How in the World Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?
The hardest part about being a vegetarian is not, in fact, the diet itself, but rather, answering all of the questions that come from this lifestyle choice. The moment someone discovers that I am a vegetarian, our conversation turns from small talk to a lively Q&A and I’m the one taking the test. “How long have you been a vegetarian?” “Do you miss meat?” “Have you ever even tried chicken?” “Can you eat at restaurants?” And then the big one, “How in the world do you get enough protein?” It can be rather exhausting answer all these questions over and over again. But there is one common misconception that even some vegetarians and vegans don’t understand: it is super easy to get enough protein without eating any meat.
For some reason, it is a common belief that humans need a huge amount of protein every day, and that protein must come from some sort of animal byproduct. It is then assumed that vegetarians can still get their protein from milk and dairy, but then how do vegans and lactose intolerant vegetarians get theirs? Well, the fact is that we don’t need as much protein as is commonly believed, and there are plenty of other ways to get the protein we need than from animals.
Proteins are hugely important in our diet. Proteins break down into amino acids which are needed to for cell growth and repair. They also take longer to digest than carbohydrates, making the body feel full longer, and therefore assisting in weight maintenance and loss. The U.S. recommended amount of protein for the average person (not including athletes, who need a higher amount) is .36 grams per pound. That means an average joe, weighing about 150 pounds, should have somewhere near 54 grams of protein per day. A gram of protein is four calories, which means that the average person should have about 216 calories of protein per day. Another form of measurement is to make protein 8-10% of your daily diet. If you consider the average person’s daily diet to consist of around 2,300 calories, 216 calories of protein equals just about 10%.
Well, now that we know how much protein a person needs, the question still stands, how do vegetarians get that protein? The common misconception is that we don’t. And for someone who doesn’t plan their diet carefully, this can be true. It is super easy to skip on proteins and only eat the yummy carbohydrates. Unfortunately, this can lead to weight gain and a very unhealthy diet. On the bright side, with only a little bit of planning, it can also be super easy to reach that goal of 54 grams every day.
There are so many meatless options to find protein. Beans, seeds, nuts, and grains are only the beginning. The easiest way to reach the optimal protein goal is to add protein in to every meal. Breakfast may seem like the hardest place to include protein if you don’t eat eggs or dairy. Add nut butter, such as almond butter or peanut butter onto your toast or bagel. Make a smoothie for breakfast and include a vegan protein supplement, flax seed, chai seeds, almond milk, or hemp seed.
Legume is a funny word that is the classification for beans, peas, and lentils. Legumes are among some of the most nutritious foods available and also happen to be high in proteins. Lentils contain a high amount of protein at 18 grams per cup. Lentils are great in soups, stews, pitas, salads, and many other recipes. Chickpeas have 12 grams per cup and are the foundation of humus and falafel. Green peas have about 8 grams of protein per cup, the same as a glass of cow’s milk. Green peas are great on their own, as a side dish, or mashed up and turned into pesto and used as a spread. Black beans have 15 grams per cup and are great in tacos and salads. Edamame is a bean dish usually found in Asian restaurants that is prepared from immature soybeans. Edamame is salty and delicious and also includes 8.4 grams of protein per cup.
Surprisingly, dark green, leafy vegetables also contain protein, as well as antioxidants and fiber. For instance, raw spinach has about 2 grams of protein, and a cup of broccoli has about 8 grams. While one would need to eat a lot of vegetables for this to be their primary source of protein, it’s possible. Tofu and Tempeh are popular sources of protein as well, both deriving from soy. Tempeh contains 31 grams of protein per cup, and tofu contains 11 grams per cup.
It’s super easy to include protein into every meal. Add a protein supplement into your morning shake, include beans and nuts in your lunchtime salad, and add in some tofu and green pea pesto sauce onto your pasta for dinner. These protein sources are both tasty and great for your body.
Green Pea Pesto on Pasta
- 1 cup green peas (thawed)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 cup chopped basil
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, (optional: sub vegan)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
- Pasta of choice
- Fill a large saucepan with water, add salt, and bring to boil.
- While waiting for the water to boil: blend peas, garlic, basil, lemon juice, Parmesan, and pepper. While blending, stream olive oil into the mixture.
- Taste and adjust flavoring as necessary (i.e. more cheese, pepper, lemon juice, etc.)
- Cook pasta according to instructions. Drain. Transfer pasta to a mixing bowl and toss with the pesto. Serve warm.
© 2016 Sckylar Gibby-Brown