Protein foods

Basic rules:

  • Choose vegetable proteins
  • Consume a good variety of different protein-rich plant foods

What are the foods rich in proteins?

Ciotole di legumi

Foods rich in protein are a heterogeneous group that includes legumes as well as all soy products (soy milk and yogurt, tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein) and wheat gluten (seitan) and their combinations (burger and vegetable meatballs, vegetable cold cuts, etc.).

In the context of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, this group also includes dairy and eggs: these foods are not necessary, but, if you choose to consume them, you must do so on an occasional basis and in small quantities, since it is always animal products, like meat, and thus have the same problems.

Protein-rich plant foods also provide other important nutrients such as minerals, fiber, vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Here is an indicative list of these foods.


  • Beans: borlotti beans, cannellini beans, black-eye beans, corona beans, Mexican black beans, red beans, peacock beans, Lamon beans, Spanish white beans
  • Lentils: Rhodes, Castelluccio, giants, red shelled, green
  • Soy: yellow, red (more properly called azuki beans), green (more properly called mung beans)
  • Chickpeas (also traditional in some regions their use as flour)
  • Lathyrus sativa (cicerchie beans, chickling vetch)
  • String beans (green beans)
  • Broad beans (fava beans)
  • Lupines
  • Peas


Choose products without added sugar; products with added calcium and vitamin D, vitamin B12, can possibly serve to increase the amount of these nutrients.

  • Soy derivatives: tofu (it is now in many supermarkets), tempeh, textured vegetable protein, dehydrated soy, protein isolate, heat and serve products like vegetable burgers and “meatballs”.
  • Vegetable milk: soy, pea, lupine, etc.
  • Soy yogurt: plain or with fruit
  • Ice cream and desserts: soy puddings and ice cream
  • Wheat derivatives: seitan in its various forms: cutlets, sausages, stew, cold-cuts, etc.


Also in the context of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, vegetable alternatives are preferable to protein foods of animal origin. If you choose to consume them, you must do this on an occasional and in minimal amounts, but in any case give preference to those with less fat.

  • Milk: whole, low-fat, no-fat, and with lactase
  • Yogurt: whole or low-fat milk, plain or with fruit
  • Ice cream and desserts: cow’s milk puddings and ice creams
  • Cheese: fresh or aged
  • Eggs: chicken, duck, etc.

The nutrients

Protein rich foods are a major source of essential nutrients. Is it advantageous to consume those of plant origin instead of animal origin, in order to reduce the intake of saturated fats, reduce to zero that of cholesterol, and decrease the supply of calories, with positive effects on health.

The vegetable proteins provided by this group are contained in a percentage of the total calories that is more or less the same as that of meat. Consuming in a varied diet grains and foods belonging to this group (not necessarily within the same meal) the proteins will be complete, that is that they will have all the amino acids present in the right proportion.

Complex carbohydrates, found in legumes along with fiber, are absorbed from the gut slowly, so as to maintain stable blood sugar levels for a long time.

The foods in this group are a source of fiber, B vitamins, iron and magnesium. They have a good content of potassium and contain zinc. They are good sources of calcium and phytochemicals.

Legumes contain little fat, with the exception of soy, which is rich mainly in polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids, which may help prevent vascular diseases related to atherosclerosis. Like all plants, they contain no cholesterol.

By contrast, dairy and eggs contain saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases the levels of LDL-cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) and therefore the likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases. A further problem of dairy products is lactose, milk sugar, which is not digestible by the majority of the adult population, causing abdominal colic, gas and diarrhea. During it’s digestion, galactose is released, which is a monosaccharide that, according to some studies, increases the likelihood of ovarian cancer.

Health benefits

Eating protein-rich plant foods on a regular basis, not just in a vegetarian diet, but also in that of omnivores, is beneficial to health, by reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

Diets that are based on animal products have a high content of saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases the levels of LDL-cholesterol in the blood (the so-called "bad" cholesterol), thereby increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the food group of protein-rich foods there are, in the context of a vegetarian lacto-ovo diet, also foods of this type: dairy products, and their derivatives, and eggs. To maintain cholesterol levels at correct levels, these foods should be avoided (those who choose to consume them must do so on an occasional basis and in very limited quantities, to decrease the damage).

In contrast, vegetable foods rich in proteins are able to decrease the levels of insulin-like growth factor I in the blood (which is a powerful mutagenic factor produced by the body), to improve the insulin/glucagon ratio and reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus. A high consumption of legumes is also protective for certain types of cancer (colon, pancreas, prostate).

In particular, soy and derived products (soy milk and yogurt, tofu, tempeh) are very rich in high quality proteins, and their consumption reduces levels of LDL-cholesterol and blood pressure, i.e., risk factors for the development of atherosclerosis.

To use legumes as sources of protein includes also the advantage of an increased consumption of fiber, which reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer; it also regulates intestinal function and maintains controlled body weight.

To obtain your protein intake from plants also means consuming phytochemicals, which may confer protection against infections, tumors, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular diseases. Soy and derivatives contain phytoestrogens, which, according to some studies are useful in preventing osteoporosis and hormone-sensitive tumors in women and men.

Finally, the foods in this group contain ample amounts of calcium: consuming calcium from plant products is advantageous, because it avoids the intake of protein and animal fat while increasing the intake of substances that promote bone health, such as phytoestrogens.

Useful advice

Thanks to the use of vegetable sources of protein, the intake of saturated fats and cholesterol, always present in food animals, can be greatly reduced But to keep fat intake low, avoid combining them with large quantities of oil, margarine, sauces or mayonnaise. Here are some practical tips:

  • Dried legumes need soaking before cooking, in order to rehydrate the bean and to inactivate phytates, which hinder the absorption of minerals contained in them.

  • Once boiled, the legumes can be used in salad seasoned with oil and herbs, in pasta sauces (e.g., pasta and chickpeas), in paté (for example, hummus), in vegetable meatballs (such as falafel), and in dishes with vegetables (salad with beans, turnips and celery, beans with potatoes), accompanied with couscous or bulgur. Or soups of legumes and grains can be prepared, or made to germinate and used raw (only some can be used in this way: soy, lentils, chickpeas, azuki (also called red soy), mung beans (also called green soybean).

  • It is better to give preference to fresh or dried legumes cooked at home, than canned or frozen. By organizing soaking them the day before, a good amount of legumes can cooked and then eaten a bit at a time during the week.

  • Tofu and tempeh should be eaten no more than 2-3 times a week, better if eaten in rotation with the other legumes, not to limit oneself only to soy; also it is preferable to consume soy milk in rotation with other vegetable milks.

  • Do not overdo the high-protein products made from wheat gluten (seitan and derivatives), because, apart from proteins, they are not a source of other nutrients. A correct consumption is once each week.

  • Consume only now and then products such as textured vegetable protein, dehydrated soy, and protein isolate, as they are processed foods and nutrient-poor (except for proteins).

  • Remember that milk and derivatives and eggs are not necessary nor useful for the adequacy of a plant-based diet. Rather, they introduce harmful substances of animal origin, so it is preferable to exclude them from the diet. If it is decided to eat them just the same, the amount should be limited, giving preference to the vegetable protein foods: a maximum of 20-40 g, maximum 2-3 times a week and 1 egg 1-2 times a week; eggs are not to consume raw or runny for the infections they can transmit. Even these low levels of consumption may not be free from risk, so you may want to avoid them anyway.