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Complete Protein Foods for Vegetarians

author image Natalie Stein
Natalie Stein specializes in weight loss and sports nutrition. She is based in Los Angeles and is an assistant professor with the Program for Public Health at Michigan State University. Stein holds a master of science degree in nutrition and a master of public health degree from Michigan State University.
Complete Protein Foods for Vegetarians
Eating a variety of foods will help ensure that you get high-quality protein on your vegetarian diet. Photo Credit: olgakr/iStock/Getty Images

People often choose to follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons. The diet can be high-fiber and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and it can be sufficient in most essential nutrients if you plan your diet well. Being aware of the sources of complete protein will help you get enough complete protein on your vegetarian diet.

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Complete Vs. Incomplete Proteins

Tofu is a good protein replacement.
Tofu is a good protein replacement. Photo Credit: vikif/iStock/Getty Images

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in foods and in your body. The University of Illinois explains that complete proteins, also called high-quality proteins, in food provide all of the amino acids that your body needs to get from the diet, while incomplete proteins are lacking one or more essential amino acids. The proteins in all animal-based foods, such as chicken, fish and beef, are complete. Getting high-quality proteins is an additional requirement to getting enough total protein in your vegetarian diet.

Dairy Products and Eggs

Include eggs in diet.
Include eggs in diet. Photo Credit: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat, fish and poultry but may consume eggs and dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt. Because these are animal-derived foods, they provide complete proteins. They are sources of calcium and vitamin B-12, too. Choose low-fat dairy products and eat egg whites to limit your intake of saturated fat, which raises levels of unhealthy cholesterol -- or low-density lipoprotein -- and increases your risk for heart disease. Try eggs with low-fat cheese, cottage cheese with pine nuts or yogurt with walnuts.

Soy Protein

Tofu stir fry.
Tofu stir fry. Photo Credit: Dole08/iStock/Getty Images

The protein in soy is complete. Additional nutrients in soy products such as tofu, soybeans, soy milk, soy yogurt and tempeh can include dietary fiber, calcium and iron. Roasted soybeans make convenient additions to salads and portable snacks. Add tofu to vegetable stir-fries and serve over brown rice, top steamed vegetables with soy-based cheese and sesame seeds, and eat soy milk and yogurt as substitutes for dairy products if you are follow a strict vegetarian, or vegan, diet.

Cooked Quinoa

Quinoa with vegetables.
Quinoa with vegetables. Photo Credit: Fudio/iStock/Getty Images

Quinoa is a plant-based source of complete protein that is a grain. Each cup of cooked quinoa provides 8 grams of protein and 39 grams of carbohydrates. This makes it low-protein and high-carbohydrate in comparison to foods such as chicken breast, which is carbohydrate-free and has 27 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving, and beans, which have 15 grams of carbohydrates and 7 grams of protein per half-cup. Have cooked quinoa as a side dish or make quinoa tabbouleh with cold cooked quinoa, olive oil, onion, bell pepper and tomatoes.

Protein Combining

Black beans and rice.
Black beans and rice. Photo Credit: PauloVilela/iStock/Getty Images

Beans, nuts, whole grains and vegetables contain some protein, but their protein is incomplete. The University of Michigan Integrative Medicine explains that protein combining can allow you to get all of the amino acids you need from the diet. Eating beans or nuts with grains provides complete proteins. Examples include peanut butter on whole-grain crackers, black beans with rice and hummus with whole-wheat pita. The principle is also called complementary proteins.

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