One of the most annoying redundancies you will hear as a vegetarian or vegan is this: “But how do you get your protein?”
The reason that this is so annoying is because it assumes that meat is the only source of protein. All plant-based foods contain some protein. Heck, even corn has lots of protein in it (1 cup = 16 grams), not to mention the vegetarian foods which are more obviously packed with protein, like beans, nuts, seitan, and tempeh. But the question of vegetarian and vegan protein is viable in one aspect: Few plant-based foods are complete proteins. Complete proteins are those which contain all 9 essential amino acids our bodies need (refresher: amino acids are the building blocks of protein).
In order to stay healthy, we need to consume ALL of the essential amino acids. This has led some to freak out and think they need to focus on eating vegetarian foods which are complete proteins. Really, it is pretty easy to get all of your amino acids so long as you eat a variety of foods: the amino acid lacking in one protein source will likely be present in another protein, so you end up getting all those essential aminos. No, you probably don’t need to follow any complicated system of combining proteins! Just make sure to eat a different type of protein at every meal (like some nuts in your morning cereal, some seeds on your lunch salad, and a heaping portion of plant protein for dinner).
Just in case you are still worried about getting all your amino acids, here are 9 vegetarian complete protein sources (7 of which are vegan complete protein sources!).
1. Hemp Seeds: 100 grams (shelled seeds) = 37 grams protein
Hemp seeds are one of the most nutritionally compete foods in the world. If you are worried about getting all your essential amino acids, then buy some hemp protein powder and eat it in your cereal or smoothies every day. Hemp is fairly expensive if you buy it in a health food store. I found bulk Organic Hemp Powder on Amazon which is $25.59 for 3 pounds.
2. Chia seeds: 100 grams = 17 grams protein
Chia seeds finally are getting the attention they deserve (at least for something other than use on “pets”). Aside from being a complete protein, chia seeds are great vegan sources of essential fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber and potassium. Compared to hemp, chia is pricier as a source of vegan protein — but it tastes better and works really great in recipes like chia pudding.
3. Pumpkin and squash seeds (pepitas): 100 grams = 25 grams protein
Throw these tasty seeds onto a salad, into mashed potatoes, or just eat them raw. They will give you all 9 amino acids plus TONS of iron (1 ounce = 23% of iron RDA), zinc (14% RDA) and lots of other minerals.
4. Soy: 1 cup (cooked beans)= 29 grams protein
Soy really is a miracle food. It can be turned into just about anything from milk to fake veggie burgers and is loaded with lots of nutrients – including all your amino acids. Just be wary of processed soy products because they often contain soy isolate. Soy isolate is made with a process that involves boiling soy in hydrochloric acid for days until it turns into a cousin of MSG. By the time you enjoy it as a soy dog or fakin’ bacon, it has little nutritional value left.
5. Quinoa: 1 cup = 8 grams protein
There is good reason that quinoa has been hyped up as a superfood in the past few years. It is one of the only grains in the world which is a complete protein — and it is LOADED with protein. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein. It also has loads of iron (1 cup = 15% RDA), zinc, calcium, and numerous other minerals.
6. Buckwheat: 100 grams = 13 grams protein
Buckwheat, also called kasha, often gets overlooked in light of quinoa as a source of protein. But this tasty (and cheap) grain is loaded with all 9 essential amino acids! You’ll also get tons of fiber, iron, and a good amount of zinc too.
7. Spirulina: 100 grams = 57 grams protein
While you probably aren’t going to eat enough of it daily to meet your protein RDAs, spirulina is a vegan complete protein. One ounce of raw spirulina delivers 2 grams of complete protein – not to mention 44% of your iron for the day! I like to add spirulina powder to smoothies. If you really hate the taste of spirulina, you can take it in supplement form. I like the spirulina powder from NOW because it is non-GMO, organic, and 100% vegan ($20.76 for 1lb at Amazon). The one from Nutrex Hawaii is also good, especially because it is one of the few spirulina powders which is sourced and produced in the US and not China ($58.99 for 1lb, pack of 2, at Amazon).
8. Eggs: 1 egg = 13 grams protein
There is a lot of controversy about whether eggs are healthy or not. When it comes to protein though, eggs do deliver. They’ve got all your essential amino acids. Note that both the white and the yolk are complete proteins.
9. Greek yogurt: 100 grams = 10 grams protein
The European version of yogurt (which includes lots of fat and is traditionally eaten sour instead of sweet) is full of protein. It also has lots of healthy bacteria for your gut and is a great source of calcium. If you are vegan, check out these vegan sources of calcium instead.
Vegetarian Protein Supplements
It is always best to get your protein from real food. But, if you for some reason think you aren’t getting enough protein or you need a boost (like if you are a vegetarian athlete), then there are always supplements. Check out our list of vegan protein supplements . These are some of my favorite to add to smoothies:
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