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How to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet

Dried fruit and nuts piled into bowls
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A vegetarian diet is one that cuts out meat and fish, putting the focus on fruit, vegetables, and pulses, as well as dairy and eggs.

If you’re new to vegetarianism, or you’re thinking of trying it out, you might be worried about getting all the nutrients your body needs. In particular, newbie veggies might worry about getting enough protein.

The good news is, getting protein on a vegetarian diet is actually really easy because it’s found in lots of different foods. If you’re used to eating a lot of meat, your new diet may simply take a little more meal planning – and a trip to the pulses aisle of the supermarket.

Vegetarian protein sources

Eggs and dairy

Most people who are vegetarian follow a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet. This means they eat dairy products and eggs. Eggs, milk, yoghurt, and cheese are all really good sources of protein, as well as other essential nutrients like iron, calcium, and vitamin B12.

The NHS recommends opting for low-fat and low-sugar dairy products, such as skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. They also recommended cooking and eating eggs without adding a lot of fat and salt.

Pulses

Whether or not you eat meat, pulses and beans should be a big feature of your diet, as they’re an excellent source of low-fat protein, fibre, and essential vitamins and minerals. If you’re a vegan, pulses will probably be your main source of protein.

Pulses are any edible seeds that grow in pods e.g. beans, lentils, and peas. If you’re looking to increase your protein intake as a vegetarian, try to add more of the following to your daily diet:

  • Baked beans
  • Lentils (red, green, yellow, or brown)
  • Chickpeas
  • Kidney beans
  • Garden peas
  • Runner beans
  • Broad beans
  • Butter beans
  • Cannellini beans

Pulses are high in fibre and a great source of iron. They also count towards your recommended 5 A Day portions of fruits and vegetables.

Mycoprotein

Mycoprotein is a plant-based protein that’s used in Quorn meat substitutes.

Cereals and quinoa

Cereals like wheat, oats, barley, and rice are a surprisingly good source of protein. These foods also tend to be high in fibre and essential nutrients.

The NHS recommends eating cereals in whole grain varieties wherever possible, as these will be higher in fibre and nutrients. Rather than reaching for the white stuff, go for wholemeal breads, whole porridge oats, and brown rice and pasta.

Quinoa is not a cereal, but it has a lot of the same benefits as it’s high in protein and fibre.

Nuts and seeds

Two other fantastic vegetarian protein sources are nuts and seeds. You can add seeds and nuts to meals as you’re cooking, or snack on them throughout the day.

To stay healthy, opt for plain nuts that haven’t been salted or sweetened. It’s also a good idea to favour nuts high in unsaturated fat, such as peanuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. Nuts high in saturated fats include brazil nuts and cashews.

Soya

Soya is a bean plant that’s part of the pea family. It’s high in protein, as well as fibre and essential vitamins and minerals. Soya comes in lots of different forms, including:

  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Mince
  • Tofu

Soya milks and yoghurts are a great option for vegans or vegetarians who are cutting out dairy products, as they’re usually fortified with calcium, and vitamins B12 and D. Just make sure you opt for versions that don’t have a lot of added sugar.

Protein powder

You can also bulk out your diet with vegetarian supplements like vegetarian protein powder, like:

Plant-based powders can be taken as part of a healthy diet to boost your daily protein intake.

High protein vegetarian meals

The British Heart Foundation recommends that adults need to consume about 0.75g of protein per kilo of their bodyweight each day.

  • If you weigh 57kg (9 stone) aim for 43g of protein per day
  • If you weigh 70kg (11 stone) aim for 53g of protein per day
  • If you weight 83kg (13 stone) aim for 62g of protein per day

This may seem like a lot, but it’s actually pretty easy to get protein throughout the day. You may even end up getting more than you need, which is fine as long as it’s coming from healthy sources and is eaten as part of a varied and balanced diet.

Examples of vegetarian meals high in protein

Breakfast

  • 50g of porridge oats (5g protein)
  • 100ml of semi-skimmed milk (3g protein)
  • 80g raspberries (1g protein)

Total: 9g protein

Lunch

  • One large poached or boiled egg (7g protein)
  • Half a tin of reduced sugar and salt baked beans (10g protein)
  • One slice of wholemeal bread with low-fat spread (5g protein)

Total: 22g protein

Snacks

  • 30g of almonds (6g protein) 
  • 100g low-fat plain yoghurt with fruit (5g protein)

Total: 11g protein

Dinner

Total: 24g protein

More tips for getting protein in a vegetarian diet

If you’re struggling to get more protein into your diet, try the following:

  • When you’re peckish, don’t reach for crisps or biscuits – snack on unsalted nuts or homemade hummus with fresh veggies
  • Bulk out soups and stews with plenty of beans and pulses
  • Stir a spoonful of nut butter into your morning porridge
  • Add an egg to your dinner

Remember, even though protein is important, it’s not the only thing to prioritise. A healthy day of eating includes all of the following:

  • Five varied portions of fruits and vegetables
  • Starchy foods like potatoes and bread
  • Some dairy (or alternative calcium sources like fortified soya milk)
  • Six to eight glasses of water, low-fat milk, or sugar-free drinks

Read our healthy eating guide for more tips. 

References

www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a
www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegetarian-diet
www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide
www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/eggs-nutrition
www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/beans-and-pulses-nutrition
www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/quinoa
www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/ask-the-expert/nuts-as-a-healthy-snack
www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325003#nutrition
www.bda.uk.com/resource/soya-foods.html
https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/protein

Protein values for food items correct on Tesco as of 17th May 2021.