Why Protein is Important in Vegetarian Diets

Consuming an adequate amount of protein each day is important to help maintain muscle mass, build and repair tissues, and aid in the formation and growth of cartilage, skin and bones.

Vegetarian diets are generally considered lower in protein due to the elimination of meat. In addition to protein, a lower intake of meat can lead to decreased iron and vitamin B12 stores, which can result in lethargy and decreased immunity. Therefore careful planning is required in vegetarian diets to ensure that meals are balanced and contain adequate amounts of protein, iron and vitamin B12 to enable individuals to reach their nutritional goals.

What are complete proteins?

It is also important to ensure that individuals who choose to follow a vegetarian diet are receiving alternative vegetarian protein sources that contain complete proteins. The term complete protein refers to the building blocks of protein also known as amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that make up proteins, however nine of these cannot be produced by the body itself. In order for a protein to be considered complete, it must contain all nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. 

See below a list of complete protein sources:

  • Quinoa
  • Soy/tofu – please note the harder the tofu the higher the protein content
  • Dairy – including milk, yoghurt and cheese
  • Beans are not a complete protein, however, when paired with rice a complete protein is formed
  • Eggs
Vegetarian Alternatives Serving Size
Eggs 2 Large eggs
Nuts, seeds or peanut butter 30g
Milk (including soy milk) 250ml
Hard cheese 40g (2 slices)
Ricotta 120g (½ cup)
Yoghurt 200g (¾ cup)
Legumes including lentils and beans 150g (1 cup cooked)
Tofu 170g
Quinoa ½ cup cooked

Some methods to help include complete proteins in vegetarian meals include:

  • Adding tofu and/or nuts to stir-frys and curries
  • Adding chickpeas, lentils, cannellini beans or borlotti beans to pasta dishes
  • Adding beans/legumes to hot pots and stuffed capsicums
  • Adding egg to fried rice dishes
  • Adding lentils or chickpeas to vegetable patties

If you’re wanting a high-protein vegetarian dish, try our recipe for Red Lentil and Paneer Dhal with Homemade Bhatura Bread, a re-creation of the classic Indian dhal dish.

More information:


Authors: Nikita Deo (Senior Dietitian) and Rachel Gray (Dietitian)

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