Vegetarian Protein Sources

The Importance of Protein

Protein is essential to human health. Our bodies—hair, muscles, fingernails, and so on—are made up mostly of protein. As suggested by the differences between our muscles and our fingernails, not all proteins are alike. This is because differing combinations of any number of 20 amino acids may constitute a protein. In much the same way that the 26 letters of our alphabet serve to form millions of different words, the 20 amino acids serve to form different proteins.

Amino acids are a fundamental part of our diet. While half of these 20 amino acids can be manufactured by the human body, the other 10 amino acids cannot, and need to be provided through quality food sources. However, you do not need to be a carnivore in order to obtain a healthy intake of quality dietary protein in your diet. The following constitutes a list of healthy vegetarian and vegan food selections that can easily provide these “essential amino acids” that your body needs.

Beans and Lentils

(Protein Content: beans, 12 to 14 g per cup cooked; lentils, 18 g per cup cooked)

Beans and lentils are the cheapest source of protein out there. So whether you prefer kidney, garbanzo, white, black, or pinto beans, Keep lots of dry and ready to cook or BPA-free cans of beans, rinse and drain them to remove 40 percent of the sodium, and use them to make a vast array of delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine.

White bean varieties taste delicious in pasta and cold bean salads, garbanzo or edamame in cold or hot bean salads and stir frys, black beans and pinto in Mexican cuisine and vegetarian chili, and lentils are great for soups as well as vegan ‘meatloafs’ and ‘meatballs.

Nuts and Seeds

(Protein Content: Nuts, 3 to 7 g per 1/3-cup serving, depending on the type, peanuts and pine nuts have the most; Seeds, 2 to 5 g per 1/3-cup serving, depending on type)

Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews, and pine nuts are all good vegetarian protein sources, and they are all incredibly versatile and delicious. On the nut side, try a sprinkle of chopped nuts on everything like oatmeal, yogurt, salad, pasta, stuffings and fruit parfaits. And, nut-based dressings are both healthy and delicious, and contain all those good healthy fats your body requires and not unhealthy trans fat you want to avoid. On the seed side, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds all make a great crunchy addition to salads and veggie side dishes, and seed butter, such as sunflower seed butter, is delicious served on toast or cut fruit such as apples and pears.

Chia Seeds

(Protein Content: 4 g per ounce)

Though the protein content isn’t as high as some other vegetarian foods out there, chia seeds pack a huge nutritional punch. For starters, they’re an incredible fiber resource with nearly half (11 g) of the amount you need every day in a single ounce. Chia seeds also contain 18 percent of your daily calcium requirement—more than triple that of milk—which helps maintain good bone health. Chia seeds have no flavor, so you can add a tablespoon to any food you wish to without altering its flavor, and unlike flax, chia seeds don’t need to be ground in order for your body to absorb all the nutrients.

Tofu & Tempeh (GMO-free only)

(Protein Content: Tempeh, 18 g per serving; tofu, 8 g per serving)

Tofu is often referred to as the veggie ‘white meat’—anything chicken can do, tofu can do. Tempeh (a fermented form of tofu) has a fabulous texture and is a great burger stand-in or perfect crumbled in chili or seasoned and broiled into a high-protein ‘crouton’ on a salads and side dishes. Shop for organic products only to avoid genetically modified soy and hexane, a cancer-causing contaminant that has been detected in heavily processed, nonorganic soy products. If you’re not a fan of tofu or tempeh, you can still reap the protein benefits of soy in GMO-free soy milk (8 g per glass) and edamame (green soybeans, which have 17 g per cup). But do go easy on soy products, as too much can raise estrogen levels and wreak hormonal havoc in both women and men. Aim for 3 servings of tofu, soy milk or edamame per week.

Hemp

(Protein Content: Seeds, 6 g per ounce; Milk, 2 g per cup)

If you’re allergic to soy, or want to avoid its estrogenic activity, hemp products are your next best bet. Sold as a dairy alternative or as seeds, hemp is one of very few plant proteins that supply you with all the essential amino acids, acids your body can’t produce on its own to build muscle and create more protein. The fatty acids in hemp seeds, milk and oil also boost your immune system, and the crop itself is highly sustainable, growing as fast as 10 feet in 100 days.

Eggs

(Protein Content: 6 g per egg)

There’s a reason the incredible, edible egg is such a popular breakfast choice. The protein in eggs has the highest biological value—a measure of how well it supports your body’s protein needs—of any food, including beef. And the yolks contain vitamin B12, deficiencies of which are common in vegetarian diets and can cause attention, mood, and thinking problems, while also raising blood homocysteine levels—a risk factor for heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. I absolutely cannot stress enough the importance of ONLY consuming certified organic eggs, which these days are very easy to find. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry them, then purchase them either at your nearest health food store, farmers market, organic co-op or local organic farmer. Battery barn eggs are extremely toxic to your health, not to mention the inhumane treatment of the chickens and destruction to the environment.

Greek Yogurt

(Protein Content: 15 to 20 g per 6-ounce serving)

Organic Greek yogurt is a protein powerhouse, with twice the protein and half the sugar and carbs of regular yogurt. In fact, Greek yogurt contains the same protein as a three-ounce serving of lean meat. Top that with a handful of nuts and you could get half of your daily protein intake just at breakfast. And, mixing different vegetarian protein sources into your daily routine also insures that you’re getting the right mixture of amino acids, which aid in building muscle and regulating your metabolism.

Avocados

(Protein Content: 4 g per avocado)

All vegetables contain between 1 and 2 g of protein per cup, but avocados (which are technically fruits) surpass them all. Though 4 g may not sound like much, avocado protein contains all nine essential amino acids—the amino acids your body can’t produce on its own to build muscle and create more protein—in addition to heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. There may even be a reason why these fruits are in season during flu season. Protein not only builds muscle and maintains organ structures, but it is also needed to spur prompt, strong immune responses.

Pseudograins

(Protein Content: 5 to 7 g of protein per cup, cooked)

There are grains, and then there are pseudograins. Grains—wheat, barley, rye, brown rice and corn—all contain decent amounts of protein, and globally, wheat provides more plant-based protein than any other food. But, intolerance to the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye is on the rise, owing to the increased processing of foods. So, if you want to go gluten free, look to organic corn, rice, and pseudograins, foods that are cooked and served like grains but are technically seeds, including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and wild rice. If you stick with corn, replace the standard yellow or white corn products with blue corn, which has 30 percent more protein.

Bon Veggie Appetit!

Gina ‘The Veggie Goddess’ Matthews