How Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein for Optimal Health?

Ways to build complete proteins from plants

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Being a vegetarian offers many health benefits, but it can be difficult to get enough protein. It’s not impossible, though. Professor Ormsbee explains how to balance a plant-based diet with your body composition goals.

Vegetable bowls mixed with a variety of vegetables
The risk of heart disease and cancer could potentially decrease by incorporating a plant-based diet into meal plans. Photo By Megan Betteridge / Shutterstock

Types of Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism is essentially a plant-based diet. People choose to eat this way for many reasons and plant-based diets can take different forms. Some forms of vegetarian diets include more animal protein than others.

For example, some plant-based eaters don’t eat meat but do eat fish, dairy products, and eggs. Some avoid meat, fish, and eggs but will eat dairy products. Others will just avoid red meat but eat chicken, other poultry, and fish. Some plant-based eaters still eat meat but just not much of it.

The strictest form of plant-based eating is veganism. Vegans avoid all animal products, which includes anything that an animal might produce like milk, eggs, and even honey.

Eating more plant foods will naturally integrate more nutrients into your diet. Typically, plants include substantial doses of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—molecules that help maintain your cellular health. Additionally, if you are eating more plants, you will likely eat less sugar and fat. 

“So it’s a big benefit to eat more plants—whether you eat meat or not—and there might ultimately be fewer incidences of heart disease and cancer just by eating more plants,” Professor Ormsbee said. 

Combining Protein for Vegetarians

That said, eating a plant-based diet does come with a few considerations. A plant-based diet requires more planning to ensure proper intake of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and more.

Combining sources of protein for plant-based eating is necessary in order to obtain the essential amino acids required for certain health and growth processes. Out of the 20 amino acids, nine are considered essential—meaning that our bodies don’t synthesize them. We have to get them from our diets.

The key challenge for plant-based eaters is getting the essential amino acids found in animal products like meat, milk, and eggs into your diet. Most plant sources of food have incomplete proteins, meaning they lack one or more of the essential amino acids needed to maintain or build your muscle tissue. 

To address this issue, we can combine plant sources of food in order to create a mixture that is a complete protein. The most common example of a complete protein combination is rice and beans.

One cup of rice has about five grams (g) of protein, and a half-cup of black beans has about nine g of protein. Together, they make up a complete protein and roughly 15 g of protein. It’s easy enough to combine foods.

Special Considerations

The issue, though, is that a plant-based dieter must also consider that they are eating roughly 300 or more calories to get that 15 g of protein along with a lot of carbohydrates. However, you can get enough protein and even grow muscle on a plant-based diet—you just need to know what you are doing.

Research has also indicated that we absorb about 95% of animal proteins that we eat, but we only absorb about 85% of plant proteins. Even when you combine plant sources of protein to create a complete protein, you would need to eat more than a meat-eater to get the protein your body needs for muscle growth and maintenance.

Luckily, vegetarian options for protein intake include many low-calorie, nutrient-rich options such as eggs or egg whites, milk, and dairy products like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and whey or casein protein powders. For vegans—those who eat no meat, eggs, or dairy products—some protein options include legumes, grains like quinoa and buckwheat, nuts and seeds, and foods like tofu, soy or soy milk, and tempeh.

Tomorrow’s article will discuss how vegetarians can obtain specific nutrients like Vitamin B12 and iron that aren’t always easy to get from plant-based diets.

Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.