Protein on a Gluten-Free Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

Double-check to make sure you're getting enough protein

Black bean and vegetable soup

PickStock / E+ / Getty Images

In This Article

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 many other meat substitutes you find in the grocery store are off-limits because they contain gluten-based ingredients.

Fortunately it's not as difficult as you might think to make sure you consume the protein your body needs.

Overview

First, you probably need less protein than you think...possibly a lot less. Many people in developed countries like the U.S.—even those on vegetarian or vegan diets, which may be lower in protein compared to standard diets—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 around 16 grams). If you weigh 175 pounds, you need about 65 grams of protein.

Compliant Protein Sources

There are numerous potential sources of protein and plenty of ways to mix and match them each day.

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.

Other whole-grain alternatives include:

  • Millet (6g of protein per cup)
  • Buckwheat (6g of protein per cup)
  • Teff (10g of protein per cup)

Regular or instant oatmeal (if you can eat oats) cooked in water contains about 5 grams of protein per cup. Just be sure to read the label on the package carefully to avoid potential cross contamination, since many oatmeal brands are produced in a facility that also processes gluten grains.

White rice isn't a particularly protein-rich food, but you can pick up just over 5 grams of protein from a cup of brown rice. As a rule of thumb, if you fill your plate with whole grains you easily can get enough protein each day without needing to count the grams.

As a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan, you should try to add some sort of gluten-free grain at every meal, both to boost your protein intake and to increase the amount of fiber you consume.

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. A cup of boiled lentils gives you 16 grams of protein, while red kidney beans come in just below that, at 15.5 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.

Fortunately, there are safe sources of gluten-free beans, even for people who require beans with extra-low levels of gluten cross-contamination. If you're particularly sensitive to trace gluten, buy beans from the sources on those lists and avoid purchasing dried beans from bulk bins.

Beans are an incredibly versatile food, even if you're not following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Cook up a big pot of vegetarian chili, dunk some vegetable sticks in spicy hummus, or even add white or black beans to smoothies (yes, this can taste really good).

Nuts and Seeds

A 1-ounce serving (28 grams) of pecans can provide you with nearly 3 grams of protein, while 2 tablespoons of chunky peanut butter nets you just over 8 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—a 1-ounce serving (about 23 whole almonds) contains 9 grams.

Other nuts include:

  • Walnuts (4g in an ounce (28 grams) of shelled halves)
  • Brazil nuts (4g in an ounce of whole nuts)
  • Pine nuts (Almost 4g in an ounce serving)

Many people like to add flaxseeds to their meals for their beneficial omega-3 fatty acid 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 just under 5 grams of protein) or a handful of pistachios (an ounce provides about 6 grams). Gluten-free peanut butter and gluten-free nut butter also can be great sources of protein.

Spread nut butter on crackers or make a nut butter and jelly sandwich on gluten-free bread; sprinkle pine nuts on your salad or sauté almond slivers in some coconut oil to add to a stir-fry.

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 gluten-free tofu to your dishes (one-fourth of a typical package nets you about 14 grams of protein) and snack on edamame (a cup of shelled edamame will provide 18 grams). Use tofu in stir-fries, make gluten-free vegan pudding, or bake it in the oven with a marinade.

You also can get some gluten-free vegan protein from edamame-based noodles (24g in a 2-ounce serving), and even a little bit from gluten-free soy milk (around 6g a cup, depending on the brand).

Many people who follow a gluten-free diet find they get symptoms from soy. It's not always 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. But if you react to soy, there are many other places to get your protein.

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, many of the most popular meat substitutes use wheat gluten in the ingredients. Steer clear of:

  • Tofurky (contains vital wheat gluten)
  • Field Roast (contains vital wheat gluten)
  • Yves Veggie Cuisine (contains wheat gluten with the exception of the Gluten Free Plant Based Burger)
  • Lightlife (the company doesn't use wheat gluten in its Plant-Based Burger or Ground, which are also produced in a gluten-free facility. However, Lightlife doesn't label its other products gluten-free and encourages consumers to read product labels carefully to avoid cross contamination.)
  • Boca Burger (contains wheat gluten)

With the growing popularity of eating both gluten-free and vegetarian or vegan, a handful of manufacturers have begun producing gluten-free veggie burgers and some other "burger-ish" foods, such as faux meatballs. Some may contain up to 11 grams of protein per meatless patty.

Gluten-free vegetarian and vegan meat substitute brands include:

  • Beyond Meat (made with pea protein)
  • Gardein (not all products are gluten-free)

Steer clear of seitan, as it is made from wheat gluten and is not gluten-free.

Vegetables

Don't forget that basic vegetables—the foundation of your vegetarian or vegan diet—also can contribute some protein. Asparagus, for example, contains about 3 grams per cup.

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

Nutritional Needs

When you're following a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet, you do need to watch your intake of specific nutrients, including:

  • Vitamin B12: A B12 deficiency can lead to anemia. Since this is found almost exclusively in animal products, you'll need to find a gluten-free vegan/vegetarian source for it, such as fortified cereals. Jarrow Formulas Methyl-B12 is one good option.
  • Vitamin D: Most people don't get enough vitamin D from the sun, and very few foods contain it. However, you can still find some amounts of vitamin D in gluten-free fortified cereals, and also milk and cheese if you're vegetarian or plant-based milk products if you're vegan.
  • Calcium: Your bones need calcium. Fortunately, tofu is a great source. A serving of tofu contains enough calcium to meet over 40% your daily requirements. You can make up the rest with some kale.
  • Iron: Wheat is fortified with iron, but that doesn't help you when you're gluten-free. However, amaranth and legumes contain significant amounts of iron, as does spinach. You also can obtain iron in a fortified gluten-free breakfast cereal.
  • Vitamin B6: Vegetarians, vegans, and people who follow the gluten-free diet tend to become deficient in vitamin B6. To get enough, add plenty of chickpeas to your diet (lots of hummus) and look for a fortified breakfast cereal.
  • Zinc: You can avoid a zinc deficiency on a gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet by ensuring you get plenty of gluten-free whole grains and breakfast cereals, as well as legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds. You may also want to consider a gluten-free and vegan supplement like Thorne Zinc Picolinate.
  • Folate: Vegetarians and vegans consume plenty of folate, found in fresh fruits and vegetables as well as legumes, but those who follow the gluten-free diet still tend to be deficient. To make sure you get enough folate, eat loads of spinach and other dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, and beans.

Sample Daily Menu

You may be wondering how all this can work to get you the protein you need, especially if you're not actively counting grams. But believe it or not, those grams add up fast!

Say you weigh 130 pounds and you need just under 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 5 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 over 10 grams in total.

If your mid-morning snack consists of a whole grain gluten-free muffin (3–5 grams give or take per muffin, depending on the ingredients) plus a handful of hazelnuts (around 4 grams), you're one-third of the way to your goal of 50 grams.

For lunch, try lentil soup with mixed vegetables (10 grams of protein, depending on the ingredients), and include two slices of gluten-free vegan whole grain bread on the side (3–5 grams, again, depending on the ingredients). And for your afternoon snack, you could munch on a handful of pistachios (another 6 grams), plus a medium-sized banana (just over 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 could be a veggie burger with gluten-free whole-grain bun (10 grams or more of protein total) or possibly gluten-free quinoa pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables (another 10 grams or more, depending on the ingredients and serving size).

Throw in a serving of vegan tapioca pudding (just about 1–2 grams of protein), and you've met your protein needs for the day, all while eating gluten-free and vegetarian.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ellis E. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass. 2020.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Millet, cooked. Updated April 1, 2019.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Teff, cooked. Updated April 1, 2019.

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oatmeal, regular or quick, made with water, fat not added in cooking. Updated April 1, 2020.

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rice, brown, cooked, fat not added in cooking. Updated April 1, 2020.

  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Red kidney beans, dry, cooked, fat not added in cooking. Updated April 1, 2020.

  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Peanut butter, chunky, vitamin and mineral fortified. Updated April 1, 2019.

  8. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nuts, almonds. Updated April 1, 2019.

  9. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Brazil nuts. Updated April 1, 2020.

  10. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pine nuts. Updated April 1, 2020.

  11. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pumpkin seeds, unsalted. Updated April 1, 2020.

  12. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pistachio nuts, unsalted. Updated April 1, 2020.

  13. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tofu, raw, firm, prepared with calcium sulphate. Updated April 1, 2019.

  14. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soy milk. Updated April 1, 2020.

  15. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vegetarian burger or patty, meatless, no bun. Updated April 1, 2020.

  16. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Asparagus, raw. Updated April 1, 2019.

  17. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cauliflower, raw. Updated April 1, 2020.

  18. Cedars-Sinai. Vitamin B-12 Deficiency Anemia.

  19. Forrest KY, Stuhldreher WL. Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults. Nutr Res. 2011;31(1):48-54. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2010.12.001

  20. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Updated March 26, 2020.

  21. Wierdsma NJ, Van Bokhorst-de van der Schueren MA, Berkenpas M, Mulder CJ, Van bodegraven AA. Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies Are Highly Prevalent in Newly Diagnosed Celiac Disease Patients. Nutrients. 2013;5(10):3975-3992. doi:10.3390/nu5103975

  22. Vici G, Belli L, Biondi M, Polzonetti V. Gluten free diet and nutrient deficiencies: A review. Clin Nutr. 2016;35(6):1236-1241. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2016.05.002