How to Get Enough Protein if You’re a Vegetarian

The decision to become a vegetarian may be firmly planted in your mind, but unless you do a bit of research beforehand it will be difficult to know how to stay healthy in the long run.  Since protein is vital to maintaining good health, it is absolutely necessary to get enough of it in your system each day.  This guide aims at helping responsible vegetarians or soon to be vegetarians succeed at abandoning meat for good. 

Briefly, Why Protein Is So Important

Protein is composed of amino acids, the building blocks of bone, muscle, hair, and every part of the human body.  It helps to build, maintain, and repair tissue in the body, as well as performing more specialized tasks such as creating hemoglobin to transport oxygen in the blood.  Certain proteins called enzymes carry out chemical reactions to allow for life to exist.  Although our body naturally creates most amino acids, some cannot be made and thus must be acquired from another source (eating). 

A lack of protein in your diet can cause your muscles to decrease in size and waste away, as the body is not receiving the nutrient to maintain the tissue.  Its deficiency also slows growth, especially in younger people, causes cramping and fatigue, impaired healing process for injuries, and edema, in which fluid builds up in certain areas of the body. 

By converting to vegetarianism, you are by definition giving up the major food sources that provide you with the essential element of protein. These are:

  • Red meat – beef, lamb, veal
  • Chicken
  • Poultry – turkey, quail, duck, etc.
  • Pork
  • (Fish)
  • (Seafood – crab, lobster, shrimp, other shellfish)
  • (Eggs)
  • (Milk and dairy)

Types of Vegetarians

  1. Lacto-ovo vegetarians: These vegetarians do not eat any forms of meat, including red meat, chicken poultry, pork, fish, and seafood. However, they do not consider eggs to be meat and consume them along with milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. “Lacto” is Latin for “milk”, while “ovo” refers to milk. These are by far the most common type of vegetarian.

  2. Pesco-vegetarians: These also do not eat any type of meat, but do consume fish and seafood. Reasons for this may pertain to health or the belief that fish do not “feel” quite like other animals that are often treated cruelly prior to their deaths in the slaughterhouse.

  3. Vegans: These are the most extreme of vegetarians. Vegans consider all forms of meat and products derived from animals to be off limits. Therefore, they do not eat red meat, chicken and poultry, pork, fish, seafood, milk, eggs, or any dairy products. While being a vegan is the most difficult commitment of the three, vegans are often quite passionate about their decision to abstain from animals.


What Foods to Eat

At first it may feel like every food you once took for granted is no longer available to you. There seems to be hardly anything left fit for eating. However, once you really start to explore alternatives for all your meat-containing items, a new world of vegetarian delicacies is opened before you.

The key to maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet is to mix it up.  As you would with meat, for example not eating pork chops or a hamburger every single day, you need to eat a good variety of vegetable foods for meals and snacks. 

This is much easier to do than it sounds. If the first thing you’re thinking is “I can only eat beans and tofu the rest of my life,” know that there is much more than that available.  In fact, there are countless resources in books, websites, and television dedicated to helping vegetarians create a well-balanced, protein-full diet.  And even by taking a single ingredient, such as soy, you can create hundreds of unique meals that are each totally different. 

This all depends, of course, on what kind of vegetarian you are.  A pesco-vegetarian can eat fish, while a lacto-ovo vegetarian cannot.  A lacto-ovo vegetarian can eat milk, dairy, and eggs while a vegan cannot eat those or fish.  A pesco-vegetarian typically consumes eggs and dairy in addition to fish. 

First, let’s have a look at some foods along with their protein content per 100 grams. Those starred items may be eaten by a specific type of vegetarian.

* = lacto-ovo ** = pesco

These stats are approximations of those taken from the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. 

As you can see, seafood and nuts are generally the highest sources of protein in the list above.  This makes it much easier for pesco-vegetarians to acquire a sufficient amount of protein.  Nuts can be mixed in salads or eaten on their own as snacks to supplement meals composed of the ingredients above.  A peanut butter sandwich, as well as sandwiches made with the cream of any nut, is a quick and easy preparation to consume nuts and their protein in a more efficient way.  

In addition to the ingredients above, numerous soy-based food products are sold in the form of normally meat-based foods.  For example, Boca burgers and veggie patties replace the traditional hamburger, veggie dogs are like soy hotdogs, tofurkey is turkey reincarnated in tofu form, and so on. 

Once the desired ingredients are brought home from the supermarket, there is an almost unlimited set of combinations and recipes which can be used to create the ultimate vegetarian dish.  It is recommended that anyone wishing to create original, delicious vegetarian meals check out the multitude of great cookbooks sold exclusively for ex-omnivores. 

Advice for Vegans

Those who choose to exclude all animal products from their diet must make sure to include in it the following essential minerals and vitamins:

  • Calcium – In order to maintain strong bones and help prevent osteoporosis, this mineral is necessary to take in. Calcium, while found mainly in milk and dairy products, can also be acquired from green leafy vegetables, tofu, dried figs, and calcium-fortified orange juice and soy milk.
  • Iron – A deficiency in this mineral leads to anemia, a condition in which there are less red blood cells in the blood than normal. Red blood cells are primarily responsible for transferring oxygen throughout the body. To make sure you are receiving enough iron, eat iron-fortified cereals, seaweed, soy, dried figs and raisons, and legumes.
  • Zinc – This is important for sexual reproduction and helping to produce hundreds of enzymes, among other functions. Beans, nuts, soy, and fortified cereals contain zinc.
  • Vitamin B-12 – This vitamin aids in the maintenance of red blood cells and nerve cells. In addition, it plays a role in the creation of DNA from amino acids. Because it is only present in meat and dairy products, vegans have to take the extra step of buying vitamin B-12 supplement.

Tip for Vegetarians who Work Out

If you decide to give up meat, fish, dairy, or all three, you may think it will be near impossible to continue working out with weights. However, the transition to vegetarian will not be so tough if it is done gradually, over a few weeks time. If you slowly cut back on the meat, making portions smaller and smaller until it is no longer present in your diet while replacing it with substitutes, you will be able to work out as you have before. As long as you ensure the caloric intake remains roughly stable, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to stay in the same shape.

Recommended Reading

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman is a superb recipe book aimed at satisfying the taste buds and stomachs of vegetarians everywhere.  Bittman has written several excellent bestselling cookbooks, and this is by far the best for meatless recipes.  The included meals are so delicious that not only will you forget you are not eating meat, but you will never feel the need to eat it again.  This cookbook should truly be the standard recipe book in every vegetarian’s kitchen. 

A second book I recommend equally is a vegetarian’s dream guidebook, The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet.  This is really a must have for beginner vegetarians who are just making the transition to a meatless diet.  It walks you through the journey with countless pieces of advice and factual information to ensure a long and healthy life as a vegetarian.  It is not really a recipe book, but more of a guide to all the aspects of this new way of life.  Readers will find themselves learning more than they could have ever imagined about nutrients, their relationships with the human body, diseases cause by their absence, and much more. 

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Comments 24 comments

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Haigo, I've always wondered how vegetarians (esp the vegans) get their protein. Thanks for this enlightening hub. :-)

By the way, this hub is a hubnugget nominee! Yippee! And just in time for spring too. Why don't you visit Shirley's hub to read all the hubnuggety details and vote!

I invite you to ask your friends (hubbers and non hubbers) alike to come and vote too. The more votes you have, the more chances of this hub being included in the hubpages newsletter. Now wouldn't that be cool? :-) Enjoy...

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

I think Haigo has some good advice here. I have been vegetarian most of my life and in America most people can get enough protein easily and be vegetarian. Many traditional cultures such as 80% of the Chinese population are vegetarian, and many Hindu abstain from meat for religious reasons. I eat chicken occasionally, but honestly having grown up vegetarian is it great to just eat vegetarian most of the week.

k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

I recently began eating not only vegetarian, but raw. One of the women I work with asks me continually how I get enough protein. I need to send her your link, I think!

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

Great hub, thank you very much for the information. I'm always looking for ways to get more protein into my diet, and your hub helps a lot.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

i've had some - and cooked some fabulous vegetarian meals, maybe i could give up meat, but never culd i give up cheese

BardScribe profile image

BardScribe 7 years ago from Iowa

As a lifelong thyroid patient and a pescatarian for 6 years, I have this to say:

One thing you really have to watch out for, particularly if you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian or vegan, is excess consumption of over-processed soy. Soy contains phytoestrogens, a chemical compound that is similar to the hormone estrogen and can therefore be deleterious to the thyroid. This can happen in both men and women. So if you eat soy, make sure it is in seitan or tempeh form, and get plenty of iodine-rich food such as seaweed (if you are not a pescatarian) to balance things out.

Also, I don't care what other vegans tell you: Honey is NOT an animal product, as bees are NOT animals. They are insects. Totally different part of the evolutionary scale, different sector of creation. Yes, bees are living, breathing beings. I do not refute that. However, as long as we treat bees with respect and do not take more than our fair share, I do not think bees object to our consumption of their honey.

Schwag profile image

Schwag 7 years ago from Clarksville, TN

This hub has been nominated as this week's HubNugget. For a review of all the nominees, check this out and vote!!

mulberry 7 years ago

Very helpful. I'm not a vegetarian buy I have an 82 year old mother who doesn't like meat and she's not getting enough protein...this will be very useful.

Moon Daisy profile image

Moon Daisy 7 years ago from London

Great hub! I'm a vegetarian of sorts (I eat fish and eggs), but often I know I don't get enough protein. I'll find this hub very useful when planning my meals in future. Thanks!

Joni Solis profile image

Joni Solis 7 years ago from Kentwood, Louisiana

There are many good vegan protein sources... I take spirulina, hemp, and chia seeds for some of my protein needs.

Spirulina: Protein for the Future

High in Protein Chia seed is a complete source of dietary protein, providing all the essential amino acids. Compared to other seeds and grains, chia seed provides the highest source of protein, between 19 to 23 percent protein by weight.

The total protein content of hemp seed is about 65% of the globular protein edestin, which closely resembles the globulin found in human blood plasma. It is easily digested, absorbed, and utilized by humans and vital to maintaining a healthy immune system.

Chia Seed 7 years ago

The above poster is right about Chia Seeds for protein, but didn't mention something important (and fun) which is that you can make chia seeds taste like whatever you want them to! This makes them super easy to add to the food you already like. If you make gel with them, that gel can be used to replace half the butter in your baked recipes (if you're a vegetarian who's ok with milk-products)

To add chia to your diet is even easier than whey powders or other suppliments when the seeds distribute (never absorb or cover up) the flavor of the food. Hopefully easy protein and hubs like this one can help people to see a meat-free path as delicious, easy and interesting.

Haigo Baigo profile image

Haigo Baigo 7 years ago from Long Island Author

One small detail I would like to fix is in the descriptions of the three types of vegetarians. Lacto refers to milk, while ovo refers to eggs. Sorry for the mistake.

kristenssn profile image

kristenssn 7 years ago from Sacramento CA

I'd just like to mention that it has been determined it is indeed possible to obtain enough protein from a solely plant-based diet, a.k.a. veganism. So now we can all have a comeback for those of us vegetarians/vegans who are constantly nagged about meat as being a vital source of protein.

jxb7076 profile image

jxb7076 7 years ago from United States of America

Excellent hub with great information. It took me over four years to convert to vegetarianism. I've been a vegetarian for over 20 years now and have no desire for meat products.

Thanks for sharing.

J. Kumm profile image

J. Kumm 7 years ago from Washington

I've been pesco-vegetarian for a little over a month now. I've found it generally easier than I expected, though I do admit that being able to eat fish probably helps.

I appreciate the info on protien from other sources because it has been one of my trouble spots. After reading this info it looks like I'm on the right track, though.

aj's profile image

aj's 7 years ago from Saskatchewan, Canada

Hey, you've got a great hub here. Valuable information... Im new around here and hubs like yours give great deal of inspiration. See how i did my first hub (not an elaborate one) and comment if u feel so.

sheryld30 profile image

sheryld30 7 years ago from California

Excellent hub! Thank you so much for all this good information. Very helpful. :)

Vegetarian Bodybuilding 7 years ago

Excellent post...thanks so much...especially the bit about vegetarian weight lifting

Vegetarian Bodybuilding 7 years ago

Excellent post...thanks so much...especially the bit about vegetarian weight lifting

Caveman Diet 6 years ago

I've never really understood why anyone would even want to be a vegetarian, but whatever floats your boat. Personally, I prefer organic meats, vegetables, and so on, sort of like a natural Caveman diet.

I would say that nuts, sunflower seeds and the like, are the best option for a vegetarian to get enough protein in their diet.

Either way, this was a very informative article and was well written. Thanks...

Leeds Acupuncture 5 years ago

Very informative diet information - the best site I've come across since trawling the web looking for protein/veggie diets - thanks

flowerpick profile image

flowerpick 5 years ago from PHILIPPINES


ccmorrow profile image

ccmorrow 4 years ago from Florida

I've been a vegetarian for almost a year now - and I love it! I've recently given up dairy products and I feel a lot better. Also, I do CrossFit which is an intense workout and your muscles need protein to build. Thanks for your information!

jj 2 years ago

funny,cool,keep on

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