Vegetarian wants to bulk up with protein foods

Originally Published: June 12, 1998 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 7, 2011
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Hi Alice,

I'm a vegetarian and I would like to bulk up on muscle. Can you suggest anything? What vegetarian foods are highest in protein?

Dear Reader,

As a vegetarian, it's important to know that plants have different amino acid (the building blocks of protein) patterns and generally offer less protein per unit than animal foods. Animal proteins are "complete" proteins — they contain all the amino acids your body needs. Plants supply incomplete proteins, but by eating various plant groups, a person can still get every amino acid. By no means do these have to be eaten at the same time or in the same meal; sometime during the same day is fine.

Examples of plant protein combinations to get complete proteins include beans and rice; peanut butter and bread; and tofu, stir-fried vegetables, and rice. Soy protein is complete by itself. As a general rule, legumes with grains and nuts with grains provide you with the complete array of amino acids, as will eggs and milk products.

Here are some other vegetarian- and vegan-friendly protein sources:

Sources of Protein

Serving Size  


Protein (in grams)



2 slices




Cottage cheese

½ cup




Tofu, raw, firm

3 oz.




Legumes: (Black beans, Kidney beans, Chickpeas, etc.)

½ cup


7 – 8


Peanut butter

2 tablespoons





1 cup




Skim milk

1 cup




Soy milk

1 cup





1 whole





1 oz.





1 oz. (1 slice)





1 oz.





½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw




Pasta or rice

½ cup




On average, the recommended protein intake for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. If you add intense weight training, this amount can climb to 1.2 - 1.6 grams per kg body weight. (To get your weight in kilograms, divided your weight in pounds by 2.2.) However, the regular consumption of protein in the U.S. exceeds the recommended daily amount for even body building needs, so most people don't need to add more protein-rich foods to their daily intake. You can keep track of what you eat over the course of a week or two to see if you need to add more protein to your diet and, if so, how much.

Keep in mind that you need to strength train in order to increase muscle — just eating more protein won't cut it. If you're new to strength training, check out Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results?.

Once you start a strength-training routine, you should eat an extra 500 or so calories each day in order to build muscle mass, even if you don't need to eat more protein. It's also important to take in enough carbohydrates: too few carbs will mean that your muscles won't have adequate fuel, so you may easily feel tired or weak from exercise.

For more information on diet and body-building, check out Do bodybuilders and other weightlifters need more protein? in Alice's Fitness & Nutrition archives.

Have fun bulking up the healthy way!