The Vegetarian Dilemma: Problem Solving Protein Options [Plus 4 Must-Try Recipes]

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.


If you are vegetarian and desire to eat a whole, real-foods diet for improved health, while sticking to your vegetarian ways, it is possible, although not optimal.




Our bodies were designed to need amino acids—and amino acids come directly from protein sources.


Just like our bodies were designed to drink water, and just like our bodies require certain vitamins and minerals, there is no getting around our innate wiring.


We need water, fats, carbohydrates and proteins—and when we don’t get all of those in, or we don’t get the amount our bodies needs, we suffer—deficiencies, energy, health concerns, metabolic dysfunction, etc.


“Can’t I just get protein from beans and rice, protein powder, even broccoli?” many vegetarians may ask.



The short answer is…yes and no.


The reason?


Yes, these foods have some protein in them, but they do not have the direct source of protein your body craves and needs most, the building-block of your cells: Amino Acids—all 10 essential amino acids that our bodies, our cells, need for optimal function are found in (and only in) real food source proteins (meat, eggs, chicken, seafood).


In addition, the emphasis on grains, beans and dairy as the primary ‘preferred protein sources’ in the vegetarian diet lends to complications down the line—namely leaky gut, malabsorption and malnutrition.


Grains, wheat, beans and legumes, soy and dairy, are all well-known gut irritants, due to phytates or phytic acids they contain, so when a person eats these frequently, mineral and nutritional deficiencies commonly occur. (Note: Phytic acid prevents vitamins and minerals from being absorbed).


Here’s an overview of how each of these foods work in the body:


“Healthy Whole Wheat” & Gluten and Gluten-free products
Most often enriched with preservatives and chemicals, many of these foods are processed. The fact that wheat is the number one cause of food allergies and intolerances speaks volumes in and of itself (not easily digested). Grains are also attributed to insulin spikes, (due to glucose overload), impairing hormone production, as well as promoting cortisol and adrenaline production (i.e. stress to the body). The Wellness Mama gives a great in-depth overview here. While our ancestors ‘ate whole grains’—their forms and versions of these foods were nowhere near the processed, enriched and chemically enhanced we have today. Soaking your grains (and beans and nuts) is an ideal way to consume these foods if you do. As for ‘gluten-free’ foods, the only thing missing from many of these processed products that non-gluten free foods don’t have is ONE ingredient (the protein: gluten). Otherwise, chemicals, sugars and other ingredients you can’t pronounce are just as prevalent.




Legumes/Beans. High in protease inhibitors. Ironically, legumes/beans are viewed as ‘protein sources’, but due to these specific enzymes, protease inhibitors actually keep proteins from being properly broken down and absorbed. In addition, legumes contain phytoestrogen, a substance the acts like estrogen. Phytoestrogens bind to the same receptors that estrogen binds to, but phytoestrogens give a much weaker signal than estrogen. Because the signals are weak, your body then over-produces estrogen, which disrupts your entire hormonal system. Lastly, and perhaps most commonly known, beans make you…toot…in other words: they breed bacteria in your gut (due to the phytates and lectins they contain).


Found in processed foods, salad dressings, vegetarian products, pizza, baby food, sweets, dairy replacements—just to name a few. Soy: Reduces thyroid function, linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia, includes nitrates (linked to cancer), 90% of sources are genetically modified.



Processed sources make up the majority of our dairy supply today. Our bodies are unable to process and digest lactose in most milk sources on mainstream grocery aisles today, as we lack the enzymes as adults to do so. We are the only culture or species that attempts to eat/drink the milk of ANOTHER species, other than our own, outside of babyhood. Dairy is linked to inflammation, allergies and impaired digestion. Some exceptions? Fermented kefir or yogurt—both of which provide the gut with helpful and healing bacteria; and full fat organic, raw dairy (particularly goat’s milk sources). These options have less lactose and are more readily accepted by the body. In short: Raw dairy is a whole food, and pasteurized dairy is a processed food.


That being said…this is NOT a case against the vegetarian, as I earnestly believe that every BODY is different. Arguing or debating diets is quite honestly meaningless, and, if you are genuinely healthy doing what you are doing: Keep on keeping on.


After all, everyone’s dietary choices are, more than anything, truly personal.


Regardless of the “diet” you adhere to, the most important questions to ask are:


  1. Are you truly healthy? (Giving your body everything it needs; Nourished,; Thriving; Energetic)

  2. And, do you have a healthy relationship with food?


Unfortunately, as with many diets out there in general, people fall into ‘being vegetarian’ because they believe it’s the ‘healthy thing’ to do; or the ‘safe thing’ to do (often seen in eating disorders), or ‘to lose weight and diet’, when in actuality, it can be far from it.


Protein-less or protein deficient diets are linked to:


-Vitamins B12, B6, B1, B2, niacin, essential amino acids, zinc and iron deficiencies

-Poor immunity

-Poor/impaired digestion (plant foods can be hard to digest)

-Bloating, gas

-Inflammation (when consuming lots of vegetarian products or an excess of grains/sugars)

-Impaired insulin response (hypo/hyperglycemic episodes)



YES, we need veggies, and a carnivorous diet (all meat diet) can be just as unhealthy as a vegetarian diet…So, the balance?



Protein and veggies are both important.


A great book to read more on this topic is called The Vegetarian Myth (Download the PDF here).


Recently, I sat down with a vegetarian, who was seeking advice for help with weight management.


“I’ve gained about 10-15 lbs. and I just don’t feel good in my own skin. I want to learn how to fuel my body appropriately and feel good again,” she told me.


In her efforts to be “healthy” and “eat good foods”, she did what many mainstream, conventional nutrition experts and articles told her to do:


  • Eat low-fat/no-fat
  • Incorporate lots of “healthy, whole grains”
  • Use beans and rice as a complete protein source
  • Eat lots of fruits and some veggies
  • Incorporate low-fat dairy products
  • Reach for diet and nutrition bars and powders in between meals to tide you over
  • Opt for soy and protein substitutes for prot
  • Workout to burn calories

Food aside, her health complaints were similar to others who are often deficient in amino acids:


  • Stubborn weight gain/stubborn metabolism
  • Frequent sweet and sugar cravings
  • Hunger throughout the days and lots of snacking between meals
  • Distaste and repulsion at the thought of protein
  • “I just feel bloated” and “Heavy” and “Inflammed”
  • Easily stressed and anxious


I wanted to help this girl, but without first helping her address her deficiencies (the lack of protein in her diet, inflammation from grains and sugars for fuel), we would be running circles.


She agreed that she needed a change of some kind—although eating meat may not be part of that right now; She was open to trying to incorporate eggs and fish.


That being said, there are several practical ways for vegetarians to eat a real whole foods diet while still sticking to a primarily vegetarian based template for their meals.




Here are some vegetarian-friendly options for including at mealtimes, along with some delicious recipes (for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike)…


Vegetarian protein options for a nutrient-dense whole foods diet:


  • Fish (wild caught salmon, cod, snapper, tuna, ahi, arctic char)
  • Shrimp, oysters, scallops
  • Canned tuna/salmon
  • Pasture-raised eggs
  • Hemp protein
  • Whey protein
  • Collagen and gelatin (Vital Proteins is awesome)
  • Bone broth
  • Properly prepared beans, quiona and lentils (pre-soak before cooking) (Check out these methods for soaking your legumes)
  • Full fat, plain, raw organic Greek yogurt
  • Sunflower seeds, hemp seeds


Vegetarian Whole-Foods Recipes

Chocolate Smoothie


  • ½ avocado
  • 1 frozen banana
  • heaping handful spinach
  • 1-2 scoops (clean) chocolate protein powder
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk/coconut milk
  • crushed ice



Place all ingredients in blender and mix.


“Rice” Bowl


  • 1 large head of cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 pound fish, ground meat (turkey, chicken or pork would be best) or 1 15 oz can of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 pound kale (2 bunches), stemmed and leaves torn into large pieces
  • 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce or coconut aminos
  • 1 cup mixed chopped basil and cilantro
  • salt and pepper to taste



  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Make the cauliflower rice: coarsely chop the cauliflower florets (some of the stem is fine) and place in a food processor. Process until the texture and consistency of rice. You may need to do this in two batches.
  3. Spread the cauliflower couscous evenly on a baking dish and bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring halfway through.
  4. Remove from oven and set aside.
  5. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic, ginger and ground meat (or drained beans) and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the meat (if using) is just cooked through, about 5 minutes.
  6. In batches, add the kale and stir-fry until tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in the fish sauce (or coconut aminos), herbs and season with salt and pepper to taste

Serve with cauliflower rice, chopped roasted nuts and Sriracha.


Fish Tacos


For the Fish:

  • 1 lb tilapia (or halibut/cod), cut into ½ inch by 3-4 inch strips
  • ½ cup coconut flour
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • dash of pepper
  • Coconut oil for frying

For the White Sauce:

  • ½ cup mayo (recipe here)
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon cumin powder
  • dash of chili pepper
  • ½ teaspoon of raw honey (optional)

To Eat:


For the White Sauce:

  • Mix all the ingredients together with a fork. Add in the honey if you find the sauce too sour.

For the Fish:

  • Mix together all the dry ingredients (coconut flour, garlic powder, cumin powder, salt, pepper) in a bowl.
  • Drop the fish strips into the bowl and coat with the coconut flour mixture.
  • Heat up enough coconut oil in a saucepan so that the coconut oil is approx. ½ inch deep. Use a high heat.
  • Carefully add the coated fish strips to the hot coconut oil.
  • Fry until the coconut flour coating turns a golden brown color (takes approx. 5 minutes). You should turn the fish strips over after a few minutes since the oil doesn’t cover the entire piece of fish.
  • Place the fried fish strips in a bowl lined with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil.

To Eat:

  • Wash the lettuce leaves and pat try with a paper towel.
  • Place 5-6 fish strips onto of a lettuce leaf. Top with salsa and white sauce. Sprinkle some chopped cilantro on top for garnish and serve with a few slices of lime.



Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients (Makes 2)

  • 2 sweet potatoes (as large as you like)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups broccoli, chopped into small florets
  • 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced (~2 tablespoons)
  • 2 large pinches kosher salt
  • freshly cracked pepper
  • 1 large pinch of red pepper flakes (you can always add more later)
  • 3 sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1 oz goats milk feta cheese
  • Optional- ground turkey, tuna, fish (try it J )



  • Heat a medium cast iron pan or skillet over medium heat until hot. Add olive oil, and swirl to coat the pan. Add broccoli, shallot, and garlic to the pan; sauté until the broccoli is crunchy-tender and the shallots are limp, stirring constantly. Add the salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and stir to distribute evenly. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and remove from heat.
  • While the broccoli cooks microwave the sweet potatoes on high for 8 minutes, flipping half way through. Cook until they are soft and give easily when gently squeezed.

Split the sweet potatoes down the center and spoon half the broccoli mixture into each. Sprinkle on the feta cheese and serve hot!

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