Protein On a Gluten-Free Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

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

black bean and vegetable soup
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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, which may be lower in protein than standard 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.

Other whole grain alternatives include:

  • buckwheat (6g of protein per cup)
  • teff (10g of protein per cup)
  • millet (a whopping 22g of protein per cup)

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.

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

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. 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.

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.

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 beans to smoothies (yes, this can taste really good).

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.

Other nuts include:

  • walnuts (15g in a cup of shelled halves)
  • brazil nuts (19g in a cup of whole nuts)
  • pine nuts (18g in a cup)

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). Gluten-free peanut butter and gluten-free nut butter also can be good 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 an Asian stir-fry.

When following the gluten-free diet, just make sure to stick with these 11 brands of gluten-free nuts.

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. 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 (17g in a cup), and even a little bit from soy milk (around 8g a cup, depending on the brand). There are multiple gluten-free soy milk brands on the market.

Note that 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. But if you react to soy, there are many other places to get your protein.

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, many of the most popular meat substitutes make liberal use of wheat gluten. Steer clear of:

  • Tofurky (contains vital wheat gluten)
  • Field Roast (contains vital wheat gluten)
  • Yves Veggie Cuisine (contains wheat protein product)
  • Lightlife (the company doesn't use wheat gluten, but also doesn't label its products "gluten-free")
  • Boca Burger (contains wheat gluten)

But 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. Most contain around 4 to 6 grams of protein per burger.

Gluten-free vegetarian and vegan meat substitute brands include:

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

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.

More Gluten-Free Vegetarian and Vegan 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 only in animal products, you'll need to find a gluten-free vegan source for it. Jarrow Formulas Methyl-B12 is one good option.
  • Vitamin D. If you don't get your vitamin D from sun exposure (as many people don't), you can find it in fortified cereals such as Chex, which is vegan.
  • Calcium. Your bones need calcium. Fortunately, tofu is a great source. A full cup of tofu contains almost enough calcium to meet 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 all are likely to be 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. This is another nutrient that's difficult to get on a vegan diet, and people eating gluten-free tend to be deficient in it. You can get some zinc in a fortified breakfast cereal, but you may want to consider supplementing. Thorne Research zinc picolinate is gluten-free and vegan.
  • Folate. Vegetarians and vegans consume plenty of folate, found in fresh fruits and vegetables, but those who follow the gluten-free diet tend to be deficient. To make up for any deficiency, eat lots of spinach, asparagus, and citrus fruits.

A Word from Verywell

You may be wondering how all this can work to get you the protein you need, especially 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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