Five Sources of Protein for Vegetarians

By Cecilia Chen, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor


A vegetarian refrains from eating meat, poultry, and sometimes, fish.  These are all significant sources of protein. A common question asked by those eating vegetarian is “How can I get enough protein?” Some plant-based food and dairy products are excellent protein sources for a vegetarian diet. Here we list five major categories of such foods.

  1. Soybean products including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame

Have you seen contradictory comments online regarding whether or not it is safe for both men and women to eat soy products ?  The primary concern is the estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effect on our body. According to recent studies, soy, as one of the nutrient-dense sources of plant protein, has a beneficial or neutral effect on health. Soybeans are a common species of edible beans in Southeast Asia. Many products such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame are derivatives of soybeans. Edamame is the immature form of soybeans in the pod, easily prepared by steaming and boiling. An excellent source of protein, one cup of shelled edamame contains 17 grams.  Soybeans are processed to create soy milk and tofu. Soy milk contains a similar amount of protein as cow’s milk. Tofu is the bean curd leftover from the production of soy milk, and it absorbs the flavor in other ingredients well making it easy to cook with. It is available in a variety of textures, ranging from soft to extra firm. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and has a texture similar to meat. Like tofu, it also absorbs the flavor from other foods well, yet it holds shape better than tofu; it makes a great meat substitute. Eating soy products several times a week instead of processed meat may have health benefits.

  1. Dairy products such as cow milk, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese

Dairy products are an excellent protein source, and the primary source of calcium in the typical western diet, an essential nutrient that builds strong bones. Cow milk, yogurt, and cheese contain lactose, a naturally occurring milk sugar. Some populations may not be able to digest lactose properly, so after eating these products, they feel bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhea to various degrees. This condition is termed lactose intolerance. If this applies to you, you may consider drinking soy milk instead.

  1. Legumes such as Lentils

Lentils, edible seeds, are part of the legume family; all of which is highly nutritious. In addition to being an excellent source of protein, these foods are high in fiber, folate, and iron. There are many types of lentils: brown, green and red lentils, French lentils, and black lentils. Most become a mush-like texture after 20 to 30 minutes of cooking. French lentils tend to hold their shape better.  Using lentils, whether in a soup, salad, or curry, adds protein and other nutrients to your meal without the saturated fat found in animal products.

  1. Beans such as chickpeas and black beans

Chickpeas and black beans also contain significant amounts of protein. In 1/2 cup serving, black beans contain 7 grams of protein, and chickpeas contain around 19 grams of protein. Many cooks prefer to soak (~8 hours in clear water) beans before cooking, although it is not necessary.  They then require simmering 2-3 hours to become tender. Ideal for a slow cooker, beans can be flavored many ways and used as an ingredient in many dishes.  About 1 cup of dried beans makes 3 cups of cooked beans.

  1. Seitan

Seitan is made from wheat gluten, which is protein-dense. One third cup of seitan contains about 20 grams of protein. If you are gluten sensitive or have Celiac disease this is not a good option.  It is cooked similar to tofu and substitutes for meat in many dishes.

If you try any of these vegetarian options, let us know what you think! Do you have special, creative ways you cook them?

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