Vegetarian food: Finding enough protein on a plant-based diet

13 May 2022
4 min read

With the UK government declaring a climate emergency, more of us than ever are looking for ways to cut down our greenhouse gas emissions. So, why not give some plant-based alternatives a try this week?

CO2 emissions from the meat industry are shockingly high.

One simple way to cut your carbon footprint is to eat a plant-based diet. Veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism (a more casual approach to a plant-based diet which allows for occasional meat dishes) are all popular topics at the moment. And rightly so; the emissions from the meat industry are shockingly high. Rearing livestock accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions. And this figure is estimated to rise significantly when you add in the refrigeration, transportation and deforestation associated with the meat industry.

Plant-based protein can save massive amounts of greenhouse gas

Of course, growing crops like soy also causes emissions and deforestation. But while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein in our diets, producing it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland. For the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions, a lot more trees will need to be planted. That means changing land use from agriculture to woodlands. Therefore, there will be less land for livestock grazing. Another great reason to eat less meat.

In addition, while 100kg of meat can emit up to 105kg of greenhouse gases during the course of production, plant based protein alternatives sit so far at the other end of the scale it’s astonishing. Peas, tofu and nuts each emit less than 3.5kg of gases in producing the same amount of food.

Producing 100kg of beef can emit up to 105kg of greenhouse gases. The same amount of tofu emits less than 3.5kg

Five great plant-based protein alternatives

Even if you’re not ready to embrace the full vegan lifestyle, it’s clear choosing more plant based options and cutting down on our meat has the potential to create a pretty dramatic difference. So, if you’re not getting protein from animals, where can you get it?

1. Soy

Soy is one of the richest sources of plant based protein – and it’s a complete protein, meaning it has all nine of the amino acids we humans need in our diets. The highest protein content is found in tempeh – but that can be hard to come by and expensive in the UK. Tofu and edamame are other great options with plenty of protein per cup.

2. Lentils

Easy to cook, cheap, versatile and not too unusual! Both red and green lentils contain high levels of protein as well as fibre, iron and potassium.

3. Quinoa

Another complete protein which makes a really tasty alternative to rice and couscous, but adds protein to your diet. It has a nutty taste and a crunchy texture.

4. Chickpeas

Soy, quinoa and chia seeds are ‘complete proteins’ – they contain all the amino acids humans need. Other plant based proteins may not contain all nine, so it’s important to eat a variety.

In my experience the best and quickest way to get toddlers interested in plant-based protein is to offer them hummus! But this humble pea is so versatile there’s very little that can’t be done with it. Eat cooked chickpeas hot or cold, in salads dips or stews, to give your veggie dishes some protein ‘oomph’.

5. Chia seeds

Chia seeds used to be firmly in the domain of ‘weird health foods’ – but they’re catching on in the mainstream. You can buy them in most supermarkets. How to deal with them? Soak them to use in puddings, sprinkle them in smoothies and yoghurts. You can also use them to thicken jams and fruit sauces.

Reducing meat doesn’t have to get weird

Colourful vegetables

If you’re finding talk of quinoa and chia seeds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. All the usual beans, pulses and peas provide great sources of protein and should form a big part of any varied diet anyway. Variety is key to getting all the nutrients you need. And even taking a flexitarian approach and having some meat free days a week will bring your footprint down. Or, just cut down red meat – beef and lamb – which is by far the biggest culprit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

But maybe now is the perfect time to be a little adventurous and try a new recipe. You never know; you might not look back.


The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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