestyles, the less confusion there will be around the nutritional adequacy of eating plants.

The good news is, it's not hard at all to get all the protein you need from plants. In fact, all protein originates in plants (all vitamins originate from plants and all minerals originate from the Earth), so pretty much every whole plant food contains protein. 

Before drastically changing your diet in any way, always make sure to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. However, it's also important to do your research, since you're probably the one responsible for feeding yourself three times a day. So if you're interested in learning how to get enough protein on vegetarian and vegan diets, read on.

How to Get Enough Protein As a Vegetarian

Just like while on an animal-based diet, when you're observing a vegetarian or vegan diet, you'll also get your protein from food — most people do not need to supplement protein on a plant-based diet. 

The average sedentary man requires a minimum of about 56 grams of protein a day, and for the average sedentary woman, about 46 grams, according to Healthline — and those amounts are very easy to achieve in a day, without even trying. Depending on how active you are or if you're trying to build muscle, it's typically recommended to eat a higher amount of protein. Sometimes, people looking to increase their protein intake for a specific reason (such as building muscle) will opt to supplement their diet with plant-based protein powder

That said, by eating a varied diet filled with plants, it's pretty much impossible not to get sufficient protein. Not to mention, have you ever met someone with a protein deficiency? Probably not.

Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans

Every whole plant food contains some degree of protein, including fruits, vegetables, greens, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, and grains. Even processed or refined plant-based foods still contain protein — for example, white bread, white pasta, potato chips, and Oreos literally all contain protein! Obviously, those are not the most nutritious protein sources, and they do not contain as much protein as eating whole versions of those foods (such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, or baked potatoes), but it just proves that protein is abundant in plant foods, and that it's totally unnecessary to eat animals or their byproducts for protein.

Here are a few of the highest-protein plant-based foods.

Lentils

1 cup of cooked lentils has 18-24 grams of protein, depending on the color lentil.

Beans

A cup of cooked beans contains about 15 grams of protein. Every kind of bean, from black beans to cannellini beans to garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), contain significant amounts of protein. Even better, level up your chickpea consumption by blending them into hummus.

Peas

1 cup of cooked peas contains about 8.6 grams of protein. Keeping a bag of peas in your freezer is a great way to bulk up everything from stir fries to Buddha bowls.

Soybeans, Tempeh, and Tofu

Soybeans are considered a "complete" protein (more on that below), and you can consume soy by eating foods like tempeh (31 grams of protein per 1 cup), tofu (20 grams of protein per 1 cup), or edamame (17 grams of protein per 1 cup). Contrary to rumors, soy does not contain any estrogen or hormones. The only foods that do contain hormones that can negatively affect human hormone levels are meat, dairy, and eggs, since they come from animals who have hormones in their bodies just like humans do.

Nuts, Seeds, and Butters

Nuts and seeds such as peanuts (1 ounce contains 7 grams of protein), almonds (6 grams per ounce) cashews (5 grams per ounce), chia seeds (4.7 grams per ounce), and sesame seeds (4.8 grams per ounce) are solid and yummy protein sources. You can also get the same nutritional benefits from eating the butter versions of your favorite nuts and seeds, such as peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, sunflower butter, and tahini.

Whole Grains

Whole grains such as oatmeal (6 grams of protein per cooked cup), brown rice (5 grams of protein per cooked cup), whole wheat pasta (8 grams of protein per two ounces), whole wheat bread (5 grams of protein per slice), and quinoa (8 grams of protein per cup) are an easy way to load your meal with protein.

Vegetables and Fruits

All vegetables and fruits contain some protein, though the amounts vary. For example broccoli (which contains 3 grams of protein per cup) actually contains more protein per calorie than steak, and spinach (which contains 1 gram of protein per cup) contains about the same amount of protein per calorie as chicken, according to a blog post by Dr. Scott Stoll for Whole Foods.

How to Get Complete Protein as a Vegetarian or Vegan

A complete protein is a food that contains the nine essential amino acids that we humans cannot make on our own. A lot of animal products happen to be complete proteins, leading some to worry that vegans and vegetarians are nutritionally deficient. But the good news is, it's much easier than some might think to consume complete proteins on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Plant-based complete protein sources include quinoa, chia seeds, and soy products. It's also possible to consume all nine essential amino acids at once if you'd like to by combining complimentary proteins; for example, rice and beans. However, arguments claiming that it is necessary to do so have been refuted, according to Nutrition Facts.

"Contrary to what many people believe, vegetarians do not need to carefully combine foods to meet their protein needs, and no particular meal planning approach is required," says the North American Vegetarian Society. "Just consume enough calories to maintain your ideal weight and include a variety of plant foods in your diet."

That said, we don't actually need to consume all nine amino acids at every meal. Most plant-based foods contain a variety of these amino acids, and at the end of each day, it's likely that you've eaten all or at least most of them. Our bodies are intelligent enough to combine the nutrients after we've consumed them. As Dr. Michael Greger of Nutrition Facts puts it, "Some 90 grams of protein are dumped into the digestive tract every day from our own body to get broken back down and reassembled, so our body can mix and match amino acids to whatever proportions we need, regardless of what we eat, making it practically impossible to even design a diet of whole plant foods that’s sufficient in calories but deficient in protein."

Do Vegetarians Eat Eggs and Dairy?

The definition of a vegetarian — specifically, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian — is someone who eats plants, eggs, and dairy, but not eat meat. A vegan (or a "total vegetarian") is someone who does not eat or use any animal products, instead focusing their diet around plants. So while some dairy products and eggs do contain protein, no matter your reason for going vegetarian, you can get even better results by staying away from eggs and dairy as well — which is easy to do with so many plant-based alternatives on the market. Going vegetarian does lower your environmental impact, but you can lower it even further by going vegan; you can also save more animals on a vegan diet than on a vegetarian one; and by completely removing animals from your plate, you will be removing unnecessary cholesterol, hormones, and antibiotics from your body.

How to Get Enough Protein as a Vegan Athlete

In 2019, the documentary The Game Changers was released on Netflix, challenging numerous viewers' perceptions of protein and strength. The documentary chronicles pro athletes from various fields who switched to plant-based diets and found themselves at the top of their game. If you have any skepticism about plant-based diets being able to provide enough protein, definitely check out The Game Changers.