When talking about the best protein sources for vegetarians and vegans, it’s important to understand the differences between these populations groups.
A vegetarianwill base their diet on foods of plant origin. However, there are different levels of vegetarianism according to how much food is derived and eaten from animal sources. The major types of vegetarian are as follows:
- A ‘semi vegetarian’ eats poultry and/or fish, dairy foods and eggs, but no red meat;
- A ‘lacto vegetarian‘ consumes dairy foods but no meat,poultry, fish or eggs;
- A ‘lacto-ovo vegetarian‘ includes dairy foods and eggs, but no meat, poultry or fish;
- A ‘pescetarian‘ includes fish and other seafood, but no meat or poultry (while eggs and/or dairy foods may or may not be eaten)
A vegan diet on the other hand, only includes plant-based foods such as cereals and grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, soy, nuts and seeds. It excludes all animal-derived foods including meats, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products (including products with casein, whey, rennet or gelatine), animal fats (e.g. lard and suet) and generally also honey and yeast.
If you avoid animal foods, then it may be slightly more challenging to get all the protein and essential amino acids that your body requires, compared to someone who consumes animal-sources of protein. This is especially true if your diet lacks variety. This is because animal protein provides all the essential amino acids in the right ratio for us to make full use of them compared to plant-based proteins.
However, vegetarians and/or vegans can obtain enough of all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of different types of plant foods including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, soy products and vegetables. One essential amino acid may be difficult for vegetarians and vegans to obtain is lysine as only a few vegan foods contain lysine in large amounts i.e. tempeh, tofu, and legumes. Therefore, if you avoid these foods in your diet due to an allergy, intolerance or for other reasons then you are at risk of protein malnutrition.
There may be some circumstances where a plant-based protein supplement is beneficial. For example, populations who require higher intakes of daily protein or struggle to meet their daily requirements such as athletes, injured or chronically ill, the elderly and those with a low appetite or fussy eaters may be encouraged to add plant protein powders into their diet.
Some great sources of plant-based protein suitable for both vegans and vegetarians include:
- Legumes – such as chick peas, peas, lentils, kidney beans, borlotti beans, cannelloni beans, soy beans, mung beans, navy beans, fava beans, pinto beans and peanuts. Not only a great source of protein but also contain good amounts of fibre, low GI carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
- Nuts – such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts and nut butters. These foods are also a good source of fibre, iron, vitamin E, selenium and zinc, which is important for immunity and prostate health for men, as well as healthy fats that are good for heart health.
- Seeds – such as sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds are all mineral rich and contain healthy fats such as omega-3s.
- Quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth – these ancient grains are gluten free and also a good source of fibre and low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate.
- Tempeh/organic tofu/edamame – These foods contain soy and are considered complete proteins (containing all amino acids). These foods also contain good amounts of fibre and healthy fats. If you consume any soy products, opt for organic as a lot are GMO.
- Non-dairy milks – such as nut, soy and rice milks.
- Plant-based protein supplements – protein powders such as pea, brown rice and hemp are amongst some good alternatives to dairy-based protein powders.
Additional sources of protein for vegetarians who may include additional foods in their diet as mentioned above in their definition are:
- Dairy products (lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians) – milk, cheese and yoghurts.
- Eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians) – complete source of protein and the yolks are a good source of iron, B vitamins and contain vitamins A, D, E and K, and omega-3 in smaller amounts.