Vegetarian Protein Options


Add Variety & Health Benefits to Your Diet

Recent books like The China Study, which advocate a plant-based vegan diet, have provided good evidence that a diet devoid of meat supports better health and helps prevent disease. But for most fitness competitors, a diet without meat is just not something that is entirely feasible. After all, getting in the amount of protein that is required daily to support muscle building can seem challenging when you remove this option. If anything, the popularity of books like this have shown us that looking at alternative protein sources, whether you are a vegetarian, vegan or a meat eater, should be considered, and that incorporating vegetarian options into your protein sources is a good way to add variety to your diet, not to mention there are tons more health benefits, too.

You are probably already aware that most plant sources provide a few, but not all, of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Essential amino acids are the ones that our body cannot produce on its own. More importantly, some of these essential amino acids— such as the branched-chain amino acids— are fundamental to building and supporting lean muscle mass. Thus, when considering plant protein sources, combining one or two options can sometimes be necessary in order to make up the full amino acid complement. Depending on whether you follow a vegetarian, vegan or meat diet will determine how much combining of sources you will need to do. If you are a vegetarian who does not eat meat, but does eat products from animals such as eggs and dairy products, you can be sure you are acquiring all of your essential amino acids for aiding in growth and repair. Eggs are considered a perfect protein and were once the gold standard by which all other proteins were compared and measured. They provide all the essential amino acids needed to facilitate protein synthesis and repair. Whey is considered to have an even higher biological value versus eggs, providing not only all the essential aminos, but also a superior absorption and utilization rate by the body. These two non-meat protein sources can offer up a majority of protein needs. You may also want to add a few key supplements to the mix such as creatine and glutamine. Creatine can be obtained from red meat, poultry and even fish, but also from the amino acids in other foods we provide our bodies. Most bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use this supplement on top of a packed protein diet to further elevate creatine levels. Adding this supplement will help increase energy levels during workouts, maintain and increase strength and can even help build size! Glutamine is another important supplement for eliciting muscle growth and also repair. Add in 3 to 5 grams of each of these supplements daily for added muscle-building benefits.

Now, if you are a vegan who only eats plants and no animal products, the task of dieting to pack on muscle can become a little more of a challenge, but it’s not impossible. The majority of your protein sources will therefore come from legumes, beans, lentils, soy, nuts and tofu. There are even some grain sources such as quinoa and chia that can provide protein. Now, whether you are a vegetarian, vegan or meat eater who wants to add some variety to your protein sources, below is a brief description of a few options out there and what they can offer.

Legumes: Although not a typical protein selection when it comes to building a lean and hard body, beans and legumes can provide many nutrients, including protein, complex carbs, B-vitamins, iron, phytochemicals, potassium, magnesium and calcium. This vegetable provides 7 to 10 grams of protein per half cup, is low in fat, high in fiber and contains no cholesterol. Common legumes include black-eyed peas, black beans, edamame, chick peas, lentils, lima beans and kidney beans and even soy beans, which will be discussed in greater detail in the next paragraph. It should be noted that this source of protein is not considered complete, with the exception of soy, which means they do not contain all the essential amino acids needed. Some of the important amino acids such as tyrosine, methionine, lysine and carnitine, which have roles in stress hormone function and energy metabolism, are often deficient in certain legumes. There are some ways to balance out these missing amino acids by combining two incomplete sources of vegetable protein such as rice and beans. The downfall of this protein option is that it also packs a large amount of carbohydrates, which although are complex in nature are not ideal when dieting for competition.

Soy Protein: A great protein alternative to animal choices and even great for those who have allergies to lactose. Soy protein is low in fat and contains healthy compounds such as phytates that can act as antioxidants. Soy protein powder is one of the best alternative protein sources because it contains the full complement of essential amino acids. Soy protein also contains saponins, which have been shown to support healthy immune system function, and isoflavones, which have been shown to help maintain good cholesterol levels and reduce bad cholesterol levels. Isoflavones also pose some estrogen-like properties, and for this reason most men avoid this protein choice all together. Although these isoflavones have been shown to improve bone retention, it is speculated that long term use of soy protein may result in unnecessary increases in estrogen levels, which can lead to other health problems later on. Soy protein should definitely be considered as a protein choice, as the benefits outweigh the negatives. One serving of soy protein powder offers up 20 to 25 grams of protein per serving.

Nut Butters: Provide a modest amount of protein, ~5 – 7 grams of protein per tablespoon, depending on the source. They are also easily added to other foods, such as shakes or even oatmeal. Additionally, there are added benefits to nut butters, they are packed with flavor and offer up a creamy, rich texture when it comes to mixing with other foods, they also provide vitamin B and magnesium, are full of fiber and contain a good source of monounsaturated fats. The one downfall to nut butters is they can be addictive, and deadly when it comes to following a diet, as they offer up as much protein as they do carbohydrates! Be sure to accurately measure the amount of nut butter you are consuming! And come diet season, you may want to kick this alternative protein source off your grocery shopping list!

Tofu: A long-standing vegetarian alternative meat source that provides 8 gram of protein per 3 oz and provides all 8 of the essential amino acids. Tofu can be added to any dish to replace meat, since it is tasteless and can take on the flavors that it is cooked with. Tofu is also a source of calcium, magnesium and iron. And what’s more, it’s also low in carbohydrates and fat.

Quinoa: Traditionally used as a carbohydrate source, it also provides protein, making it a viable alternative when mixed with other protein sources. One cup of cooked quinoa provides 220 calories, 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. It is also low glycemic, and a good source of magnesium, iron, zinc and folate.

Pea Protein Powder: This relatively new form of protein powder derived from yellow peas or split peas, offers up to 25 grams of protein per serving. The biological value of pea protein is around 65 percent, versus a whey protein at 100 percent or soy protein at 74 percent, making it lower on the quality and absorption rate. And it does not offer up the complete profile of amino acids, despite this fact it is still an option to be considered.

Rice Protein Powder: Extracted from brown rice and provides only 12 grams of protein per serving. Considered one of the least allergenic of all vegetable-based proteins, rice protein powder is also a source of calcium and iron. Per serving fat and carbohydrate contents are higher than other plant-based protein powders, providing 2 grams of each of these macronutrients. Sources of fat, however, are from good-for-you poly and monounsaturated sources.


Alekel DL, et al. 2000. Isoflavone-rich soy protein isolate attenuates bone loss in the lumbar spine of perimenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 72(3): 844 – 852.

Anderson JW, Johnstone BM, Cook-Newell ME. 1995. Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Soy Protein Intake on Serum Lipids.N Engl J Med. 333: 276-282.

Campbell TC and Campbell TM. 2005. The China Study.

Marsh K, Zeuschner C and Saunders A. 2012. Health Implications of a Vegetarian Diet A Review. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 6( 3): 250-267.

USDA Nutrient Database

Young VR and Pellet PL. 1994. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 59(5): 1203s-1212s.

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