- Food and Cooking
Top 5 Sources of Protein for Vegetarians
Vegetarian Protein Sources -- Are You Getting Enough?
As every smart vegetarian knows, there are many different sources of protein for vegetarians. Even so, most of us learned in school (at least, we did 'back in the day') that protein = meat. It's the first thing that tends to come to mind. Because of that, vegetarians often have to field questions such as, "Where will you get your protein from? You need meat for that!", and worries from our loved ones that we are not getting enough protein.
Those on a mostly-vegetarian diet who choose to eat fish have an easy answer. But strict vegetarians and vegans need not despair. It is possible to stay healthy and get just the right amount of protein from other sources. Fortunately, this includes a range of delicious foods that can be either eaten as snacks or form part of your everyday meals.
Image by gamene on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
Why do we need protein?
Protein is essential for healthy growth. It builds tissue and muscle.
A 'complete' protein
Quinoa is often spoken about these days as a wonder-food, and when it comes to vegetarianism it's easy to see why. This 'super grain' (in reality, it is a seed) contains a balance of all the essential amino acids and can be up to 20% protein.
It is also a good source of nutrients such as magnesium, manganese, iron and copper (source: WHFoods).
Quinoa is quick and easy to prepare. It needs to be rinsed thoroughly or it can taste a little bitter. Then put it in a pan with double its volume of water, salt lightly, and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
I have tried quinoa as a breakfast dish with apples and cinnamon, but like it best as an accompaniment to main meals. It tastes great with peanut butter!
Oh and by the way, my quinoa packet says it is pronouced 'keen-wah'.
Quinoa image by sweetonveg on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
Tasty and versatile
The mention of beans might raise a smile, but they are serious contenders when it comes to veggie protein. Whether you choose garbanzo beans (we call 'em chickpeas over here), lima, pinto, navy or kidney beans, these little wonders are packed with nutrients and make a versatile addition to any diet.
They also have in the region of 20% protein, varying a little with each variety (broadbeans, or fava beans, have 26%) and are low in fat. Beans alone won't meet all your protein needs, but eaten as part of a wholesome diet they can certainly contribute. Eat with rice or bread to complement the amino acid mix.
How about soybeans?
These are in a class of their own when it comes to protein, but also the cause of some controversy. Some sing the praises of soy-based foods in combatting everything from menopause symptoms to cancers, others warn us to steer well clear. I'm not well-informed enough to take a stance. However, if you do find eating soy products acceptable, they will give you many meat-free options.
Image by avlxyz on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
The vegetarian classic
Most vegetarians have at least tried tofu. It's one of those classic ingredients that are associated with a vegetarian diet. And with good reason. Tofu, made from fermented soymilk, has a soft texture (although you can buy firmer varieties, and also the creamier silken tofu). It also has little flavor of its own which means it tends to blend well with other foods.
Tofu is a fantastic source of non-meat protein. It contains 9 of the essential amino acids. Tofu is also a great way to get calcium in your diet, especially if you avoid dairy foods.
You can eat tofu in so many Asian dishes, or use it as a cheese substitute in salads and pasta dishes. Marinate it, grill it or bake it. You can even puree tofu.
Image by avlxyz on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
A wonderful wholefood
We're always being told to eat more wholefoods, and they don't come much more whole than nuts, especially if you've got the time to shell them yourself. Even if you don't, if you buy unsalted nuts you still have a food that has had the minimum of processing. Go easy on the salted, roasted versions, though. (And on the chocolate-covered ones. Sorry. I love them too.)
The best thing about nuts is that you can eat them just as they are (assuming you've shelled them first, otherwise you'll need to be a squirrel, in which case you probably aren't reading this anyway). Joking aside, that makes them a perfect snack.
However, they are a delicious ingredient in both sweet and savoury meals. A toasted nut topping is heavenly, and I water at the mouth just thinking of all the scrumptious desserts you can make with nuts.
Again, these are not simply a protein source. Almonds are packed with Vitamin E, cashews are tops for copper, walnuts are a wonder when it comes to getting your intake of omega 3 fatty acids, and the brazil nut is a valuable source of selenium. All are high in the feel-good amino acid tryptophan that acts as a pre-cursor to serotonin.
But for protein, the humble peanut is leader of the pack. Another good reason to enjoy peanut-butter guilt-free! Of course, all things in moderation, since nuts are high in fat. But if it's a choice between nuts or candy, you know which to choose!
Image by s58y on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
5. Seeds (not just for the birds)
Protein can come in small packages
Ah yes, good things in life DO often come in small packages, and that's certainly true with seeds. Just like nuts, they make a fantastic snack food and offer plenty of variety. And they all make a good source of protein, with sunflower seeds topping the list at 24%.
Seeds do all kinds of other great things for your body too, providing a variety of beneficial minerals from calcium (great non-dairy source for vegans) and zinc to copper and magnesium.
I often throw a handful into the bread machine along with the usual bread ingredients -- poppy seeds, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, whatever I have to hand. Or sprinkle on a salad or cooked meal to add texture. You can even mix them into your breakfast cereal or use them to make your own muesli/granola. Another way to eat sesame seeds is as tahini, which is sesame seed paste and can be eaten on rice cakes or used as a base for hummus.
Image by The Gifted Photographer on flickr shared under Creative Commons license.
A Great Book for a Balanced Vegetarian Diet - Get all the facts
This vegetarian diet guide is highly rated by Amazon customers and makes planning a well-balanced vegetarian diet easy!
I'd love to hear your favorite ways of adding protein to your vegetarian diet.