Q&A: Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans

Eric November 22, 2010

Question: I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian right now, which means I don’t eat meat, but I eat eggs and dairy. What recommendations would you have for someone like me who wants to get lean and cut (swimmer’s build, maybe?) and still retain my lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle?
– Hilton


This is a great question! As vegetarianism and its myriad variations continue to gain prevalence, I’m finding it more and more important to have a suite of protein sources consistent with those lifestyles. Thankfully, red meat, poultry, and seafood are not the only foods that contain protein.

I’ve broken down this post’s list of protein sources into ovo-lacto-vegetarian foods and stricter vegetarian/vegan foods. It’s encouraging to see that there are lots of vegetarian/vegan-friendly protein sources. However, be aware that for those who cut out eggs and dairy, your protein sources will tend to have higher calorie and/or carb content. Depending on your fitness goals, you’ll want to adjust your meal plans to accommodate. (For you in particular, Hilton, I’d definitely pick more from the ovo-lacto-vegetarian items, as the lower amounts of calories and carbs will help you get/stay lean.)

For other ways to supplement your protein intake, I highly recommend reading up on Eric’s analysis of different types of protein powder. Casein and whey protein should be fine for ovo-lacto-vegetarians; soy protein is more vegetarian/vegan-compliant. You’ll want to read the labels carefully, however, in case there are other animal-related items in the mix. As for meat substitute products, I’ve heard that Tempeh is one of the best options, as it has more protein and is less processed than many of its counterparts.

UPDATE: Someone pointed out that complete vs. incomplete proteins were not discussed. To delve into the science of protein a bit, a “complete protein” has all of the essential amino acids your body needs for protein consumption and usage. Animal proteins (other than gelatin) are complete; grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds are missing one or more of those amino acids on their own. Rather than trying to plan out which amino acids are missing from each food, the simple solution is to make sure you are eating from a variety of these food sources. That way, you will cover all the amino acids you need. (Note: The idea of “protein combining” in this way was first introduced in 1971, but even the scientist responsible for that study and paper revised her statement 10 years later to say that it was, for the most part, unnecessary. You can read about it on Wikipedia here.)

Without further ado, a list of alternative protein sources lies just beyond the break.

Ovo-Lacto-Vegetarian Options and Nutritional Data

  • 1 large whole egg: 72 Calories, 5g total fat, 1.5g sat fat, 0.4g total carbs, 0g fiber, 6.3g protein
  • 1 large egg white: 16 Calories, 0g total fat, 0g sat fat, 0.2g total carbs, 0g fiber, 3.6g protein
  • 1 C nonfat Greek yogurt: 120 Calories, 0g total fat, 0g sat fat, 9g total carbs, 0g fiber, 20g protein
  • ½ C fat-free cottage cheese: 80 Calories, 0g total fat, 0g sat fat, 8g total carbs, 12g protein

Vegetarian and Vegan-Friendly Options and Nutritional Data

  • 1 ounce whole almonds: 160 Calories, 14g total fat, 1g sat fat, 6g total carbs, 3.5g fiber, 6g protein
  • 1 C fresh or cooked lentils: 230 Calories, 1g total fat, 0g sat fat, 40g total carbs, 20g protein
  • 4 ounces firm tofu: 88 Calories, 5g total fat, 1g sat fat, 2g total carbs, 1g fiber, 10g protein
  • 2 ounces whole grain pasta (dry): 190 Calories, 1g total fat, 0g sat fat, 40g total carbs, 6g fiber, 9g protein
  • 1/3 C quinoa (dry): 160 Calories, 2.5g total fat, 0g sat fat, 30g total carbs, 3g fiber, 6g protein
  • ¼ C steel cut oats (dry): 150 Calories, 2.5g total fat, 0g sat fat, 27g total carbs, 4g fiber, 5g protein
  • 1 C cooked brown rice: 220 Calories, 1.5g total fat, 0.3g sat fat, 46g total carbs, 3.5g fiber, 4.5g protein

Hope that helps, Hilton!

Feel free to contact the Hot Bod Squad with your fitness, exercise, and nutrition questions.

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