Eating Protein as a Vegetarian

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
Asparagus and Tofu

When following a vegetarian diet, it's important to meet your body's daily protein and essential amino acid requirements. Fortunately, with careful planning, vegetarian meal plans are sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of adults, pregnant women, and even children, notes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Protein Requirements for Vegetarians

The protein requirements of vegetarians are the same as non-vegetarian protein guidelines. The recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for protein are as follows.

Age and Gender Groups

Protein RDA

Children 7 to 12 months

11 grams

Children ages 1 to 3

13 grams

Children ages 4 to 8

19 grams

Kids ages 9 to 13

34 grams

Girls ages 14 to 18

46 grams

Boys ages 14 to 18

52 grams

Adult women

46 grams

Adult men

56 grams

Pregnant women

71 grams

Breastfeeding women

71 grams

Who Needs Extra Protein?

Athletes and people recovering from surgery, illness, severe burns, and other injuries often have protein needs higher than RDAs suggest. A 2014 issue of Today's Dietitian reports athletes often need 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, which is 65 to 117 grams per day for a 130-pound athlete. People who are critically ill have protein needs similar to those of athletes but should check with their doctor or dietitian to be sure.

Protein-Rich Vegetarian Foods

Many meatless foods are rich in protein, so getting plenty of this nutrient in your diet as a vegetarian generally isn't a problem. The following foods are excellent sources of protein:

Food

Protein Content

Eggs

6 grams in each large egg

Cottage cheese

28 grams per cup

Low-fat milk

8 grams per cup

High-protein milk

13 grams per cup

Plain nonfat Greek yogurt

17 grams per container

Reduced-fat cheese

8 grams per ¼-cup portion

Tofu

20 grams per cup

Tempeh

34 grams per cup

Seitan

43 grams per cup

Protein-fortified almond milk

10 grams per cup

Soymilk

8 grams per cup

Soy yogurt

6 grams per container

Soybeans

22 grams per cup

Other dried beans

15 to 20 grams per cup

Peas

9 grams per cup

Bean sprouts

8 grams per cup

Nuts and seeds

6 to 8 grams per ounce

Whey, casein, egg, or plant-based protein powder

Varies by brand

Complete Proteins for Vegetarians

Complete protein foods (those containing all essential amino acids) appropriate for vegetarians include:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy foods
  • Soy-based foods

However, you don't have to always eat complete protein foods to get all the essential amino acids your body needs if you consume a variety of incomplete proteins throughout the day.

Incomplete Protein Pairings

There are several ways to pair incomplete proteins to form complete proteins, according to Iowa State University. It's important to note you don't have to consume certain amounts of incomplete proteins at specific times to get the essential amino acid combinations your body needs. MedlinePlus notes you don't have to eat incomplete protein pairings all at once, but rather get a good balance of protein foods throughout the course of the day.

Choose one portion of each food being paired. For example, combine 1/2 cup of rice with 1/4 cup of beans, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter with one slice of whole-grain bread, one veggie burger with a whole-grain bun, 1/2 cup of oatmeal with 1.5 tablespoons of nuts, or 2 tablespoons of hummus with one small whole-grain tortilla.

Grains Plus Legumes

Combining grains and legumes provides a complete source of protein. Examples of such pairings include:

  • Rice and beans
  • Veggie burger on whole-grain bun
  • Bean burrito
  • Lentil or split pea soup with whole-grain crackers
  • Hummus on pita bread

Grains Plus Nuts/Seeds

Grains plus nuts and/or seeds also pairs to make a complete protein. Combinations may include:

  • Nut butter on whole grain bread
  • Trail mix made with nuts and seeds plus whole-grain ready-to-eat breakfast cereal
  • Rice or couscous with almonds, peanuts, or cashews

Legumes Plus Nuts/Seeds

You can also combine nuts and/or seeds with legumes, such as:

  • Salad with dried beans or peas plus nuts or seeds
  • Rice with peas or beans plus nuts or seeds

Bottom Line

While getting plenty of protein is important when following a vegetarian diet, it's generally not a problem because numerous vegetarian protein-rich foods are available to choose from.

Eating Protein as a Vegetarian