Beans and legumes are a source of protein for vegetarians.

Alternative Sources of Protein for a Vegetarian

by Michelle Kerns

If you're concerned about becoming a vegetarian because you're not sure if you'll get enough protein, don't worry -- the American Dietetic Association says a vegetarian diet can provide adequate protein for children and adults, including women who are pregnant or nursing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people over 9 years old need between five and six 1-ounce servings of protein every day. Eggs and dairy products like milk and yogurt can provide protein to lacto-ovo vegetarians, but if you don't eat either, you'll need alternative sources of protein in your diet. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian if you need help ensuring that your vegetarian diet contains all of the nutrients you need.

Soy Products

Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner says that soy products like tofu and tempeh are a versatile source of protein for vegetarians. Soy is a complete protein: like animal-based foods such as eggs or meat, soy is a source of all the amino acids your body needs for protein synthesis. A 1/2-cup serving of tofu has over 10 grams of protein, or about as much protein as a chicken drumstick or several slices of Canadian bacon. Tempeh, which is prepared from fermented soybeans and can be used as a ground beef substitute in recipes, has 18 grams of protein in every serving. ABC News cautions that vegetarians should consume no more than one serving of soy products per day since a high intake of soy is linked to increased estrogen levels.


A 1-cup serving of cooked beans like navy, kidney, black or pinto beans contains approximately 12 to 14 grams of protein, while 1 cup of cooked lentils has about 18 grams. Beans are rich in most of the essential amino acids your body needs to synthesize proteins, though to make sure that your diet includes all of them, regularly eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables to complete the protein provided by beans. Cooked beans mixed with whole-grain pasta or served over brown rice are examples of vegetarian meals providing complete protein. If you're trying to control your sodium intake, purchase dried beans and cook them yourself, or rinse and drain canned beans before using them.

Nuts and Seeds

According to Blatner, adding a sprinkle of nuts or seeds to your cereal, yogurt or salads, or using a nut butter like sunflower seed butter on your toast, is a good way for a vegetarian to get more protein. A single ounce of dry-roasted nuts like peanuts has nearly 7 grams of protein. Most seeds have 2 to 5 grams of protein in every 1/3-cup serving. Avoid oil-roasted or heavily salted nuts and seeds, and remember that nuts are naturally high in fat. The Mayo Clinic says that it's best to limit yourself to 1.5 ounces per day.


Along with soy, quinoa is the only other plant-based foods that's a complete source of protein. A grain-like seed native to South America, quinoa has 8 grams of protein in every cooked cup. Quinoa takes only about 15 minutes to prepare and can be used in pilafs or as the base for a salad. Simmer a cup of quinoa in bean soup, or mix nuts, chopped red onion, fresh herbs, dried fruit and seasonings into cooked quinoa for a high-protein meal. Before using quinoa, be sure to wash it thoroughly to remove the bitter-tasting saponin that naturally coats each piece.

About the Author

Michelle Kerns writes for a variety of print and online publications and specializes in literature and science topics. She has served as a book columnist since 2008 and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Kerns studied English literature and neurology at UC Davis.

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