How to Get Enough Protein if You’re a Vegetarian
The decision to become a vegetarian may be firmly planted in your mind, but unless you do a bit of research beforehand it will be difficult to know how to stay healthy in the long run. Since protein is vital to maintaining good health, it is absolutely necessary to get enough of it in your system each day. This guide aims at helping responsible vegetarians or soon to be vegetarians succeed at abandoning meat for good.
Briefly, Why Protein Is So Important
Protein is composed of amino acids, the building blocks of bone, muscle, hair, and every part of the human body. It helps to build, maintain, and repair tissue in the body, as well as performing more specialized tasks such as creating hemoglobin to transport oxygen in the blood. Certain proteins called enzymes carry out chemical reactions to allow for life to exist. Although our body naturally creates most amino acids, some cannot be made and thus must be acquired from another source (eating).
A lack of protein in your diet can cause your muscles to decrease in size and waste away, as the body is not receiving the nutrient to maintain the tissue. Its deficiency also slows growth, especially in younger people, causes cramping and fatigue, impaired healing process for injuries, and edema, in which fluid builds up in certain areas of the body.
By converting to vegetarianism, you are by definition giving up the major food sources that provide you with the essential element of protein. These are:
- Red meat – beef, lamb, veal
- Poultry – turkey, quail, duck, etc.
- (Seafood – crab, lobster, shrimp, other shellfish)
- (Milk and dairy)
Types of Vegetarians
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: These vegetarians do not eat any forms of meat, including red meat, chicken poultry, pork, fish, and seafood. However, they do not consider eggs to be meat and consume them along with milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. “Lacto” is Latin for “milk”, while “ovo” refers to milk. These are by far the most common type of vegetarian.
Pesco-vegetarians: These also do not eat any type of meat, but do consume fish and seafood. Reasons for this may pertain to health or the belief that fish do not “feel” quite like other animals that are often treated cruelly prior to their deaths in the slaughterhouse.
Vegans: These are the most extreme of vegetarians. Vegans consider all forms of meat and products derived from animals to be off limits. Therefore, they do not eat red meat, chicken and poultry, pork, fish, seafood, milk, eggs, or any dairy products. While being a vegan is the most difficult commitment of the three, vegans are often quite passionate about their decision to abstain from animals.
What Foods to Eat
At first it may feel like every food you once took for granted is no longer available to you. There seems to be hardly anything left fit for eating. However, once you really start to explore alternatives for all your meat-containing items, a new world of vegetarian delicacies is opened before you.
The key to maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet is to mix it up. As you would with meat, for example not eating pork chops or a hamburger every single day, you need to eat a good variety of vegetable foods for meals and snacks.
This is much easier to do than it sounds. If the first thing you’re thinking is “I can only eat beans and tofu the rest of my life,” know that there is much more than that available. In fact, there are countless resources in books, websites, and television dedicated to helping vegetarians create a well-balanced, protein-full diet. And even by taking a single ingredient, such as soy, you can create hundreds of unique meals that are each totally different.
This all depends, of course, on what kind of vegetarian you are. A pesco-vegetarian can eat fish, while a lacto-ovo vegetarian cannot. A lacto-ovo vegetarian can eat milk, dairy, and eggs while a vegan cannot eat those or fish. A pesco-vegetarian typically consumes eggs and dairy in addition to fish.
First, let’s have a look at some foods along with their protein content per 100 grams. Those starred items may be eaten by a specific type of vegetarian.
* = lacto-ovo ** = pesco
These stats are approximations of those taken from the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
As you can see, seafood and nuts are generally the highest sources of protein in the list above. This makes it much easier for pesco-vegetarians to acquire a sufficient amount of protein. Nuts can be mixed in salads or eaten on their own as snacks to supplement meals composed of the ingredients above. A peanut butter sandwich, as well as sandwiches made with the cream of any nut, is a quick and easy preparation to consume nuts and their protein in a more efficient way.
In addition to the ingredients above, numerous soy-based food products are sold in the form of normally meat-based foods. For example, Boca burgers and veggie patties replace the traditional hamburger, veggie dogs are like soy hotdogs, tofurkey is turkey reincarnated in tofu form, and so on.
Once the desired ingredients are brought home from the supermarket, there is an almost unlimited set of combinations and recipes which can be used to create the ultimate vegetarian dish. It is recommended that anyone wishing to create original, delicious vegetarian meals check out the multitude of great cookbooks sold exclusively for ex-omnivores.
Advice for Vegans
Those who choose to exclude all animal products from their diet must make sure to include in it the following essential minerals and vitamins:
- Calcium – In order to maintain strong bones and help prevent osteoporosis, this mineral is necessary to take in. Calcium, while found mainly in milk and dairy products, can also be acquired from green leafy vegetables, tofu, dried figs, and calcium-fortified orange juice and soy milk.
- Iron – A deficiency in this mineral leads to anemia, a condition in which there are less red blood cells in the blood than normal. Red blood cells are primarily responsible for transferring oxygen throughout the body. To make sure you are receiving enough iron, eat iron-fortified cereals, seaweed, soy, dried figs and raisons, and legumes.
- Zinc – This is important for sexual reproduction and helping to produce hundreds of enzymes, among other functions. Beans, nuts, soy, and fortified cereals contain zinc.
- Vitamin B-12 – This vitamin aids in the maintenance of red blood cells and nerve cells. In addition, it plays a role in the creation of DNA from amino acids. Because it is only present in meat and dairy products, vegans have to take the extra step of buying vitamin B-12 supplement.
Tip for Vegetarians who Work Out
If you decide to give up meat, fish, dairy, or all three, you may think it will be near impossible to continue working out with weights. However, the transition to vegetarian will not be so tough if it is done gradually, over a few weeks time. If you slowly cut back on the meat, making portions smaller and smaller until it is no longer present in your diet while replacing it with substitutes, you will be able to work out as you have before. As long as you ensure the caloric intake remains roughly stable, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to stay in the same shape.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman is a superb recipe book aimed at satisfying the taste buds and stomachs of vegetarians everywhere. Bittman has written several excellent bestselling cookbooks, and this is by far the best for meatless recipes. The included meals are so delicious that not only will you forget you are not eating meat, but you will never feel the need to eat it again. This cookbook should truly be the standard recipe book in every vegetarian’s kitchen.
A second book I recommend equally is a vegetarian’s dream guidebook, The New Becoming Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to a Healthy Vegetarian Diet. This is really a must have for beginner vegetarians who are just making the transition to a meatless diet. It walks you through the journey with countless pieces of advice and factual information to ensure a long and healthy life as a vegetarian. It is not really a recipe book, but more of a guide to all the aspects of this new way of life. Readers will find themselves learning more than they could have ever imagined about nutrients, their relationships with the human body, diseases cause by their absence, and much more.
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