Our Readers Ask: If I’m Vegetarian, What Foods Can I Eat for Protein?

A quick search on “vegetarian sources of protein” pulls up a number of listings (“Top 17,” Top 26,” etc.)  And each of those listings identify a different and random assortment of protein sources–which can make it confusing to keep track of them and, more importantly, to remember them when hurrying to put a meal together.

Here’s an easy solution:  Most vegetarian proteins fall into just five main categories–which makes it a lot easier to remember them.  As you put meals together during the day, just tick through these categories, being sure to include something from at least three or four of the categories throughout the day.

  1. Dairy   (milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, etc.)
  2. Eggs
  3. Beans  (e.g., lentils, split peas, chick peas, pinto beans, red beans, white beans and surprise, green peas)
  4. Soy Products  (soy beans, edamame, tempeh, tofu and soy milk–they are beans, too, but since there are several helpful options they get their own category)
  5. Nuts and Seeds  (almonds, walnuts, pecans, hempseed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, nut butters)

Beyond the big five categories there are a few lesser protein sources:

  • Whole grains provide some protein, and some grains have larger percentages than others (e.g., quinoa, teff, spelt and oats)

The one grain exception is seitan.  Made entirely from gluten, the main protein in wheat, it is the richest source of plant protein.  However, it is highly processed and made from just one component–the gluten protein–of wheat.  As such, it delivers a very high and unnaturally concentrated dose of gluten, which is proving to be increasingly troublesome.  Of course steer clear of it if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity but even if you don’t, caution is urged as this is far from a real, whole food.   (Read more:  https://draxe.com/seitan/)

  • Nutritional Yeast–but it is eaten in small amounts so don’t depend on it as a primary protein source
  • Spirulina–same comment as nutritional yeast.

So how does this information help when it’s time to make a meal?   Here are your 4 Easy Strategies to Get Tasty Protein into Your Diet:

  1. Keep your eye out for recipes that feature one or more of the big five as a prominent ingredient, like the recipe for Oat Nut Patties with Tomato Jam you can get by requesting it here. We made this in a healthy meal making class with City of Boulder employees and it was quite a hit.  Bonus:  it makes a lot of patties that you can save for snacks or freeze for later.
  2. When making a meal, make sure to weave in one or more of the big five–and maybe a whole grain, too.
  3. DON’T forget to make half your plate vegetables, since you ARE a vegetarian (note the root word!) Interestingly, produce can also bump up your protein intake as vegetables and fruits contain small amounts of protein.  A few offer a little more:  broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.  Remember that small amounts add up to big amounts as you fill half your plate with veggies.
  4. Eat as big a variety of foods as you can–not only to piece together a better protein picture but also a deeper nutritional profile.

Take a look at this sample menu for a day:

Breakfast:  Tofu Scramble with Red Peppers and Green Onions on Corn Tortillas with Salsa–Cheese Optional

Snack:  Hard Boiled Egg and Roasted Asparagus

Lunch:  Hummus Sandwich on Whole Grain Bread with Bean Sprouts, Lettuce, Shredded Carrots and Tomatoes, Fruit

Snack:  Mixed Nuts, Sunflower Seeds and Dried Apples

Dinner:  Oat Nut Patties with Tomato Jam, Green Peas, Creamy Mushroom Soup; Blueberries and Honey Yogurt for Dessert

Can you see how each meal features one or more of the big five (those foods in brown)?  And over the day, how all five were included?  Also note how whole grains are included, along with LOTS of vegetables.  Finally, note the wide variety of proteins and other foods included on the plan–a protein packed and nutrient dense vegetarian menu.  WOW!

Be sure to join our healthy eating community for more practical, nuts and bolts information, tips, tools and skills to transform your meal making and see the deliciously healthful meals of your dreams show up on your table–every day!   Just complete the sign up form on the left.

And don’t forget to request this great recipe:  Oat Nut Patties with Tomato Jam.

Caveat:  The information in this post is not intended as medical advice.  Ask a health care professional for any medical or health related questions, including whether a vegetarian diet is appropriate for you, how much protein you need, best sources, etc. 

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