Protein sources in vegetarian diets

It’s borderline a worn out message that vegetarian diets can lead to poor nutritional intake if you are unaware of what foods contain what nutrients! However, many people who follow vegetarian diets are unaware of how to eat vegetarian whilst still being nutritionally complete.

As most of us know, most vegetarian diets cut out meat, meaning people are potentially at risk of having low levels of protein, as well as low iron, vitamin B12, zinc and calcium. Therefore, if you are vegetarian or thinking of becoming vegetarian it is important to know what foods contain these nutrients.

Despite this, vegetarian diets have shown to have excellent benefits for our health and if you know how to eat well and nourish yourself whilst eating vegetarian then you are almost certainly on a win for your health!

Does ‘vegetarian’ simply mean no meat is consumed in the diet?

No. In fact the word vegetarian is quite poorly defined. There are actually many types of vegetarian diets so it is not as simple as a diet that does not contain any meat. Below are the five major types of vegetarianism in Australia:

  1. A semi vegetarian diet: includes poultry and/or fish, dairy, eggs but does not include red meat in the diet.
  2. A lacto vegetarian diet: includes dairy but does not include meat, poultry, fish or eggs
  3. A lacto ovo vegetarian diet: includes dairy foods and eggs, but does not include meat, poultry or fish.
  4. A pescetarian diet: includes fish and other types of seafood, but does not include meat or poultry. Eggs and/or dairy foods may or may not also be included.
  5. Vegan- someone who only eats foods of plant origin (no meat, no eggs, no dairy).

The health benefits of going Vegetarian:

Vegetarian diets naturally include a higher intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits and cereal foods/grains. These food groups are rich sources of fibre, vitamins and minerals and are low in saturated fat and sodium. They also contain many non-nutritive compounds such as phytochemicals. Research has shown many phytochemicals help to reduce inflammatory markers in the body which as a consequence help to reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases.

More broadly, studies have shown that people who follow vegetarian dietary patterns experience significantly less cancer, cardiovascular disease and generally live longer than their meat-eating peers.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] This is likely due to the higher intake of plant-based foods, which contain important protective nutrients (such as fibre) and low intake of fatty cuts of meat which are high in saturated fat.

How to get the most protein out of your Vegetarian diet:

Plant based protein is less bioavailable than protein found in meat, therefore less of it is absorbed into the body. Furthermore, meat contains complete proteins; this means that meat has all the essential amino acids that are sufficient to assist in protein absorption (these essential amino acids need to be sourced from our diet as we cannot make them ourselves) and therefore support our health.[6] Most plants do not contain all the essential amino acids, therefore when eating a vegetarian diet it is ideal to combine different plant protein sources in order to consume an adequate intake of all of the essential amino acids.

It is important to note that you don’t have to eat complete proteins at each sitting to get the essential amino acids that your body needs, as long as you consume a variety of plant based protein sources over the course of each day.[7]

Protein loveheart.jpg

But how do I eat complete proteins whilst eating Vegetarian?

  • Eggs and dairy products are naturally complete proteins- so that’s easy!
  • Soy: the only plant derived complete protein source
  • Any nuts and seeds paired with grain sources such as quinoa, buckwheat, rye, wheat, etc.
  • Legumes (chickpeas, beans, etc) paired with grains sources (as listed above)

Specific ideas include:

  • Mix up your plant protein sources in a salad such as a rice and bean salad or chickpea and quinoa salad.
  • Have peanut butter on bread/rice thins/pita bread for a quick and tasty snack.
  • If you don’t feel like peanut butter, how about some hommus with pita bread.
  • Try quorn: this is a product made from fungi that has been created to be nutritionally complete- it’s a bit weird at first but actually great fun to try and play around with in recipes!
  • Use tempeh and/or tofu in your cooking: Note that the harder the tofu the higher the protein content.
  • If you are struggling with food sources, use plant-based protein powder to boost the protein content of baked goods or add it to a smoothie.

 Concluding remarks:

The literature shows over and over that increasing our intake of foods of plant origin is beneficial for our health and will reduce our risk of developing a number of chronic, preventable diseases.[8]

My advice for anyone reading this who is not vegetarian is to try to have one or two meals each week that don’t contain meat (you might have heard of meat free Monday’s?). Not only does it give you the opportunity to have a go at vegetarian cooking in the kitchen, but your health may be thankful for it in the future!!
For those who are vegetarian, keep investigating and playing around with recipes, try new ingredients and be mindful of where your sources of protein are coming from.

-Your Student Dietitian, Simone Abley


1- Pierce, J.P., Natarajan, L., Caan, B.J., Parker, B.A., Greenberg, E.R., Flatt, S.W., Rock, C.L., Kealey, S., Al-Delaimy, W.K., Bardwell, W.A., Carlson, R.W., Emond, J.A., Faerber, S., Gold, E.B., Hajek, R.A., Hollenbach, K., Jones, L.A., Karanja, N., Madlensky, L., Marshall, J., Newman, V.A., Ritenbaugh, C., Thomson, C.A., Wasserman, L., and Stefanick, M.L. Influence of a diet very high in vegetables, fruit, and fiber and low in fat on prognosis following treatment for breast cancer: The Women’s Healthy Eating and living (WHEL) randomized trial. JAMA. 2007; 298: 289–298. 

2- Béliveau, R. and Gingras, D. Role of nutrition in preventing cancer. Can Fam Physician. 2007; 53: 1905–1911

3- Jacobs, D.R., Marquart, L., Slavin, J., and Kushi, L.H. Whole-grain intake and cancer: An expanded review and meta-analysis. Nutr Cancer. 1998; 30: 85–96

4- Koushik, A., Hunter, D.J., Spiegelman, D., Beeson, W.L., van den Brandt, P.A., Buring, J.E., Calle, E.E., Cho, E., Fraser, G.E., Freudenheim, J.L., Fuchs, C.S., Giovannucci, E.L., Goldbohm, R.A., Harnack, L., Jacobs, D.R. Jr, Kato, I., Krogh, V., Larsson, S.C., Leitzmann, M.F., Marshall, J.R., McCullough, M.L., Miller, A.B., Pietinen, P., Rohan, T.E., Schatzkin, A., Sieri, S., Virtanen, M.J., Wolk, A., Zeleniuch-Jacquotte, A., Zhang, S.M., and Smith-Warner, S.A. Fruits, vegetables, and colon cancer risk in a pooled analysis of 14 cohort studies. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2007; 99: 1471–1483.

5- Key, T.J., Fraser, G.E., Thorogood, M., Appleby, P.N., Beral, V., Reeves, G., Burr, M.L., Chang-Claude, J., Frentzel-Beyme, R., Kuzma, J.W., Mann, J., and McPherson, K. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: Detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999; 70: 516S–524S

6- Grandy J. Manual of Dietetic Practice. 5th ed. West Sussex: UK; 2014. 919 p.

7- Key, T.J., Fraser, G.E., Thorogood, M., Appleby, P.N., Beral, V., Reeves, G., Burr, M.L., Chang-Claude, J., Frentzel-Beyme, R., Kuzma, J.W., Mann, J., and McPherson, K. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: Detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999; 70: 516S–524S

8-Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. J Am Diet Assoc [Internet]. 2009;109(7):1266 – 1282.


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