Proteins are the building blocks of the human body. They help us create, strengthen and repair new muscle tissue, ligaments, and bones. Research studies have actually compared protein to LEGO blocks . Both provide a foundation for something larger and more complex.
But protein is also best known for its presence in animal foods like chicken, beef and turkey. There’s a common misconception that plant-based and vegetarian diets make it hard get enough protein – especially if you’re an athlete or devoted gym-goer.
However, recent research indicates that vegetarian diets are no less effective at helping you meet your protein intake requirements and can actually fight chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes .
That’s in part because there are plenty of great ways to get protein from nuts, wheat, and other non-animal sources.
Vegetarian protein is any type that comes from a non-animal food source. It’s important to distinguish vegetarian protein from vegan protein, which contains no animal flesh and doesn’t involve animals at all. For example, many vegetarians consume foods like milk and eggs for protein, but vegans can’t eat these products.
Animal foods do have a higher concentration of complete protein, which contains the nine essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that the body can’t produce on its own. But it’s still possible to consume complete proteins without eating meat; many underestimate the great variety of quality protein sources available in a plant-based diet .
Besides the previously-mentioned benefits of consuming protein for improving muscle size and strength, many vegetarian protein sources are dense in healthy micronutrients. Walnuts, for example, contain a compound called alpha-linolenic acid, which studies have shown can protect cells from inflammation and regulate the heartbeat .
Other reasons to choose vegetarian protein:
Now that you know where vegetarian protein is found and why it’s desirable, it’s important to understand how to identify the best sources for your needs.
Even organic sources of vegetarian protein can derail your health and fitness goals if you don’t incorporate them into your diet correctly. Peanut butter, for example, is a great source of protein, with 7 grams in every serving of two tablespoons.
But it’s also packed with calories, containing almost 200 per serving – and who can eat just two tablespoons of peanut butter anyway?
Someone looking to maintain or lower their body weight will need to use moderation when it comes to calorie-dense vegetarian proteins.
There are a few other things to look for when it comes to identifying the best sources of vegetarian protein for you:
Some kinds of vegetarian protein can be highly processed, or changed into a form different than its natural state. Processed foods are often loaded with sodium and ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to everything from cancer to obesity . Look for non-meat protein sources that contain as many natural ingredients as possible.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals your body needs smaller amounts of compared to macronutrients like protein, fats and carbohydrates. Vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked to a deficiency in certain micronutrients, such as vitamin B12 . However, you can offset these deficiencies by consciously seeking vegetarian protein sources with plenty of the vitamins and minerals you need.
Not everyone enjoys common vegetarian protein sources like soy and quinoa. While there are ways to enhance the flavor and texture of almost any kind of food, some people just don’t have a taste for certain things. It’s much easier and more sustainable to eat and drink foods you enjoy, or at least don’t mind having from time to time. The huge variety of vegetarian protein sources available means you’re likely to find something that fits both your nutritional requirements and taste preferences.
Trendy diets like keto, paleo, Bulletproof, and others popular with active people and athletes emphasize eating more protein and fats while reducing sugar and carbohydrates. If you’re planning a low-carb eating style, you’ll want to avoid vegetarian protein sources like quinoa and wheat gluten.
Looking to try some popular vegetarian protein sources? Here are two basic recipes to get you started:
These can be eaten on their own or used as a vegetarian substitute for a meat-based burger or sandwich.
An easy choice to replace a common meat-based dish that can be customized to suit your vegetable preferences – add and remove veggies to your liking.
With all that we know about the advantages of plant-based diets and the risks of consuming meat products, it’s important to explore non-animal sources of protein. While some vegetarian proteins are high in fats and carbohydrates and may lack certain micronutrients, with moderation and planning it’s easy to get your protein from tasty, nutritious non-meat sources.