Updated 3rd October 2022

Protein sources for a vegetarian diet

Vegetarian diets generally focus on plants and leave out meat, fish, and poultry. There are actually many vegetarian diets, each with their own guidelines. 

If you’re considering going vegetarian, you may be concerned about getting enough protein. 

Rest assured, a varied and well-planned vegetarian diet can meet your protein needs.

Be mindful of meat alternatives, which aren’t necessarily healthy. While many do contain protein, it’s important to check the labels for very high levels of salt and for other ingredients like additives.

At ZOE, we believe that eating the right foods for your body is one of the best tools for improving your overall health. 

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your body’s unique blood sugar and blood fat responses, and discover which “good” and “bad” bugs are living in your gut microbiome. With this information, we’ll provide you with personalized nutrition advice, so you can eat the best foods for your body.

To get started, take our free quiz.

If you’re considering a vegetarian diet, here are 20 high-quality sources of protein to get you started.

1. Lentils

Lentils may be red, green, black, or brown. At a whopping 18 grams of protein per cooked cup (198 g), these tiny, lens-shaped legumes are a great addition to a vegetarian diet.

Try adding them to soups and salads, or swap out meat in tacos and stews for a lentil protein punch. You might also look for lentil pasta. 

Lentils are a good source of fiber. And experts have linked foods rich in fiber with many health benefits, such as promoting a healthy gut, lowering cholesterol, improving heart health, and helping control your blood sugar.

2. Edamame

Edamame are soybeans harvested before they mature. They’re mild and buttery and available fresh or frozen, either in their pods or shelled. 

One cup (155 g) of shelled, cooked edamame contains over 18 g of protein and 8 g of fiber. Edamame are good sources of magnesium, manganese, folate, vitamin K, and iron, as well.

3. Beans

Beans are a delicious plant source of protein. Great northern beans are especially rich in protein, with just over 19 g in a cup (262 g). One cup also contains almost 13 g of fiber. 

There are many types of beans, and their protein contents vary. Black beans and kidney beans contain around 15 g and 13 g of protein per cup, respectively.

4. Split peas

Split peas have over 16 g of protein per cooked cup (196 g) and are good sources of other important nutrients, like iron, magnesium, potassium, folate, and fiber.

Manufacturers make them by peeling and drying green or yellow peas. Split peas can be delicious in soups, stews, or on their own as a side.

5. Tofu

Tofu is a soybean product. To make it, people can boil soy milk, separate out the bean curds, and press the curds together.

Tofu contains around 15 g of protein per quarter block (122 g). It’s also a good source of calcium and iron.

There are different consistencies — silken is the softest type, but tofu can also be super firm.

It’s bland on its own and can take on any flavor, so it works in a wide variety of dishes. Try adding it to soups, stir fries, or stews to get started.

6. Peanut butter

If you don’t have a peanut allergy, peanut butter is a good source of protein, with 7 g in 2 tablespoons (32 g). 

Look for peanut butter without added oil and sugar, and with a limited amount of salt. 

7. Oats

Whether you're having oatmeal or granola, or adding oats to yogurt, oats contribute protein, fiber, and important vitamins and minerals to your diet. 

Cooked oats contain about 6 g of protein per cup (234 g) and also provide zinc, iron, vitamin B, and manganese.

Plus — eating oats can improve your cholesterol, thanks to a special fiber called beta-glucan

Research has linked diets rich in whole grains, like oats, with a lower risk of:

  • type 2 diabetes

  • heart-related death

  • certain types of cancer, such as colon, colorectal, and prostate cancer.

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8. Quinoa

Quinoa has become a popular source of protein. One cup (185 g) has about 8 g of protein and 5 g of fiber.

It’s also a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and B vitamins.

9. Khorasan wheat

Also called oriental wheat or Kamut, this ancient grain is much larger than modern wheat. It has a nutty flavor and can replace other whole grains in recipes, though the cooking time may differ.

A cup of cooked Khorasan wheat (172 g) contains almost 10 g of protein and over 7 g of fiber. This grain is also rich in magnesium, phosphorus, and other important nutrients.

10. Amaranth

Amaranth is a small, gluten-free ancient grain with a nutty flavor. Though it’s categorized as a grain, it’s actually the seed of the amaranth plant.

People might boil it, sprinkle it into salads or cereal, or use it ground into flour.

One cup (246 g) of cooked amaranth provides over 9 g of protein and 5 g of fiber. It’s also rich in manganese, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

11. Whole wheat pasta

Whole grain pastas can be healthy additions to an overall balanced diet.

A cup (117 g) provides about 7 g of protein and 5 g of fiber. It’s also a good source of important minerals, like manganese, selenium, and copper.

12. Wild rice

"Wild rice" is the name for the seeds of semiaquatic grasses grown in lakes, bays, and other semi-shallow waters. It tastes nuttier than brown rice, and it may taste similar to tea.

A cup of wild rice contains about 6 g of protein, plus manganese, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6.

Also, a recent review found that wild rice is a good source of antioxidants and may help lower cholesterol. 

13. Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, are from the Cannabis sativa plant. They contain extremely small amounts of the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — if any. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers them safe to eat.

Three tablespoons (30 g) contain over 9 g of protein, and these seeds are a good source of healthy fats. 

Initial evidence suggests that hemp might raise “good” cholesterol and help with blood sugar control. Try adding these seeds to smoothies, salads, or yogurt.

14. Sunflower seeds

The kernels from 1 oz (28 g) of whole sunflower seeds contain about 6 g of protein and 2 g of fiber.

Sunflower seeds are also a good source of polyunsaturated fat, the healthy fat that may boost cholesterol levels and heart health.

Try using them in pesto, sprinkling them on  salad, or having them as a snack.

15. Teff

Teff is the seeds of a grass species native to certain parts of Africa. The seeds are small and nutty-tasting, and a cooked cup (252 g) contains almost 10 g of protein.

Teff also provides fiber, B vitamins, manganese, and magnesium. People usually boil it, and the cooking time is short.

16. Pumpkin seeds

A single ounce of pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, contains over 8 g of protein. These seeds also provide phosphorus, vitamin K, and healthy fats. And they’re a great source of magnesium. 

Magnesium is a mineral involved in hundreds of chemical reactions throughout the body. It helps drive protein synthesis, energy production, and nerve and muscle function, and it plays many other important roles.

Pumpkin seeds come raw or roasted. They’re delicious as a snack or in oatmeal, salads, or trail mix. You might also want to try pumpkin seed butter.

17. Nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is the inactive version of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast involved in making beer, bread, and other fermented drinks. 

Some people use it instead of cheese if they have a vegan diet or a dairy allergy. 

Nutritional yeast provides 8 g of protein in a half-ounce serving (16 g). It’s also rich in B vitamins, which help your body get energy from food and support cell health.

18. Cottage cheese

If you eat dairy, cottage cheese can be a great way to get some protein, with 14 g in a 4-ounce portion (113 g). 

Try adding eating it with fruit, making a dip, adding it to pasta, mixing it into baked good recipes, or enjoying it on its own.

19. Greek yogurt

Another protein-rich dairy product is plain Greek yogurt. Seven ounces (200 g) contain 18 g of protein.

And in that portion, you’ll also get 222 milligrams of calcium. This is important for bone and teeth health, as well as muscle, nerve, and heart function.

It’s a good idea to avoid Greek yogurts with lots of added sugar. Try adding your favorite fruits to plain Greek yogurt or using it instead of sour cream in sauces, tacos, and stews.

20. Eggs

If you eat eggs, they’re a great source of protein, with 6 g in each egg. 

They also provide you with a laundry list of vitamins and minerals, including selenium and vitamins A, B2, and B12. 

You can incorporate eggs into many of your favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes. They also make a tasty snack on their own.

How much protein do I need?

Protein has many important functions in the body, such as:

  • driving chemical reactions

  • making essential molecules like neurotransmitters, hormones, and antibodies

  • giving cells their structure

  • moving molecules around your body

  • providing energy

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

  • Females aged 19 or older need at least 46 g of protein a day.

  • Males aged 19 or older need at least 56 g of protein a day.

As a rough guide, protein should account for about 10–35% of your total calories each day. 

But everyone’s needs are different. Your personal requirements depend on many factors, including your body size and activity levels.

Summary

A vegetarian diet focuses on getting nutrients from plants, rather than from meat, poultry, or fish.

There are many plant-based sources of protein to choose from, including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, tofu, and nutritional yeast.

If you’re including dairy and eggs, these are also good ways to meet your protein requirements. 

At ZOE, we recognize that all bodies are different, so their needs are, too. 

Finding the best foods for your body can be difficult, but the ZOE at-home test can teach you about your unique responses to food. We’ll also provide you with a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bugs in your gut.

With this information, we’ll give you personalized nutrition advice, so you can be the healthiest version of yourself.

Take our free quiz to get started.

Sources

Amaranth. (n.d.). https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/amaranth-may-grain-month

B vitamins. (2021). https://medlineplus.gov/bvitamins.html

Calcium. (n.d.). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium/

Dietary protein and amino acids in vegetarian diets—a review. Nutrients. (2019). https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/11/2661/htm

FDA responds to three GRAS notices for hemp seed-derived ingredients for use in human foods. (2018). https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-responds-three-gras-notices-hemp-seed-derived-ingredients-use-human-food

FoodData Central. (n.d.). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html

Health benefits of plant-based nutrition: Focus on beans in cardiometabolic diseases. Nutrients. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7915747/

Magnesium. (2022). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

Nutritional constituents and health benefits of wild wide. Nutrition Reviews. (2014). https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/72/4/227/1859059?login=false#112325606

Polyunsaturated fat. (2015). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/polyunsaturated-fats

Protein. (n.d.). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/

Saccharomyces cerevisiae and its industrial applications. AIMS Microbiology. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7099199/

The seed of industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.): Nutritional quality and potential functionality for human health and nutrition. Nutrients. (2020). https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/7/1935/htm

Wild rice. (n.d.). https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/wild-rice-september-grain-month

Whole grain consumption and human health: An umbrella review of observational studies. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. (2020). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09637486.2020.1715354

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