Just about every vegetarian and vegan has at some time been asked “But where do you get your protein …?”
Actually, for vegetarians, there really isn’t a protein problem unless you also have food intolerances or allergies, or other medical conditions, that stop you from eating eggs.
Eggs have been dubbed “the perfect protein”, because they contain all the protein building blocks (amino acids) that we can’t make in our bodies, and in just about the perfect ratio.
At least, they do if the chickens were “free range”, that is, they could get outside and eat the bugs and insects that they naturally eat. These small animals provide the chickens with the nitrogen they need to make proteins to include in their eggs.
Eggs have recently (Feb 2015) been given a clean bill of health by the US Dietary Guidelines authority. After years of being regarded with suspicion because they contain cholesterol, eggs are now being given the green light. Apparently, it doesn’t matter how much cholesterol we eat, because if we don’t eat enough, we make it in our bodies.
Note that a lot of the protein is in the egg yolks, along with the cholesterol, so if you are having egg whites only, you are missing out!
Apart from eggs, vegetarians can, of course, enjoy all the non-animal options available to vegans.
Balancing nuts and legumes
There is no single plant-based food source which contains all the necessary amino acids in one place, so vegans (and vegetarians who don’t eat eggs) need to assemble the amino acids from different plant sources.
A good rule of thumb is to remember that a balanced mixture of nuts and legumes will cover all your protein bases.
Legumes are the family of plants which includes beans, chickpeas, lentils, and alfalfa. In agriculture, they are often grown for their ability to put nitrogen back into the soil. Nitrogen is a key component of proteins, and legumes have a lot of it.
Nuts are familiar to most of us – the hard cases containing the seed of a plant, like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and so on.
Caution – peanuts are not technically a nut –they are a legume! Cashews aren’t technically nuts, either, because they are not the part of the plant that sprouts. They are a part of the fruit, but they are not the “germ”, the seed of a new plant.
You can get a “cheater’s balance” of nuts and legumes by mixing half peanuts with half true nuts.
For something a bit more fancy, make hummus with nut butter, add nuts and beans to your stir-fry meal, or combine a main meal containing beans and a dessert containing lots of nuts.
High Protein Foods
Some grains have more protein than others, so it is good to upgrade to the high protein version wherever possible.
Quinoa – a grain grown at high altitudes in South America, quinoa has a nutty taste, and a texture like couscous. One cup contains 8 grams of protein.
Substitute quinoa for rice, pasta, couscous, or other carbohydrates in a meal. Quinoa is also a great base for a salad – just add roasted vegetables, herbs, and lemon juice.
Buckwheat – a grain popular in North America for its effects when used to make pancakes, buckwheat can be cooked and eaten like rice. It contains six grams of protein per cup.
Hemp seed – sprinkle hemp seed on your yoghurt or salads to add five grams of protein per tablespoon.
Chia seed – add to smoothies, soups, and baked goods for a protein boost of two grams per tablespoon.
Soy beans – either in their natural form, or processed into tofu, soy beans contain lots of additional protein. Substitute them for meat in your favourite Asian or Mexican dishes.
Spirulina – add to smoothies, soups and stews to add four grams of protein per tablespoon.
If you are looking for protein-boosting snacks, try dipping a wholemeal pits in some hummus. One pita and two tablespoons of hummus pack a combined seven grams of protein.
And, in the end, never overlook the humble peanut butter sandwich. Two slices of wholemeal bread and two tablespoons of peanut butter will deliver a whopping 15 grams of protein!