Vegetarian Proteins: The Key to a Complete Diet

If you’ve been a vegetarian or vegan for any amount of time, you have probably been asked the pesky question, “So where do you get your protein from?” When I first became a vegetarian as a teen, my family was certain I needed meat in order to grow and develop properly. It’s true, children do need protein in order to develop, but that protein does not have to be animal-based. Even though friends and family may have good intentions, it can be bothersome to constantly be scrutinized for your dietary choices. While it may hurt, there is some truth to their concerns; it can be difficult to get all your protein as a vegetarian if you are not deliberate with your choices. It is especially important when transitioning away from animal-proteins. 

Even as an adult, I still worry about meeting my daily protein requirements. Now more than ever there are a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian protein options, from fresh foods to ready-to-eat meat alternatives. Whether you’re just getting into a plant-based diet or have been around for a while, it can be fun and beneficial to explore some of these nutritious and delicious vegetarian protein sources!

Why Do You Need Protein?

Protein is a naturally occurring macronutrient found within our bodies and in some foods. It is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are twenty amino acids, nine of which are considered essential. These nine essential amino acids are fundamental to a complete diet, because they cannot be produced by our bodies. Thus we must obtain them through food. Every cell in your body contains protein – it is vital to our survival. Therefore, there are many bodily functions that rely on proteins to be broken down into amino acids in order for the process to occur.  

Some of the body processes that rely on protein are:

  • Building muscles and bones 
  • Repairing tissues 
  • Oxygenate body
  • Hormone regulation 
  • Enzyme production

The importance of protein cannot be overstated. Since our bodies cannot store protein as is, it is our job to provide it with this necessary nutrient on a daily basis. This, however, does not mean we should seek out an excess of protein daily as the surplus is stored as fat in our bodies if not used. So it is key to get the right amount as per our age and body type. 

There are two main types of protein that we consume, complete proteins and incomplete proteins. A food is considered a complete protein when it has all nine essential amino acids in it. Most animal proteins are complete proteins. Contrarily, incomplete proteins may have none or some of the nine necessary amino acids. This is not to imply that incomplete proteins are useless, they contain other amino acids that our body still uses. Moreover, incomplete proteins that contain some of the nine essential amino acids can be combined with other foods to make a complete protein. 

So, How Much Protein Does the Average Person Need?

According to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should get between 10% to 35% of our daily calories from protein sources. The daily recommended amount is 5 ½ ounces of protein a day, which can vary depending on the density of protein in your food (for example, 5 ½ ounces of beans may have a different protein concentration than 5 ½ ounces of meat). One way to know exactly how many grams of protein we need a day, it just takes a little bit of math. The recommended daily amount of protein you need can be calculated using your weight. Adult men and women should consume approximately 0.8 grams of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight. This will fluctuate depending on your body weight, but the general guidelines state that adult women need 46 grams of protein daily, and adult men need 56 grams daily. 

Bowl of quinoa with a sign in it that says plant protein

Benefits of Plant Proteins 

We now know why we need protein, but we should also note how consuming plant proteins over animal protein may benefit our health and the well-being of the planet. 

Piedmont Healthcare notes the following benefits of a high-protein diet:

  • Speeding recovery after exercise and/or injury
  • Reducing muscle loss
  • Building lean muscle
  • Helping maintain a healthy weight
  • Curbing hunger

A vegetarian diet has also been linked to better heart health, lower blood pressure, help treat and prevent type 2 diabetes, and even potentially reduce your risk of developing cancer according to Harvard Health. That’s no small feat!

Aside from the awesome health benefits, a plant-based diet may also help reduce your eco-footprint on the world. This TIME article notes that livestock alone accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A vegetarian diet uses less water and generates less emissions than an animal-based diet!

List of Vegetarian Proteins  

Contrary to popular belief, there are a variety of ways to get protein from a plant-based diet. Dietitians recommend getting nutrients directly from food whenever possible, as opposed to from supplements. So Cook & Culture has composed a list to familiarize you with all of the delicious and versatile options out there! We break down two lists, first we summarize all of the complete protein sources (has all 9 essential amino acids), then we discuss other valuable incomplete sources of protein (has some of the essential amino acids). 

Complete Proteins:

Quinoa (keen-wah)

Though it is typically referred to as a grain, quinoa is actually classified as a pseudocereal. Quinoa is packed with fiber, vitamins, and of course, protein! It works as a great substitute for rice and other grains, it can be used in salads, bowls, as a side dish, and more. The texture of quinoa can be compared to brown rice, it is a balance of fluffiness with a slight crunch, and has a light nutty taste that integrates well into many meals. Along with being gluten-free, quinoa cooks similarly and just as quickly as rice!

bowl of Quinoa with slices of peach close up

Amaranth

Coming from the same family as quinoa, amaranth is a protein powerhouse pseudocereal with an almost identical nutritional profile as quinoa. The main differences between the two are the size and flavor. Amaranth is smaller than quinoa, making it more suitable for curries, soups, and polenta-style dishes. It can also be ground into a flour and used in place of wheat flour for a gluten-free alternative! As for taste, amaranth has a nutty earthy flavor, whereas the texture is more soft and glutinous than quinoa. If the texture isn’t to your liking, dry amaranth can also be popped like popcorn for a healthy protein snack!

bowl of Quinoa with slices of peach close up

Buckwheat

Another pseudocereal seed, that is actually not related to wheat (making it gluten-free), despite its name. Buckwheat is known for its high mineral and antioxidant levels, making it popular among healthier eaters. Like other pseudocereals it can be eaten as a grain or ground into a flour or even made into noodles.  Buckwheat isn’t everyone’s taste, it can have a stronger nutty taste with a tad of bitterness. Finding out what it pairs best with for you may take some recipe exploring, but it is worth a try!

Buckwheat flour in a bowl and buckwheat grain in a spoon top view

Soybeans (Tofu/Tempeh/Edamame):

The versatility of soybeans are endless. Most people think of vegetarians eating plain white slabs of tofu, but this flavor-absorbing staple is no joke.

Tofu

Tofu is made from soybean curds, creating a soft but firm block that can be grilled, sautéed, baked, scrambled, pureed into a sauce, or even eaten raw. The great thing about tofu is its lack of flavor, making it the perfect vessel to carry any seasonings or marinades you put on it. It can be eaten soft, or cooked until the skin is crispy – making it an ideal replacement for meat in many meals. 

Sliced block of fresh bean curd (tofu) on cutting board

Tempeh

On the other hand, tempeh is made from whole soybeans, giving it more texture than its smooth cousin tofu. Often, other ingredients such as flavorings and whole grains are added to tempeh, and it is fermented into a brick-like block. Due to the fermentation, many people report tempeh to have a slight tang along with the nutty taste, which often creates a divide of people who either love it or hate it. Additionally, tempeh is just as diverse as tofu in ways to prepare and cook it, making it easy to incorporate into many meals. 

 

Sliced block of fresh bean curd (tofu) on cutting board

Edamame

 

Edamame are whole young soybeans still in the pod. These young soybeans are naturally gluten free and low in calories, making them a great snack. Edamame is simple to prepare, often just steamed or boiled and topped with a dash of salt. All you have to do is pop the soybeans out of the shell (which isn’t edible) and enjoy! Unlike its relatively flavorless counterparts, edamame has a buttery and slightly sweet flavor to it, with a texture slightly firmer than a pea. 

Cooked Green Organic Edamame with sea salt against a background

Ezekiel bread

Arguably one of the best breads you can eat, Ezekiel bread is made from a combination of sprouted whole grains and legumes with no added sugars, meaning it is packed with nutrients and is a complete protein! While there is no flour used in making the bread, it uses the grains of wheat, barley, and spelt, meaning it is not gluten-free. This dense chewy bread has a hearty flavor profile due to the variety of grains and legumes, giving it a nutty flavor.

Fresh baked wholegrain bread for breakfast and ears of rye or wheat grain

Spirulina

Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is considered one of the oldest life forms on the earth! Don’t let the term algae scare you away, this superfood is extremely high in nutrients, and is considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world! Spirulina is available in powder form or in capsules. The powder can be added to smoothies, added to juices, sprinkled over food, or incorporated into baking. Naturally, it has a taste similar to seaweed, but much earthier. 

green spinach smoothie with spirulina, chia seed, lime, apple

Hemp seeds

These small seeds come from the marijuana plant, but do not contain enough THC to produce any effects. Instead they are a rich source of healthy fats, protein, and fiber. This can be eaten like most other seeds, sprinkled over a salad, added to smoothies, ground up in yogurt, or roasted! The taste has been described as a mixture between a sunflower seed and a pine nut, with a nutty taste. 

Raw Hemp seeds on a wooden background
Legumes, lentils, chikpea and beans assortment in different bowls on white table close up.

Incomplete Proteins:

While these vegetarian protein sources do not contain all nine essential amino acids, they do contain some of them – making them still a valuable source of protein. Most of these incomplete proteins can be combined with other foods to form the nine essential proteins. 

  • Lentils: these come in a variety of types and colors. Depending on the type, the flavor can vary greatly, but overall lentils have a great nutritional profile! Lentils are high in protein, iron, and fiber.

     

  • Nuts: while high in healthy unsaturated fats, most nuts are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

     

  • Chia seeds: made up of mainly healthy fiber these anti-oxidant rich whole grains pack 4 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons.

     

  • Seitan: made entirely from wheat gluten and water, the protein in this popular meat substitute is on par with it’s meat counter-parts.  A three-ounce serving has roughly 15-21 grams of protein!
  • Protein-rich veggies: some great protein-packed veggies include broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and lima beans.

  • Chickpeas: these delicious legumes can be roasted, pureed, or added to salads for a nutritional boost! One cup of chickpeas contains about 14 grams of protein. 

     

  • Black beans: these legumes have 15 grams of protein per (cooked) cup. Combining black beans with rice forms a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids!

Try Something New!

It is no doubt that protein is a building block of life, and that as plant-based eaters we may need to put in extra work to meet our daily needs. Our dedication benefits not only us, but the improvement of our plant! Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet does not have to be bland, by exploring the variety of options we have, we can live a fulfilling life with full bellies! This week we challenge you to try out a new vegetarian protein and share this article with your friends!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory