Protein is an essential part of our diet. It provides energy and helps your body function properly. Protein is a macronutrient, along with fats and carbohydrates, and when eaten in the right rations, they can improve your health, weight and overall physical wellbeing.
National Vegetarian Week 2021 runs from 10 - 16 May, and the aim is to highlight the benefits and pleasures of a meat-free diet. More and more people are making the decision to change to a vegetarian diet, so why not consider making this change yourself?
But it’s still important to ensure you’re getting enough protein in your diet, so whether you’re a fully-fledged vegetarian, or simply want to eat a little less meat, we’ve put together five high protein meals for you to try at home.
What is protein?
Proteins are essential nutrients for the human body.
They are composed of amino acids, which are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen or sulfur. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass. Protein is found in every cell of the body, and it is often consumed through animal products, though it is also present in other sources, such as nuts and green vegetables.
Proteins also serve as a source of fuel, providing as much energy density as carbohydrates. During digestion, proteins are broken down in the stomach, which is crucial for the absorption of the essential amino acids.
Everyone needs protein, but the more active you are, the more you need to consume. This is because the body undergoes more stress when exercising, and so it requires more rebuilding. If you run or exercise regularly, take a look at our article which goes through how to plan a nutritionally complete, running-friendly, meat-free diet.
Why is it important to get enough protein?
The body requires large amounts of protein for maintenance and growth. Aside from water, proteins are the most abundant kind of molecules in the human body. Protein makes up around 15% of a person’s body weight, and each gram of protein contains 4 calories.
Proteins play a role in:
- Transporting molecules throughout the body
- Increasing muscle mass and strength
- Repairing cells and making new ones
- Protecting the body from bacteria and viruses
- Boosting metabolism and increasing fat burning
- Lowering your blood pressure
- Reducing appetite and keeping you full for longer
- Helping to maintain weight loss
- Promoting proper growth and development in children, teenagers, and pregnant women
Women need around 45g of protein a day in their diet, and men need around 55g per day.
If you’re not getting enough protein, you run the risk of losing muscle mass, increased risk of bone fractures, higher risk of infection, and more.
As a general rule, most adults should target their diets to consist of 10-35% protein, 45-65% carbohydrates and 20-35% fat. As a guide, a protein portion should fit into the palm of your hand.
Though the following people require higher levels of protein:
- Highly active people, including athletes and bodybuilders
- People aiming to lose weight
- Those with metabolic issues and high blood sugar
- People who are under a lot of stress
- The elderly and those who are chronically ill
If you need to lose weight, gain muscle mass and strength, or improve your metabolic health, make sure you’re consuming enough protein. You can get protein either through meat or plants, but studies show that eating protein from plants is often healthier.
How do vegetarians get enough protein?
Vegetarian food can be vibrant and exciting to eat. Rather than relying on meat-substitutes like veggie burgers and nuggets—which contain protein but are often loaded with salt—try replacing meat with more of the following types of food:
- Eggs (boiled or poached are best)
- Beans (black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas)
- Green vegetables (spinach, asparagus, broccoli, sprouts)
- Nuts and seeds (including nut butter)
- Soy products (soybeans and tofu)
- Lentils (black lentils are the most nutritious)
- Wholegrains (whole-wheat flour, bulgur, oatmeal, brown rice)
If you’re already a vegetarian, you’ll be used to preparing and cooking meat-free meals, though it’s a good idea to review your diet to see if you’re getting enough protein. If you currently eat meat but want to cut down, why not give ‘Meat-free Mondays’ a go? Try these high-protein vegetarian recipes for tasty and nutritious meals which are packed full of flavour.
Recipe 1: Supergreen stir-fry with marinated tofu
This delicious meal is packed full of protein and other essential nutrients, and it’s super easy to make. Pair with wholegrain rice to increase your daily fibre and vitamin B intake.
Serves: 2 | Preparation: 15 mins | Cooking: 30 mins
80g brown rice | 20g cashew nuts | 1 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil | 1 medium red onion | 2 cloves garlic (finely chopped) | 1 red chilli (finely chopped) | 160g marinated tofu pieces | 100g broccoli (cut into small florets) | 1 large courgette (sliced) | 50g frozen soya beans | 10g coriander (finely chopped) | 2 tsp reduced sodium light soy sauce
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the rice and cook for 20 minutes until tender.
- While the rice is cooking, toast the cashew nuts in a small pan over a medium heat until they turn golden brown. Once browned, remove from heat.
- Heat the oil in a wok or large, deep-sided frying pan, add the onion, garlic and chilli and cook for 1 minute, then add the tofu and cook for a further 2 minutes.
- Stir in the broccoli, courgette and soya beans, adding a small splash of water to the pan so the vegetables can cook in the steam. Cook for 5 minutes until the vegetables are tender, stirring in the cashew nuts halfway through.
- Remove the pan from the heat and mix in the coriander and soy sauce.
- When the rice has finished cooking, drain the rice and divide it on to 2 plates, then top with the stir-fry.
Recipe 2: Super-quick sesame ramen
It doesn’t get much easier than this! This warming veggie ramen takes just 15 minutes - perfect for a quick and nutritious lunch. It’s high in protein, low-fat and low-cost too.
Serves: 1 | Preparation: 5 mins | Cooking: 10 mins
80g pack instant noodles | 2 spring onions (finely chopped) | ½ head pak choi | 1 egg | 1 tsp sesame seeds | light soy sauce | chilli sauce
- Cook the noodles with the sachet of flavouring provided (or use stock instead of the sachet, if you have it). Add the spring onions and pak choi for the final minute.
- Meanwhile, simmer the egg for 6 minutes from boiling, run it under cold water to stop it cooking, then peel it. Toast the sesame seeds in a frying pan.
- Tip the noodles and greens into a deep bowl, halve the boiled egg and place on top. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, then drizzle with light soy sauce. Add chilli sauce for extra flavour and serve.
Recipe 3: Broccoli pasta salad with eggs & sunflower seeds
This nutritious broccoli, pasta and eggs dish is packed with protein, carbohydrate and vitamins - a healthy vegetarian lunch to keep you going on a busy afternoon.
Serves: 2 | Preparation: 10 mins | Cooking: 10 mins
2 large eggs | 75g wholewheat penne | 160g broccoli florets | 160g fine beans (trimmed and halved) | 1 tbsp white miso paste | 1 tsp grated ginger | 1 tbsp rapeseed oil | 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
- Hard-boil the eggs for 8 minutes, then shell and halve.
- Meanwhile, boil the pasta for 5 mins, add the broccoli and beans, and cook for a further 5 mins (or until everything is tender).
- Drain, reserving the water, then tip the pasta and veg into a bowl and stir in the miso, ginger, oil and 4 tbsp of the pasta water. Serve topped with the eggs and seeds.
Recipe 4: Vegan chickpea curry jacket potatoes
Whether you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get some extra protein with this tasty chickpea curry jacket potato recipe. It’s perfect for a filling lunch or easy midweek meal that’s full of flavour.
Serves: 4 | Preparation: 15 mins | Cooking: 45 mins
4 sweet potatoes | 1 tbsp coconut oil | 1 ½ tsp cumin seeds | 1 large onion (diced) | 2 garlic cloves (crushed) | thumb-sized piece ginger (finely grated) | 1 green chilli (finely chopped) | 1 tsp garam masala | 1 tsp ground coriander | ½ tsp turmeric | 2 tbsp tikka masala paste | 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes | 2 x 400g can chickpeas (drained) | lemon wedges and coriander leaves (to serve)
- Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork, then put on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 45 mins or until tender when pierced with a knife.
- Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and fry for 1 min, then add the onion and fry for 7-10 mins until softened.
- Put the garlic, ginger and green chilli into the pan, and cook for 2-3 mins. Add the spices and tikka masala paste and cook for a further 2 mins, then tip in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, then tip in the chickpeas and cook for a further 20 mins until thickened.
- Put the roasted sweet potatoes on 4 plates and cut open lengthways. Spoon over the chickpea curry and squeeze over the lemon wedges. Season, then scatter with coriander before serving.
Recipe 5: Delicious cheesy vegetable lasagne
Try this yummy super-cheesy lasagne, with sweet potato, peppers, courgette and spinach, combined to make a delicious high-protein meal for the whole family. Serve with a hot jacket potato and salad.
Serves: 6 | Preparation: 30 mins | Cooking: 60 - 90 mins
2 peppers (seeds removed, cut into 2cm chunks) | 1 courgette (cut into 2cm chunks) | 1 large sweet potato (peeled, cut into 2cm chunks) | 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil | 1 large onion (finely chopped) | ½ tsp dried chilli flakes | 2 garlic cloves (crushed) | 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes | 2 tsp Italian seasoning or dried oregano | 1 vegetable stock cube | 200ml cold water | 100g spinach leaves | Approx 10 dried lasagne sheets | salt and pepper (to season)
For the cheese sauce: 75g plain flour | 75g butter (cubed) | 750ml pint milk | 125g mature cheddar (coarsely grated) | 75g ready-grated mozzarella cheese
- Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Put the peppers, courgette and sweet potato into a large baking tray. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, season with salt and pepper and toss together.
- Roast for 30 minutes, or until softened and lightly browned. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
- Add the chilli and garlic and cook for a few seconds more. Stir in the tomatoes, Italian seasoning (or dried oregano) and crumbled stock cube. Pour over the water and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly, then set aside.
- For the cheese sauce, put the flour, butter and milk in a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Whisk until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Stir in roughly two-thirds of the cheeses and season to taste.
- Take the vegetables out of the oven and add to the pan with the tomato sauce. Stir in the spinach and cook together for 3 minutes. Season with salt and lots of ground black pepper.
- Spoon a third of the vegetable mixture over the base of a large ovenproof lasagne dish and cover with a single layer of lasagne. Top with another third of the vegetable mixture and a second layer of lasagne.
- Pour over just under half of the cheese sauce and very gently top with the remaining vegetable mixture. Finish with a final layer of lasagne and the rest of the cheese sauce. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.
- Bake for 35–40 minutes, or until the pasta has softened and the topping is golden brown and bubbling. Stand for 5 minutes before cutting to allow the filling to settle.
These high protein vegetarian meals are easy to make, delicious and full of colour and flavour, showing that vegetarian food needn’t be boring.
Do vegetarians need protein supplements?
With a good understanding of what makes up a healthy balanced vegetarian diet, you can usually get all the nutrients your body needs to be healthy without the need for supplements.
However, if your diet isn't planned properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients. Most vegetarians get enough protein in their diet, but there are plenty of protein supplements and powders available if you’re deficient, or if you’re a highly active person.
Whey protein is made from cow’s milk, generally making it suitable for vegetarians (but not vegans). There are some plant-based protein powders on the market (made from soy, rice, hemp, or pea proteins), however plant-based proteins don’t often contain all of the essential amino acids (the ones our body can’t make on its own), whereas whey protein does. Plant-based protein powders have become much more common options in the last few years, though whey is still more widely available and typically lower cost.
Here are some of the protein supplements and powders available from Decathlon:
Our Whey Protein Isolate has been specially developed for weight trainers who work out regularly and want to increase or maintain muscle mass. This high-protein powder provides 24g of protein per shake, and it comes in 250g, 900g and 2.2kg packs, as well as several tasty flavours. Cookies and cream? Yes please!
Available in three flavours; vanilla, chocolate and iced cappuccino, this vegan formula is perfect for maintaining muscle mass. And thanks to its high amino acid content, it can be consumed during training to increase your recovery capacity. It contains pea protein (Pisane C9) and high-quality rice protein with organic cereals, and it’s naturally lactose-, gluten- and cholesterol-free.
If you like the convenience of a protein bar over a shake, these vegan mixed berry bars make the perfect post-workout snack. They’re specifically for recovery after an intense or prolonged exercise session, with each bar containing 10g of protein.
These chocolate caramel protein bars make the perfect snack, any time of day. Why not replace your usual protein shake with a tasty bar? This is a convenient 4-pack box, and each bar contains a whopping 22g of protein to help you maintain and develop muscle mass.
This vegan protein bar is the ideal snack for weight trainers who are looking to build and maintain muscle mass. Each bar contains 18g of protein, making it a great alternative to a milk-based protein shake. It’s perfect for all sports enthusiasts who only eat plant protein, or those looking for an alternative to dairy protein. What’s not to love?