What Is a Vegetarian?
Vegetarians don't eat fish, meat, or poultry. Some don't eat any protein from animals. Instead they eat vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and fruits. Some vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, and others eat fish.
People choose to eat a vegetarian diet for several reasons, including:
- Environmental concerns
- Religious beliefs
- Animal rights
Vegetarian Protein Sources
If you want to try a vegetarian diet, you don't have to eat meat to get enough protein. You can get protein from plant-based foods like:
Legumes and beans
Beans and legumes are two of the best sources of protein for vegetarians because you can use them in place of almost any meat in curries, salads, soups, tacos, and similar dishes. They come in many varieties, including:
- Black beans
- Fava beans
- Garbanzo beans
- Kidney beans
- Lima beans
Nuts and seeds
Nuts are the seeds of plants, while seeds come from vegetables like pumpkins, sunflowers, flax, or hemp. Both are good sources of protein. You can eat them as a snack or sprinkle them on breakfast oats or yogurts. Nut- and seed-based spreads are also rich in protein. Popular nuts and seeds include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Nut spreads
Whole grains aren't processed, so you're eating them in their natural form. That means you're getting all the health benefits, including protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can get protein from whole grains like:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat
Leafy greens and vegetables have fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some, like Brussels sprouts, are also relatively high in protein. For instance, 3/4 cup of Brussels sprouts has almost half the protein as one hard-boiled egg but fewer calories. Some other veggies with protein are:
- Lima beans
Dairy has two types of protein: About 20% is whey and 80% is casein. Your body digests whey protein quickly and casein protein slowly. Dairy products are good sources of protein because they have all nine amino acids you need. But some have added sugars and carbohydrates, so look for healthy options. You can get protein from dairy in:
- Icelandic skyr
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Mozzarella cheese
- Cheddar cheese
- Whole milk
- Low-fat yogurt
One large egg has 6-8 grams of protein, twice the amount in a slice of bacon. Eggs, like dairy, also have all nine essential amino acids, making them a powerful protein for vegetarians.
What Is a Vegan?
A vegan is a person who eats only plant-based foods. A vegan diet excludes all meats, fish, dairy, eggs, and animal byproducts like honey.
Vegan Protein Sources
Because vegans don't eat any animal products, they need to eat other foods to get enough protein. These high-protein foods fit into vegan diets:
Tempeh and tofu
Tempeh and tofu are both made of soy. Tofu is made of curd from soy milk that is drained and formed into blocks. Tempeh is made of whole, cooked soybeans that are fermented and molded into a block.
Both are rich in protein, though tofu is higher in vitamins and fiber. One cup of tempeh has 34 grams of protein and tofu has 44 grams.
Seitan (pronounced say-tann) is made of gluten from wheat flour dough. It's washed until all the starch is removed until all that's left is protein. The gluten protein can be formed into a meat substitute and cooked. One serving of seitan strips has almost 25 grams of protein.
Beans are easy to use in place of just about any animal protein in meals like tacos, casseroles, chilis, and soups. Chickpeas, kidney, pinto, and navy beans have anywhere between 15 and 18 grams of protein. And 1 cup of lentils and split peas contains 18 grams and 16 grams, respectively.
Edamame are young soybeans usually served in the pods. You can eat them boiled, steamed, or dry roasted. They have most of the essential amino acids you need, as well as protein. One cup of edamame has as much as 18 grams of protein.
You can use whole grains like quinoa, farro, and black rice as the base of a meal or as a side dish. One cup of quinoa has 8 grams of protein, while 1 cup of black rice has 16 grams.
Soy or oat milk
One cup of oat milk has 3 grams of protein, while 1 cup of soy milk has almost 8 grams. You can add either to smoothies or cereal, or drink them on their own.
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein
Protein is a macronutrient (a nutrient you need in large amounts) that helps your body:
- Build muscles and bone
- Repair damage
- Get oxygen into the blood
- Digest food
- Regulate hormones
It's made of chains of 20 amino acids. When you eat protein, your body rearranges the amino acids to form the protein it needs.
Animal protein is a complete protein, which means you get all the essential amino acids from eating it. But most plant proteins are incomplete. No plant has all 20 amino acids, but all 20 can be found in plants. So you have to eat a variety of plant foods to get all the amino acids you need.
It's easier for your body to digest animal protein than plant protein, and meat is a better source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Diets with animal protein tend to have higher levels of fat, calories, and sodium. Following a plant-based diet lowers your risk of health problems like obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
If you're trying to gain muscle, animal protein tends to be better than plant protein, especially in younger adults. But the type of protein you eat doesn't seem to matter when it comes to muscle strength.
If you want to lose weight, eating more protein, like that in eggs, nuts, and seeds, has been shown to help. Both plant- and animal-based protein seem to work about the same for this purpose.
But a vegetarian or vegan diet isn't necessarily a healthy one. Both diets require thoughtful planning so you get a well-rounded intake of nutrients. If you're wondering how to add more protein to your vegetarian or vegan diet, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist.