A common concern for a vegetarian diet is whether or not it provides sufficient amounts of certain nutrients, especially amino acids and/or protein.
While a vegetarian diet– and even a vegan diet– can provide all amino acids the human body needs, it is still wise to understand which foods provide the highest amounts of amino acids and proteins so that you can better plan your meals.
To aid you as you prepare your meals or shop for groceries, let’s take a look at the importance of amino acids for the body as well as some of the best amino acid foods for vegetarians.
What are amino acids?
Before we take a look at vegetarian foods high in amino acids, it’s important to understand why you need amino acids in the first place.
Essentially, amino acids are organic compounds that serve as the building blocks to create proteins. From there, proteins are used by the body to help break down food, repair body tissue, and even be used as a source of energy for the body.
There are three groups of amino acids to be mindful of. These are essential amino acids, nonessential amino acids, and conditional amino acids. While all of these are important for the body and serve their own individual purpose, you should especially focus on essential amino acids, as this group of amino acids cannot be made by the body. Therefore, they must be consumed in the food you eat.
There are nine essential amino acids: histidine, lysine, isoleucine, leucine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
When a food source contains all nine essential amino acids, it is considered a “complete protein”.
These complete protein sources are commonly non-vegetarian, such as meat, chicken, and fish. Plant-based foods, on the other hand, are usually not naturally complete proteins.
Regardless, it is still possible and quite easy to eat a vegetarian diet that still provides ample amounts of at least seven of the nine amino acids.
The two essential amino acids to be most concerned about on a stricter vegetarian diet– such as a vegan diet– are methionine and lysine, which are less readily available in plant-based foods.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best foods you can eat to receive adequate amounts of essential amino acids.
Soy products, such as tofu and tempeh, deserve to be first on this list due to having some of the highest protein and amino acid content around.
It is a complete protein as it contains adequate levels of all amino acids, even methionine. For firm tofu, you can expect to receive a whopping 43.5 grams of protein per cup, or 17.3 grams of protein per 100 grams.
Quinoa is a food that’s so deliciously health that NASA would love to grow it on long space flights.
This sprouted seed food is another excellent complete protein, containing adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. It’s a particularly good source of lysine, which is important to vegans/vegetarians.
In each cup of quinoa, you’ll receive 8.1 grams of protein. It’s also worth mentioning that quinoa is full of fiber, magnesium, iron, and manganese as well, making it a well-rounded superfood that’s great for the vegetarian diet.
If you’re wanting a meat-like food in your vegetarian diet that provides most of the essential amino acids, seitan is a great choice.
Although it gets demonized by many people nowadays (because of its pronunciation and high gluten content), it is actually a very healthy food for people without gluten allergies.
Seitan is made by mixing gluten (wheat protein) with a range of spices. However, this delicious meat-like food is not a complete protein, as it is missing the amino acid lysine.
An easy fix for this is to season it with soy sauce to supplement the missing lysine. You can expect to get a whopping 21 grams of protein per ⅓ cup.
Eggs are a vegetarian’s perfect go-to food; they’re super healthy and are versatile enough to be used in just about any dish.
They are a complete protein as well and provide a healthy 6 grams of protein per medium-sized egg. However, it is important to note that you should opt for pasture-raised eggs since eggs from confined chickens tend to be lower in protein and omega-3 fatty acid content.
#5: Greek yogurt
This healthy alternative to traditional sugar-laden yogurt is as healthy as it is delicious.
As a complete protein, it provides roughly 18 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving. On top of that, it is also a great probiotic food that works wonders for optimizing your digestive system.
Rather than opting for pre-flavored brands that are packed with sugar, stick to plain (flavorless) Greek yogurt and add honey or fresh fruit to it.
And there you have it. While all of the above foods are indeed great sources of amino acids, keep in mind that they are not the only choices available.
Some other great sources of amino acids include peanut butter, buckwheat, hempseed, and even mushrooms.
Rather than only opting for one source, a best practice is to opt for several amino acid-containing foods. That way if one of the foods doesn’t contain an essential amino acid, it may be supplemented in one of the other foods.