Yes, it is possible to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet – here’s how.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Karen Gordon
Plant-based diets have grown in popularity over the last few years. Not only are more Brits eating vegan (one to two per cent) and vegetarian (seven to 10 per cent) than ever before, nearly half of omnivores claim they are actively trying to reduce their meat consumption, citing animal welfare, personal health and environmental concerns as top motivations.
So it is hardly surprising that the global demand for plant-based protein has also increased. However, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
Here is what you need to know.
Protein: why do we need it?
As well as being an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, protein helps our bodies recover, and keeps our tummies satisfied.
Broken down by digestive enzymes and absorbed into the blood as amino acids, protein builds strong muscles, repairs tissues and maintains a strong immune and hormonal system.
‘Out of the total of 20 amino acids, the body is able to produce 10, the others, referred to as ‘essential amino acids’ must be obtained directly from protein found in food,’ says Hilary Boddie, health nutritionist at Healthspan. ‘It’s important therefore to make sure the diet contains an adequate supply of protein.’
Protein minus animal products
Protein is not only derived from meat and animal sources. A study found that by swapping processed meat, such as sausages, for wholegrain toast, cereals, nuts and lentils could lead to a much longer life. And exchanging just a small amount of animal protein for plant protein could reduce the risk of early death by 34 per cent.
💪 If you have a strenuous, physical job or you enjoy high-impact sports, you may need to up your daily protein intake. Protein requirements also increase during pregnancy.
Cutting out meat means cutting out a major source of protein in your diet, so it’s important for vegetarians to ensure they get this essential food group from other sources.
‘While some vegetarians do eat eggs, milk and cheese, which all good protein sources, if you exclude all animal products, it’s important that your diet includes a wide variety of plant-based protein foods,’ says Hilary.
The recommended daily nutrient intake for protein is:
- 5g for men aged 19-50
- 45g a day for women aged 19-50
Plant-based protein sources
Which plant-based foods are best for protein? For vegetarians, there are a wide variety of plant-rich foods that provide a good source of protein. Nearly all vegetables, beans, wholegrains (such as quinoa, wholegrain bread, brown rice and barley), nuts and seeds contain a certain amount of protein.
‘Certain plant-based foods such as quinoa and soybeans are considered a ‘high quality’ protein, which means that they contain large amounts of all the essential amino acids,’ says Hilary.
Vegetarian protein sources
Most vegetable sources of protein usually contain all the essential amino acids but the amounts of one or two of these amino acids may be low. But if you include a variety of whole plant foods in your diet, you can get enough of all of these essential amino acids, advises Hilary.
Good vegetarian protein sources include:
- Soybeans: The go-to substitute for meat. Other protein-rich soya foods include tofu, soy milk, tempeh and edamame. Tofu is probably the best known soy product — choose the firmest tofu available — the harder it is, the higher the protein content.
- Quinoa: Although referred to as a grain, quinoa (‘keen-wah’) is actually a seed from a vegetable related to Swiss chard, spinach and beetroot. It contains all the essential amino acids making it a complete protein source. Great for salads or use instead of brown rice for a higher protein wholegrain.
- Lentils: Lentils are a great source of protein for vegetarians containing 26g per 100g serving. Add to soups, a chilli or simply add to mixed vegetables for a sustaining meal.
- Beans: Includes kidney, black, white, pinto.
- Nuts /nut butter: Top choices are peanuts, cashews, almonds and walnuts.
- Seeds: Opt for chia, sunflower, flax and pumpkin seeds. Great for an easy snack or for a topping for smoothies, salads and soups.
- Hummus made with chickpeas a very good source of protein.
- Avocados: Contain all essential amino acids the body can’t produce on its own.
How to increase your protein levels
To make sure your protein levels are topped up throughout the day, begin with a protein-based breakfast, which is a filling and sustaining way to start.
‘Add some wheatgerm and raspberries or blueberries to protein-rich Greek yogurt or sprinkle your porridge with a selection of nuts and seeds,’ says Hillary.
🥑 For your mid-morning/mid-afternoon snack, swap your biscuits for a handful of protein-rich nuts or hummus or mashed avocado with wholemeal pitta bread.
Hilary advises to be be mindful at lunch and dinner that you always include a decent protein source, which could be as simple as adding beans or seeds to your salad or a nut butter or hummus to your sandwich.
How would you know if you’re getting enough protein? According to Dr Roger Henderson, there are a few telltale signs you could be lacking protein in your diet:
- Muscle soreness, weakness and cramping. Protein supports muscle growth and strength.
- A reduction in muscle strength, muscle function and decreased lean body mass.
- A loss of body fat because protein provides structure for fatty tissues.
- Swelling and oedema, such as swollen ankles, as protein helps to regulate and maintain a proper fluid and electrolyte balance within the body.
- Cracking, flaking, dryness and rashes of the skin.
- Delayed wound healing and ulcers can be signs of seriously low protein intake as can thinning hair or hair loss and feeling lethargic, fatigued and weak.
- A weakened immune system and increased risk of infection in some cases.