High Protein Foods Vegetarian

Diets, around the world, are diverse and vary greatly in including and excluding animals as a source of nutrition. Vegetarianism is an ideology referring to the exclusion of meat, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs.1 There are however different types of vegetarians and often the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is used most commonly in literature. This is a diet that follows the typical exclusion of a vegetarian diet but includes dairy and eggs. When reading articles related to vegetarianism, take them with a pinch of salt, as scientific literature is often complex in this area due to the lack of consistent definitions of vegetarianism, self-reported data, and observational studies. This means that these diets may not be causing the associated health benefits.2

About protein

Protein is a naturally occurring compound made up of amino acids. Amino acids are a group of compounds that share similar chemical structures. They help cells function, build tissue, and can serve as a source of fuel. Protein can come from plant and animal sources. We can categorize dietary protein into two types, complete and incomplete. A complete protein is one that contains all essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are ones our body can not produce on its own and we, therefore, need to get these from external sources i.e food. There are 20 types of amino acids and 9 of them are essential ones. Generally speaking, proteins from animal sources are complete proteins while plant-based proteins are usually not complete.1 Protein from animal sources is usually higher per gram in amino acids as well and your body absorbs them better as well, this is known as bioavailability. However, there are a few plant-based proteins that are complete; these are tofu (soy), peas (legume), quinoa and buckwheat (grain). 

The amount of protein that we need every day will depend largely on our size (weight and lean muscle mass) and activity levels. The recommended minimum for a sedentary person is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. So if you are 70 kg you should consume at least 56 grams of complete protein per day.  A sedentary lifestyle is discouraged as this can increase your risk of suffering from a number of diseases, and as such,  a more active individual will need a slightly higher protein intake, particularly if doing strength training exercises. People engaging in regular exercise should aim for 1.2 - 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight and using our example above, this would equate to 89 to 119 grams of protein a day. Meeting these needs can be done easier when eating a well-balanced diet with no restrictions. However, whether due to personal or religious beliefs of avoiding animal products, with a bit more effort these requirements can still be met. It is recommended to space your protein evenly throughout the day in your meals and typically you should consume between 15 to 30g per meal,  although this largely comes down to personal preference.3 

High protein foods for vegetarians

Although there is no definition of what a high protein food is, there are many plant-based proteins that have comparable amounts of protein to animal-based protein. These are usually whole grains, nuts and seeds, soy and green vegetables. Here are some examples of complete and incomplete plant-based protein sources.4

High Completed Proteins

  • Quinoa - 4.4g per 100g; 7.3 per 200 calories
  • Buckwheat - 13.3g per 100g; 7.7g per 200 calories
  • Tofu - 17.3g per 100g; 24g per 200 calories
  • Hemp seed - 31.6 per 100g; 11.4 per 200 calories
  • Green Peas - 5.4g per 100g 12.8g per 200 calories

High Incomplete Proteins

  • Lentils - 9g per100g 15.6g per 200 calories
  • Oats - 16.9 per 100g; 8.7g per 200 calories
  • Peanuts - 26g per 100g; 8.3g per 200 calories
  • Spinach - 3g per 100g; 25.8g per 200 calories

By combining incomplete protein sources you can create a complete protein source. For example, a peanut butter sandwich counts as a complete protein source as the wheat is high in the amino acids that the peanut butter lacks, and vice versa. If you eat a variety of these different food sources in a meal, you will probably not need to worry about the quality of these different protein sources.1

Benefits of protein foods for vegetarians 

Maintain and build muscle - Protein is essential in helping to maintain and build muscles. This has a wide variety of benefits. Firstly, having more lean muscles means you are at lower risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Having more lean muscle mass also makes you have a higher working capacity and this means you can exercise more which benefits the body further. Protein can also help people preserve muscle whilst losing weight.6

Decrease recovery time - Numerous studies have shown people who eat more protein have a quicker recovery time, which makes sense as proteins help build muscle and tissue.7

Satiety - Protein has been shown to be the most filling out of protein, carbohydrate and fat. This is partly because protein reduces the level of ghrelin which is responsible for regulating appetite. It also increases the level of peptide YY a hormone that makes your feel full.8 One study demonstrated that increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% in obese women reduced their calorie intake by 400 calories.

Bone health - Most long-term studies demonstrate that people who eat more protein maintain bone mass better as they age reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.9

Age-related disease - Sarcopenia is a type of muscle loss that is related to aging. Studies suggest people who suffer from sarcopenia consume significantly less protein than people with no sarcopenia. Therefore people with sarcopenia should benefit from eating more protein aiming for 1.2g per kilogram of bodyweight.10

More fiber - Specifically planted-based sources of protein contain a lot of fiber. There are two types soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (doesn't dissolve). Having a balance of both will lead to healthy bowel movements and reduce the risk of bowel-related cancers. This is because fiber helps to move stool through the bowls. Insoluble fiber also helps to lower blood cholesterol which can be beneficial for people with high cholesterol and people who are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Lower risk of CVD - As plant-based foods tend to have lower levels of saturated fat, which has been linked to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Eating more plant-based protein versus higher-fat animal protein has been linked with lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.


Can eating too much protein cause health problems?

Yes, too much of anything can be bad and protein, as beneficial as it is, is no different. Higher protein intake can increase the risk of kidney stones. How much is too much? Consuming more than 2g per kilogram of bodyweight is probably unnecessary as even competitive athletes usually get between 1.2g and 2g per kilogram of bodyweight. So this limit and below is considered safe. Getting your protein from animal and plant-based sources has its unique benefits. If you are consuming animal products it is best to monitor your intake of saturated fat. Although saturated fat is useful to the body, too much can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.5

What happens when we lack protein in our body

Most foods contain some protein and so true protein deficiencies are incredibly rare in developed countries. Not eating enough protein can negatively affect your body over time. Protein deficiency occurs when the body does not receive the amount of protein it requires. The people most at risk of protein deficiency in developed countries are people who follow an imbalanced diet, are in hospital, or prison, or require special care such as the elderly. As protein is required to build and repair tissue, lacking this nutrient will lead to muscle wasting and changes in body composition increasing your risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well and increasing the risk of bone fractures and injuries. As protein is used throughout the body, signs and symptoms of protein deficiency are not specific to any one area of the body. Kwashiorkor is the most severe form of protein deficiency seen in countries with famine and high rates of malnutrition.11

  • Edema
  • Fatty liver
  • Skin, hair and nail problems
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Increase risk of bone fractures
  • Stunted growth in children
  • Increased severity of infections
  • Increased appetite

Animal protein or plant protein, which is best

Both animal and plant protein can serve as great sources of protein and a mix of both would be beneficial. Animal proteins are complete proteins and have more bioavailability than plant-based protein sources. Animal proteins are far superior to plant-based proteins in terms of iodine, vitamin B12 and collagen. However, plant-based proteins are superior to animal-based proteins in terms of other micronutrients such as vitamin c and magnesium and more fiber.5

What is the highest source of protein for vegetarians?

For vegetarians, tofu contains the most protein per 200 calories and is also high in potassium, calcium and iron. People also report that this can replace meat in a vast number of dishes as it can absorb flavor well and resemble the texture when pan-fried.4

Things to remember

It is important to remember that a varied and well-balanced diet is important for a healthy life and you should eat different foods as much as possible. This is particularly important when excluding meat and other animal products like milk and eggs. Supplementation may be required as iodine and vitamin B12 are commonly found in these animal products and are much harder for vegetarians to consume naturally. Of course, the lacto-ovo vegetarian is an exception. The relationship between vegetarianism and health outcomes such as lower incidence of cardiovascular disease is not currently causational which means the two things are linked but one is not known to cause the other. People who follow an omnivorous diet are not at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. As with all things in life, moderation is key.


In conclusion, consuming the right amount of protein is essential for a healthy lifestyle and people who choose to follow a vegetarian diet can meet the protein requirements needed for having a healthy life by mixing incomplete protein or choosing complete ones. However, vegetarians can be at risk of being deficient in iodine and vitamin B12 and can use supplements to correct this. 


  1. Marsh KA, Munn EA, Baines SK. Protein and vegetarian diets. Med J Aust. 2013 Aug 19;199(S4):S7–10. 
  2. Mariotti F, Gardner CD. Dietary protein and amino acids in vegetarian diets—a review. Nutrients [Internet]. 2019 Nov 4 [cited 2022 Nov 17];11(11):2661. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893534/
  3. Are you getting too much protein? [Internet]. Mayo Clinic Health System. [cited 2022 Nov 17]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/are-you-getting-too-much-protein
  4. Fooddata central [Internet]. [cited 2022 Nov 17]. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/
  5. Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – which is best? J Sports Sci Med [Internet]. 2004 Sep 1 [cited 2022 Nov 17];3(3):118–30. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
  6. Bosse JD, Dixon BM. Dietary protein to maximize resistance training: a review and examination of protein spread and change theories. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 8;9(1):42. 
  7. Frankenfield D. Energy expenditure and protein requirements after traumatic injury. Nutr Clin Pract. 2006 Oct;21(5):430–7. 
  8. Blom WAM, Lluch A, Stafleu A, Vinoy S, Holst JJ, Schaafsma G, et al. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):211–20. 
  9. Bonjour JP. Dietary protein: an essential nutrient for bone health. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):526S-36S. 
  10. Rizzoli R, Reginster JY, Arnal JF, Bautmans I, Beaudart C, Bischoff-Ferrari H, et al. Quality of life in sarcopenia and frailty. Calcif Tissue Int. 2013 Aug;93(2):101–20. 
  11. Brock JF. Protein deficiency in adults. Prog Food Nutr Sci. 1975;1(6):359–70.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Rob Reid

Master of Pharmacy - MPharm, Medway School of Pharmacy

Robert is a highly creative and technical individual with a strong scientific background and experience in both hospital and community pharmacy currently interning as a medical writer at Klarity.

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