Vegetarian protein sources
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The most commonly asked questions by any vegetarian today are-
1. How to get enough proteins from a diet?
2. What are the best vegetarian protein sources?
3. Shall we start taking protein supplements?

The answer is- if you are reading this blog now that means you belong to a privileged class and getting constant access to good food. So relax, there is hardly any chance for you to become protein deficient. Even if you are, the problem can easily be solved through a good diet including vegetarian protein sources.

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Why so much ado around protein- vegetarian protein source/ protein supplements?

The fear of being protein deficient is around for the last 10 years and go at its peak in the last 5 years. Have you ever wondered why? How did then your forefathers survive maintained better health following the same vegetarian diet? The market is today loaded with a wide range of protein supplements. All the ado around protein deficiency is mostly to create a market for selling protein supplements. So be smart and be mindful while eating.
We associate protein with meats, it may seem that deficiencies among vegetarians are common — but the fact is enough protein can be easily obtained from a vegetarian diet. Since vegetarian protein sources are so abundant, protein deficiency in vegetarians is rare. A good vegetarian diet is capable enough to provide the necessary quantity and quality of protein and the feeling of fullness.

What are Proteins?

Protein is an essential macro-nutrient required by our body. 20 different types of amino acids join together in various combinations to make all type of proteins. Proteins are required –
• for maintenance – replacing wear and tear in tissue in adults
• for growth in infants and children
• for fetal development in pregnancy
• for milk output during lactation

Besides these, proteins are also required to –
• allow metabolic reactions,
• make the structural framework,
• maintain proper pH and fluid balance,
• keep our immune system strong,
• transport and store nutrients
• act as an energy source in the absence of carbohydrate
• serve its components as precursors for nucleic acids, hormones, vitamins, and other integral molecules.

How much protein do you need?

The amount of protein to be consumed daily to meet all the above requirement depends upon the quality of dietary protein. The higher the quality, lower the requirement and vice-versa.

For an adult eating vegetarian diet -1 gm of protein per kg body weight is sufficient.

• A young child (1-2 yrs ) would require 2 gm of protein per kg body weight

• Protein requirement also increases during pregnancy and lactation period for women.

• At least 10% of your daily calorie should come from the protein in your diet.

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Various types of protein in your diet –

Let’s understand a few terminologies which will help in understanding facts about proteins much better.

Complete proteins: These proteins are often referred to as high-quality proteins. Animal-based food sources such as meat, poultry, milk, and eggs are complete proteins sources. They provide all of the essential amino acids.

Incomplete proteins: These Proteins are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Plant-based food sources such as grains, lentils, and rice are incomplete proteins.

Complementary Proteins: These are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids. For example, Rice contains a very low amount of amino acid lysine and high amounts of amino acid methionine however dry beans contain lesser amounts of methionine and greater amounts of lysine. Together these two food sources can provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids required by the body

Plant proteins VS Animal proteins

Plant Protein Animal Protein
Most of the plant protein sources are incomplete
where at least one or two amino acids are missing.
But mixing them with other foodstuffs enhance the protein quality greatly
These are complete sources of
Rich in photo-nutrients, antioxidants and
sometimes in omega-3-fatty acids and B 12(milk)
Contain high levels of heme iron,
vitamin B12, omega 3 fatty acids, DHA, and zinc
No cholesterol and low in saturated fats Contain saturated fats, cholesterol
Contain fiber Lacks fiber
Lower risk of heart disease, cancer and type 2
Associated with increased risk of
heart disease

Reference – (1,2)

Top 9 Vegetarian protein source

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Vegetarian protein source 1. Pulses/ Dal

Pulses are often translated as dal which is a small, round lens-shaped legume. They come in different colors and sizes. Pulses contain more than 20% of protein which makes them an excellent plant-based vegetarian source. They are rich in iron and folate, packed with health-promoting polyphenols. Pulses are loaded with minerals like magnesium, zinc, potassium, and vitamin -B. (3) They can be easily cooked in 15 minutes. Cooking time can be greatly reduced if soaked for 3-4 hrs. Enjoy a variety of dal during lunch and dinner daily. Eat it along with roti/rice to improve the quality of the protein. (34)

Nutritive value of few common Indian pulses (per 100g)

Beans/peas Indian Name Protein (g) Iron (mg)
Field beans Sem 24.9 2.7
Moth beans Moth 23.6 9.5
Rajmah Rajmah 22.9 5.1
Soyabean Soyabean 43.2 10.4
Peas (dry) Matar 22.9 6.4
Green peas Matar 7.2 1.5
Cowpea Lobia 24.1 8.6

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

Vegetarian protein source 2. Sprouts

Sprouts are the soaked version of whole pulses. They are rich in protein like other pulses. After soaking overnight all the complex forms of nutrients turned into simpler forms, which enhance the availability of all the nutrients in sprouts. If you can wait till it starts germinating, that is even better. Start your day with a handful of sprouts. Your morning tea/coffee can come after an hour. (33)

Nutritive value of few common Indian whole pulses (per 100g)

Whole Pulses Indian Name Protein (g) Iron (mg)
Horse Gram (whole) Kulthi 22.0 6.77
Green Gram (whole) Mung 24.0 4.4
Bengal Gram (whole) Chana 17.1 4.6

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

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Vegetarian protein source 3. Beans and Peas

Beans are the pod-borne seeds of leguminous plants. Beans and peas are highly nutritious- rich in protein, many minerals including folic acid, iron, potassium, and magnesium. They are high in fiber as well.
The balance of complex carbohydrates and protein in beans and peas provides a slow, steady glucose response instead of a sudden surge that can occur after eating simple carbohydrates. Thus, they are considered a superfood for diabetics. Beans and peas provide the body with soluble fiber, which plays an important role in controlling blood cholesterol. Beans also contain saponins and photo sterols which help lower cholesterol. As rich in fiber content, it fills the stomach quickly and reduces hunger pangs. Beans and peas paired with grains and dairy products provide a complete amino acid profile. (4)

Beans/peas Indian Name Protein (g) Iron (mg)
Field beans Sem 24.9 2.7
Moth beans Moth 23.6 9.5
Rajmah Rajmah 22.9 5.1
Soyabean Soyabean 43.2 10.4
Peas (dry) Matar 22.9 6.4
Green peas Matar 7.2 1.5
Cowpea Lobia 24.1 8.6

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

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Vegetarian protein source 4. Roasted pulses/legumes

Roasted form of pulses/legumes is an even better source of protein compared to its natural state. The roasted version improves the nutritional availability and makes it easily digestible. Instead of indulging in hidden sugar junkies, preparations like roasted Bengal gram( bhuna chana) or roasted peas( bhuna matar) can be excellent as protein-rich evening snacks.

Nutritive value of few common roasted pulses/legumes (per 100g)

Roasted pulses/legumes Indian Name Protein (g) Iron (mg)
Bengal gram Bhuna Chana 22.5 9.5
Peas Bhuna Matar 22.9 6.4

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

You can grind the de-coated roasted Bengal gram and store the flour popularly known as sattu in the eastern part of India. Having a glass of sattu drink is another great option as an instant protein drink in your busy morning.

Read more – Sattu water-instant power drink

10 minute Homemade recipe of peanut butter

Vegetarian protein source 5. Nuts

Nuts and their derived products like butter are an easy way to add plant proteins, vitamins, minerals in your diet. Opt to consume them raw, with no other additives to maximize their nutrient content.

Almonds –

Almonds are among the world’s most popular tree nuts. They are highly nutritious and rich in proteins, healthy fats, antioxidants, Vitamin E and minerals like magnesium. The health benefits of almonds include lower blood sugar levels, reduced blood pressure, and lower cholesterol levels. They can reduce hunger and promote weight loss. (32)

Pistachios –

Technically a fruit, these edible seeds are of the pistachio vera tree. They contain a good source of protein, fiber, healthy fats, antioxidants, and several nutrients including vitamin B6 and Vitamin K. Antioxidants Lutein and Zeaxanthin promote eye health. They are delicious, versatile, and fun to eat. Besides being great snack pistachio can be used for baking and cooking to add green or purple color to various dishes. (31)

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Walnuts are exceptionally nutritious nuts. They have higher antioxidant activity and significantly more healthy omega -3 fatty acid than any other common nut. This rich nutrient profile contributes to the many health benefits associated with walnuts, such as reduced inflammation and improved heart disease risk factors. They are excellent sources of several vitamins and minerals, which include copper, folic acid, Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, Phosphorus, and Manganese. There are plenty of reasons to include them in your diet. (30)

Start your day with 6 overnight soaked Almonds, 2 pistachios, and 2 walnuts to improve your overall health.

Cashew nut –

Cashew nuts are tasty and very nutritious when consumed in control. It is rich in protein, phytochemicals, antioxidants, copper, dietary fiber, and other micronutrients. Cashew is good for hair, skin, and also for weight loss. Surprised? Yes, Cashew is packed with omega 3 fatty acids which helps to boost the metabolism and burn the excess fat in your body. It helps to protect your heart by lowering LDL and increasing your HDL level. (28)

Peanuts –

Peanuts (Arachis hypogea) is a legume that originated in South America. They are popularly known as groundnuts. Despite their name, peanuts are unrelated to tree nuts. As a legume, they are related to beans, lentils, and soy. Peanuts are a good source of protein. They are low in carbs and an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals including biotin, copper, niacin, vitamin E, phosphorous, and magnesium. They are rich in antioxidants like Isoflavones and resveratrol. People who are allergic to peanut protein- arachnid and conarchin- should avoid them. You can use them in your regular upma, poha, lemon rice, salads, as a dip along with dosa/idly, and like peanut butter with your regular toast. (29)

How many nuts are enough for a day?

Nuts are healthy, loaded with nutrition and are very tasty. But remember they are very rich in fat also. So have them in control. One fistful of nuts should be enough for a day. You can soak them overnight and enjoy them the next morning or as an evening snack. Roasted nuts are also a good option but make sure they are not added with extra salt or any kind of additives.

Nutritive value of few popular Indian nuts (per 100g)

Nuts Indian Name Protein (g) Fat (g)
Almond Badam 20.8 58.9
Cashewnut Kaju 21.2 46.9
Pistachio Pista 19.8 53.5
Walnut Akhrot 15.6 64.5
Groundnut Mumphali 25.3 40.1
Groundnut (roasted) Bhuna Mumphali 26.2 39.8

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

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Vegetarian protein source 6. Seeds

Although seeds are tiny they contain an impressive amount of proteins. Apart from protein, they are great sources of fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidant polyphenols. Sprinkle some oil seeds over salad, smoothie, yogurt, or any breakfast or snack preparation to increase your protein intake. Consider adding a variety of oil seeds- pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, chia seed, watermelon seed, sesame seed- in daily diet.
Besides tiny oil seeds, there are a few other common seeds that can be eaten as a whole snack. Fox nut, Rajgira seeds, water lily seeds are such few options.

Pumpkin seeds –

These are the most commonly consumed types of seeds worldwide. They are highly rich in protein. They also contain phosphorous, monounsaturated fats(MUFA), and omega 6 fatty acids. Phytosterols in pumpkin seeds help to lower blood cholesterol. (10,11,12)

Sunflower seeds –

Sunflower seeds are versatile and cost-friendly food. These buttery-tasting seeds are packed with proteins as well as nutrients like Vitamin – E, and Magnesium. The high levels go both MUFA and omega 6 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation and cholesterol levels. (13, 14)

Chia seeds –

These seeds contain a decent amount of protein. They also have a good balance of essential amino acids so your body should be able to make use of their protein content. They are high in fiber which aid in weight loss. They also contain omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants. (15,16)

Sesame seeds –

They are a decent source of proteins. It is less in lysine essential amino acid and high in methionine and cysteine essential amino acids. So a combination with legumes will provide us complete essential amino acid profile. They are a very good source of vitamin B1, B3, and B6 and calcium. (17,18)

Flaxseed –

Flax seeds contain high-quality protein and dietary fiber. It is rich in lignan, a plant compound that has antioxidant and estrogen properties that help to lower the risk of cancer. It is loaded with omega 3 fatty acids which helps to prevent the deposition of cholesterol in blood vessels. (5,6)

vegetarian protein source 10

Watermelon seeds –

Watermelon seeds might annoy you while enjoying a cool slice of watermelon in summer. But don’t underestimate the power of these tiny seeds. Watermelon seeds are rich in protein, good quality fat, folate, iron, and magnesium. This is one of the most nutritious kitchen waste which you must stop throwing today. (7)

Garden cress seeds-

Garden cress seeds are the most unrated seed in modern days. It contains a high amount of protein, calcium, iron, and other micronutrients. As per Indian tradition, garden cress seeds are given in the form of laddu to the mothers during lactation. You won’t believe this has the highest amount of iron- 100 mg per 100 gm of seeds. (8,9)

Fox nut/ water lily seeds-

Fox nut commonly called Tal makhana and waterlily seeds often referred to as Phool makhana is good sources of protein. Instead of munching on packaged potato chips, consider eating makhana. All you need to do is to roast them in a tablespoon full of ghee, sprinkle some rock salt and enjoy. These are light, perfect munchies for lazy evenings.(19,20)

Rajgira seeds –

Rajgira seeds are another fantastic source of protein, amino acids, calcium, iron, calcium, vitamin A, B, and C. This is another underutilized yet powerful item that can enhance the nutritive value of any food within a second. Consider preparing Rajgira chikki at home for an evening snack as well as to satisfy your sweet tooth. (21,22)

Nutritive value of few popular seeds in India (per 100g)

Seeds Indian Name Protein (g) Calcium (mg) Iron (mg)
Pumpkin seeds Kaddu ki dana 24.3 50 5.5
Chia seeds Chia 16.5 631 7.7
Watermelon seeds Trbuz ki dana 34.1 100 7.4
Sunflower seeds Kardi 19.8 280 5
Garden cress seeds Halim 25.3 377 100
Sesame seeds (Gingelly seeds) Til 18.3 1450 9.3
Flax seeds Alsi 18 255 5.7
Fox nut Makhana 9.7 20 1.4
Water lily seed Phool makhana 8.3 20
Rajgira seed Rajgira 16.5 223 17.6

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

Vegetarian protein source 7. Milk and milk products

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Milk is a rich source of good-quality protein. There are two categories of proteins in milk. Insoluble milk proteins are called casein whereas soluble proteins are known as whey proteins. Both the groups of milk proteins are of excellent quality containing a high proportion of essential amino acids. Milk proteins are easy to digest.
80% of milk proteins are casein which can increase the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the gut. The rest 20% of the milk protein is whey protein. It is particularly rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Whey protein is excellent for growing and maintaining muscles. (24)
Milk is an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, Calcium, Riboflavin, and phosphorus.
Milk products like curd, paneer, buttermilk, chena are high in protein and can be easily included in our daily diet.

Many people are intolerant to lactose and some are allergic to whey or casein. Milk has also been linked to other adverse effects nowadays. Animals are being treated with excessive hormones, antibiotics for greater milk output. (23) Milk is losing its original quality creating health hazards for many. However, if you can manage to get good quality organic milk from a free-range, grass-fed cow, milk is still one of the best choices for protein in a vegetarian diet.

Nutritive value of milk (per 100g)

Milk Protein (g) Calcium (mg) Iron (mg)
Milk, Cow 3.2 120 0.2
Milk, Buffalo 4.3 210 0.2
Skimmed milk 2.5 120 0.2
Curd (Cow’s milk) 3.1 149 0.2
Channa (Cow’s milk) 18.3 208
Channa (Buffalo’s milk) 13.4 480
Khoa (Whole cow’s milk) 20 956
Khoa (Whole buffalo’s milk) 14.6 650 5.8

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

Vegetarian protein source 8. Soy milk and Tofu

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Soy milk is made from soybeans and filtered water. As it comes from plants, soy milk is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fats. It is lactose-free. Soy milk is a good source of protein, calcium (when fortified), and potassium. It is a good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin B 12, Vitamin K, and isoflavones. It contains some protein as much as whole milk, yet is lower in calories. 1 cup of unsweetened soy milk has 7 grams of protein. People with a Soy allergy should avoid it.

Tofu is also known as bean curd is made by coagulating soy milk, pressing curds into solid blocks, and cooling it. Tofu is high in proteins and contains all of the essential amino acids that your body needs. It also provides fats, carbs, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
100 grams of tofu offers 8 grams of protein. (25)

Vegetarian protein source 9. Cereals and Cereal products

Surprised to see cereal on the protein-rich food list? As per the dietary guideline, 60% of our daily energy should come from the carbohydrate. You know that cereals and their products are rich in carbohydrates. But do you know that they are quite a good source of protein too? We generally eat more cereals than any other food group. Therefore a major percentage of your daily dietary protein comes from cereal. Mixing cereal with pulses/ legumes improves the overall protein quality of the meal. So do not ignore or underestimate your cereals rather choose a variety of cereals carefully. (26, 27)

Nutritive value of milk (per 100 g)

Cereal & products Indian name Protein (g) Carbohydrate (g) Fat (g)
Rice (perboiled & milled) Usna Chawal /Shedhho chal 6.4 79.0 0.4
Rice (raw, milled) Chawal 6.8 78.2 0.5
Rice (perboiled, handpounded) Usna Chawal /Shedhho chal 8.5 77.4 0.6
Rice (raw, handpounded) Chawal 7.5 76.7 1.0
Wheat flour (whole) Atta 12.1 69.4 1.7
Wheat flour (refined) Maida 11 73.9 0.9
Barley Jau 11.5 69.6 1.3
Pearl millet Bajra 11.6 67.5 5.0
Sorghum Jowar 10.4 72.6 1.9
Finger millet Ragi 7.3 72 1.3
Maize (tender) Bhutta 4.7 24.6 0.9
Maize (dry) Sukhi bhutta 11.1 66.2 3.6
Oat meal Oat 13.6 62.8 7.6
Rice, puffed Murmura 7.5 73.6 0.1
Rice flaked Chirwa 6.6 77.3 1.2
Wheat, semolina Sooji 10.4 74.8 0.4
Wheat, vermicelli Semai 8.7 78.3 0.8
Wheat, bread (brown) Atta bread 8.8 49.0 1.4
Wheat, bread (white) Maida bread 7.8 51.9 0.7

Reference – Values are taken from Nutritive value of Indian foods, 2016

Read more – Are you eating the right kind of oats

Brown rice or white rice- what to eat

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How about taking protein supplements?

Today protein supplements are being sold just like kids health drinks and everyone is buying a big fat jar of supplements hoping to lose weight or for developing muscle. Remember, there are multiple factors to be maintained if you want your supplement to work positively for you otherwise it may be harmful to your health. Protein supplements may be high in sugar or sodium to improve the taste. So it is important to read the nutrition labels. The most commonly used protein powders are whey, soy, and casein. They are mostly required by athletes and bodybuilders. In most cases, a well-balanced diet is enough to meet all your nutritional requirements. Please consult with your Dietitian and Healthcare provider before going to take any protein supplements.

Read more – Is it necessary to take dietary supplements

How to utilize your dietary protein?

Getting protein from a daily diet is easy. But dietary protein becomes useless until you work for utilizing and assimilating the protein in your body. Half of the population today struggles to digest their food. Thanks to all known and unknown junk foods loaded with refined ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, and oil) which slowly ruin the health of your gut and cause multiple levels of digestive difficulties – acidity, flatulence, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, etc.

Follow the simple steps to improve your digestion and proper utilization of your dietary protein and other nutrients –

1. Wash your legumes/ pulse/ nuts/ seeds/ cereals well before cooking
2. Soak them for a few hours and discard the water for faster cooking and easy digestion
3. Cook them slow and well
4. Eat slow
5. Chew your food well
6. Focus on food quality
7. Avoid overeating
8. Stay active throughout the day
9. Exercise regularly

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Bottom Line

Protein is one of the three main macronutrients required by us. Every cell requires proteins and amino acids to grow and mend itself from daily wear and tear. Every biochemical reaction for growth and maintaining a healthy life requires protein. You need approximately 1 gm protein per kg of your ideal body weight. Protein requirements vary with age, weight, activity, pregnancy, etc. There are various vegetarian protein sources available to us. Rather than focusing on a single type of protein, it may be better to focus on eating a wide variety of protein sources. Focus on protein quality. Add a variety of pulses, beans, roasted pulses, nuts, seeds, milk, soy to your daily diet. Distribute them to your daily diet at your convenience and eat with cereals. No, you don’t need any protein supplements. A well-balanced diet with vegetarian source of protein is enough to supply your protein requirement. Stay active and exercise regularly to utilize and assimilate the protein better in your body. Opting for vegetarian protein sources is not at all difficult, it just requires little planning for every meal.

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Akhila holds a Post graduate diploma in clinical nutrition and dietetics from Apollo health education and research foundation. She is into this field since a year.She worked as an intern at Apollo hospitals, Hyderabad. She is trained in both inpatient and outpatient dietetics department. She did nutritional assessment, diet planning and clinical counselling for individuals with Hypothy-roid, Diabetic mellitus, Hypertension and kidney dysfunctions at outpatient department in Apollo. Akhila was into agricultural biotechnology but destiny had different plans and her strong passion towards nutrition and food sciences got her into clinical nutrition field. Having a strong background in biochemistry and human genetics she acquired a deep knowledge in the statistics specific to whole body macronutrient and micronutrient metabolism and its relation to metabolic diseas-es.Coming from agricultural background she did research on how organic foods are beneficial than conventionally grown counterparts in terms of nutrients such as antioxidants.She always motivates to encourage locally grown food for better health. She doesn’t encourage usage of supplements and crash diets. She believes the blend of traditional food wisdom and modern nutritional science is necessary for healthy body and mind. She em-phasises more on health gain than just loosing weight.This can only be possible by Sustainable diets.She is all happy in to help her clients who are ready to lead healthy, happy and nourishing life through Wellness munch!

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