High protein diets have a variety of benefits, such as increased muscle size/strength (when combined with exercise), can help with fat-loss, can increase satiety (which means you will feel fuller for longer after a high-protein snack or meal), and can increase your metabolism.
Protein increases your metabolism because it is the most difficult macronutrient to process in the body (compared to fat and carbohydrates). This means that your body temperature will rise, causing your metabolism to increase. A higher metabolism means that more calories are burned, which will result in fat-loss.
Protein also aids in recovery, helping your muscles recover and grow after exercise. Having a high protein diet will mean that you get more benefits from exercise than someone on a low protein diet.
Vegetarian diets are typically low in protein as they don't contain foods that are high in protein such as meat. This means that to get all of the benefits of a high protein diet, vegetarians have to find alternatives. Obviously, if your diet allows you to eat dairy then you can get your protein from cheese, milk, eggs, and whey protein shakes (which contain around 30-50 grams per serving).
If you're vegetarian but don't consume eggs or dairy, then you will have to search out other high protein foods. Tofu is a good choice, as are lentils, oats, chia seeds, quinoa, and spinach.
One thing to look out for when searching for high protein vegetarian diets is fat content. For example, peanut butter is often used as a great source of protein. 100 grams of peanut butter contains 25 grams of protein, which is huge!
However, 100 grams of peanut butter also contains 50 grams of fat! Considering each gram of fat equals 9 calories, that equates to 450 calories worth of fat. Once you've added the protein and carbohydrate calories you have 588 calories within this supposedly 'healthy' snack.
What you really need to look out for is a good protein ratio. So if we look at spinach, 100 grams of spinach gives you 3 grams of protein but will only cost you 23 calories per serving. Oats are a higher calorie option coming in at 389 calories per 100 grams but the protein content is 17 grams whilst the fat is only 7 grams.
As mentioned before whey protein is the best protein shake option available, containing an average of 25 grams of protein (120 calories). But if you are unable to have whey (which comes from milk), there are alternatives. Most supplement companies provide vegan protein powders sourced from high protein foods such as rice, soy, fava bean, or peas.
These supplements are a very useful addition to high protein vegetarian diets as they can provide similar levels of protein compared to whey, and some are even lower in calories.
How Much Protein Should Be in Your Diet?
There is no real right or wrong answer here, many experts agree that a good amount of protein for you to have is 0.7 grams per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 200 pounds, then you should consume 140 grams of protein per day.
Obviously, some of this should come from supplementation, you can't get it all from spinach. Unless you're dying to eat 6.6kg of the stuff! Using lentils or quinoa as a base for your main meals would help, with tofu instead of meat, and spinach or broccoli (also containing some protein though only 3 grams per 100) as the vegetables. Two to four scoops of protein powder per day could contribute around 50-100 grams of protein which should help you easily hit your targets.
What About Carbohydrates and Fat?
Once you have worked out how much protein should be in your diet (0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight), you can start to look at fat and carbs. Fat should make up 25% of your diet, while the rest of it should be made up of carbohydrates. You can find out your recommended daily calories pretty quickly online, so use that target to estimate how much of each macronutrient is needed.
The Risks of a High Protein Diet
Much has been made of the supposed risks of high levels of protein, some people claim that too much protein could cause liver or kidney damage. For people who have a history of kidney/liver problems, this may well be a danger, in which case check with your doctor before making any dietary changes. For those of you who have fully-functioning kidneys/livers, there is no danger of damage from high protein vegetarian diets.
A Quick Note Regarding Creatine
Creatine is a naturally produced molecule that is stored in the body and is used to create energy. The more creatine you store; the more energy you will have when exercising. Our bodies can only store a small amount of creatine and the rest is made up from the diet. Almost all dietary creatine comes from meat, so vegetarians and vegans are at a distinct disadvantage compared to non-vegetarians. Luckily the supplement creatine is synthetic, so is perfectly acceptable for vegetarians and vegans to consume. If taken, the results can be spectacular. Creatine, when combined with resistance exercise can increase muscle strength and endurance in vegetarians. It also has non-exercise uses such as improving brain function.
Being a vegetarian does make it more difficult to have a high protein diet, but it does not make it impossible. Paying careful attention to the protein content of your meals, and supplementing your diet with protein powders will help you manage it. Supplementing with creatine will also help improve exercise which will have a positive effect on body composition. So use this knowledge and start your high protein vegetarian diet today!