Protein On a Gluten-Free Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

You Do Need to Watch Your Protein - Here's How

black bean and vegetable soup
Beans are a good source of protein for people on gluten-free vegan and vegetarian diets. PickStock/E+/Getty Images

Getting enough protein when you're following a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet may seem tricky since many of the usual vegetarian protein sources — seitan and other meat substitutes you find in the grocery store — are off-limits because they contain gluten-based ingredients.

But you can relax a bit: it's not as difficult as you might think to make sure you consume the protein your body needs.

First, you probably need less protein than you think ...

possibly a lot less. Most people in developed countries — even those on vegetarian or vegan diets — already are consuming more protein than their bodies need.

Most people who are moderately active require approximately 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Therefore, if you weigh 125 pounds, you only need about 46 grams of protein daily (for comparison purposes, one cup of boiled lentils provides 18 grams). If you weigh 175 pounds, you need about 65 grams of protein.

So What Protein Sources Fit My Gluten-Free Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?

There are numerous potential sources of protein, and odds are you'll mix and match them each day:

1. Whole grains. You obviously can't eat wheat, barley or rye if you're gluten-free, but there are tons of alternative grains out there. Amaranth and quinoa — at about 8 to 9 grams of protein per cup of cooked grain — are among your best bets for packing in the protein.

Traditional oatmeal (if you can eat oats) contains about 11 grams of protein per cup of cooked grain (read more about oats here: Should Someone Who Can't Have Gluten Eat Oats?). Rice isn't a particularly protein-rich food, but you can pick up 5 grams of protein from a cup of brown rice. All in all, if you fill your plate with whole grains, you easily can get enough protein each day without needing to count the grams.

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2. Legumes. Beans are another obvious source of protein in your diet, and there are literally hundreds of great recipes for bean-based gluten-free vegetarian dishes out there (see some of my favorites here: Gluten-Free Vegetarian Soup Recipes and Gluten-Free Vegetarian Entree Recipes). As I mentioned above, a cup of boiled lentils gives you 18 grams of protein, while kidney beans come in just below that, at 16 grams per cup.

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity and are particularly sensitive to trace gluten, you do need to be aware of the prospects for gluten cross-contamination in your beans. Unfortunately, many farmers grow the gluten grains wheat, barley and rye in rotation with beans, and they use the same equipment to harvest both.

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3. Nuts and seeds. Half a cup of pecans can provide you with 5 grams of protein while 1 ounce of chunky peanut butter nets you 7 grams.

You might also consider using almond flour to replace some of your regular gluten-free flour in baked goods to boost your protein consumption — half a cup contains about 12 grams.

Many people like to add flaxseeds to their meals for their beneficial fat content, and ground flaxseeds also contain a bit of protein — about 1 gram per tablespoon. For snacking, you might choose pumpkin seeds (an ounce contains 5 grams of protein) or a handful of pistachios (50 pistachios provides about 6 grams).

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4. Tofu and soy products. Soy (a common component of vegetarian and vegan dishes) can provide you with plenty of protein. For example, you can add tofu to your dishes (one-fourth of a typical box nets you about 6 grams of protein) and snack on edamame (a cup of edamame in a Japanese restaurant — or at home in your own kitchen — will provide a whopping 22 grams). Here's a list of gluten-free tofu options.

That being said, though, many people who are following the gluten-free diet find they get symptoms from soy. In some cases, it's not clear if the culprit is an allergy or sensitivity to the soy itself or gluten cross-contamination in the soy. If you can consume soy without reacting, it opens the door to lots of additional recipe and snack possibilities.

5. Meat substitute products. There's a multitude of meat substitute products on the market these days, both in the produce department of the supermarket and in the freezer section — it seems like you can choose anything from a plain burger to exotic meat-free "sausages."

Unfortunately for those of us in the gluten-free community, most of these substitutes make liberal use of wheat gluten. But with the growing popularity of eating both gluten-free and vegetarian or vegan, a handful of smaller manufacturers have begun producing gluten-free veggie burgers and some other "burger-ish" foods, such as faux meatballs. Most contain around 4 to 6 grams of protein per burger.

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6. Green vegetables (and those in other colors). Don't forget that basic vegetables — the foundation of your vegetarian or vegan diet — also can contribute some protein. Asparagus, for example, contains 3 grams per cup ... and when it's in season each spring, I easily eat more than a cup in a day (it's my favorite vegetable).

Cauliflower also offers some protein: about 2 grams per cup, chopped. And cauliflower's cruciferous relatives, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts, can kick in about 3 grams per cup. Even fruit contains a bit of protein — usually about 1 gram per piece, give or take.

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Pulling It All Together in Your Day-to-Day Diet

So how will all this work get you the protein you need if you're not actively counting grams? Believe it or not, those grams add up fast.

Say you weigh 130 pounds and you need around 50 grams of protein per day. You can start your morning off with a bowl of gluten-free oatmeal (assuming you can have oats), and net 6 grams right there. Sprinkle two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds on top and add a cup of gluten-free soy milk or almond milk, and you're up to 10 grams in total.

If your mid-morning snack consists of a whole grain gluten-free muffin (3 grams of thereabouts per muffin, depending on the ingredients) plus a handful of about 20 hazelnuts (around 4 grams), you're one-third of the way to your goal of 50 grams.

For lunch, ladle out some lentil soup with mixed vegetables (10-15 grams of protein, depending on the ingredients), and include two slices of gluten-free vegan whole grain bread on the side (6 grams, again, depending on the ingredients). And for your afternoon snack, you could munch on some pistachios (3 grams for 25 of the little nuts), plus a banana (1 gram).

All that puts you up around 37 to 42 grams of protein for the day ... not much short of your goal, and you still haven't even had dinner yet. Dinner can mean a veggie burger with gluten-free whole-grain bun (10 grams of protein in total) or possibly gluten-free quinoa pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables (10 to 15 grams, depending on the ingredients and serving size). Throw in a serving of vegan tapioca pudding (just about 1 gram of protein), and you've met your protein needs for the day, all while eating gluten-free and vegetarian.

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