Monday 23 April 2018

Nutrition: The best vegetarian sources of protein

Quinoa salad with vegetables
Quinoa salad with vegetables

Daniel Davey

Vegetarian and vegan diets have gained considerable popularity in recent years due to a variety of factors including beliefs about animal rights and environmental issues and/or perceived health benefits of moving to a plant-based diet, but let's not forget celebrity endorsement either.

There is no question that aspects of a vegetarian diet have benefits, mainly because of greater intakes of vegetables and fruits – compared with the standard western diet – which are rich sources of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

However, because vegetarians and vegans avoid animal products, which are the richest source of protein in an omnivorous diet, they must make a conscious effort to eat protein-rich, plant-based foods to meet their daily protein requirements.

This is especially so for people undertaking intense exercise because it is known to increase the body's daily protein needs. Rather than discussing the pros and cons of a vegetarian or vegan diet, I want to provide some practical suggestions on how vegetarians, or anyone for that matter, can meet their daily requirement for protein from suitable plant sources.


The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as: "Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, or by-products of slaughter." Sub-categories of vegetarians include:

* Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat both dairy products and eggs;

* Lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy products but avoid eggs;

* Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.


Protein is an essential nutrient that supports growth, repair, hormone production, immune function and many other biological processes. Protein requirements vary considerably depending on individual goals, but the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.75 or 0.8g per kg body mass, or 65g per day for the average man.

For athletes looking to gain lean mass or for people looking to improve body composition by reducing fat mass, the requirement for protein can be much higher. The range is broad – about 1.2 to 2g of protein per kg body mass is the suggested intake.

Below is a list of plant-based foods that are good sources of protein.


Whey protein is a soluble protein that is extracted from cows' milk, most commonly produced as a by-product of cheese production. Whey protein contains about 79g of protein per 100g of powder or 23g of protein per 30g scoop.

Whey can be used to make post-training recovery drinks by mixing it with water, in smoothies or added to porridge to increase the protein content of the meal. Whey is a practical way to add protein to a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products.

However, if avoiding dairy, pea protein is a powdered form of protein that is derived from peas. Pea protein is a versatile protein alternative to dairy proteins that can also be used in homemade snack recipes or post-training recovery smoothies.


Most grains contain a small amount of protein, but quinoa (technically a seed) is unique in that it contains more than 9g per 200g serving. Quinoa contains all nine of the essential amino acids that are necessary to be taken in the diet rather than synthesised in the body.


Hemp is one of very few plant proteins that supply you with all essential amino acids. Hemp seeds are great in muesli, for making homemade bread or simple snack bars. Powdered hemp protein is another vegan protein option, but I have to admit the taste takes some getting used to. For a delicious high-protein hemp ball recipe see @FoodFlicker social media pages this week.


Chia seeds come from a flowering plant in the mint family that is native to Mexico and Guatemala. They are a source of omega-3 fats and a good source of protein. Chia seeds are tasty and can be included in homemade bars, smoothies or in muesli mixes.


Lentils are an edible pulse from the legume family. They are a great source of protein and can be included in curries or soups. They do vary in size and colour and are thus very versatile when cooking. 200g of cooked lentils contains 18g of protein, which can really boost your protein intake in any main meal.


Along with providing vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants, green peas are a good source of protein. 175g of green peas (without the pod) will provide 8g of protein. They can be used in soups, as a side dish for dinner with onions, or in salads.


All nuts contain both healthy fats and protein, making them an important part of any healthy diet. Adding nuts to main meals and nut butters to your snacks is a great way of adding a little extra protein to your diet. Nut and nut butters are energy-dense, however, so don't fall into the trap of thinking a little is good so a lot must be better. They can be delicious, so don't overeat.

There are many more good sources of plant-based protein foods, but from the foods listed you can at least see that there are alternatives to animal-based protein sources. It is certainly achievable to meet your daily requirement for protein from plant-based foods but it is important to plan your meals and keep the protein sources as varied as possible. Try out the plan below – a vegetarian meal plan providing about 145g of protein – you can choose to use other protein sources and scale your intake of these foods up or down to suit your individual needs.

Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist


Protein-rich muesli

70g of oats

2 tbsp chia seeds

2 tbsp hemp seed

2 tbsp walnuts

Cinnamon to taste

300 ml almond milk or cows' milk (more protein in cows' milk)


100 g of Greek yoghurt

50 g of mixed raspberries and blueberries

2 tbsp flaked almonds


Quinoa tabbouleh

150 g of quinoa with minced red onion, lime juice, chopped cucumber, chilli

250 g of chick peas


Hemp protein smoothie

250 ml coconut milk

Ice cubes

1 scoop of hemp protein


50 g of frozen berries

1 tsp manuka honey


Black bean chilli

250 g black beans

Chilli sauce

Mixed vegetables

1 small baked sweet potato

1/4 avocado

100g of lentils

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