Whether you are a vegetarian, a meat eater, or somewhere in between, protein is extremely important in your diet. For the average person it should make up approximately 35% of your daily food intake. Often when we think of protein, meat is one of the first thoughts that spring to mind, yet there are many different forms of protein that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans alike!
Some of these include:
- Green Peas, chickpeas (and other legumes)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds (Quinoa is technically a seed and a great source of protein)
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame etc)
- Leafy green vegetables
- Seitan (a form of meat substitute made from wheat gluten)
- Dark Chocolate (Yep, it seems there is always a good excuse. Cocoa powder is a delicious source of protein!)
For vegetarians who don’t mind animal products try:
- Natural/greek yogurt
- Cheeses (cottage cheese is a great source)
So Why Is Protein So Important?
Protein plays an important role as one of our most essential nutrients. The protein we ingest is made up of strings of amino acids and it is these little amino acids that are often referred to as the building blocks of life. So basically our bodies are built from proteins. Not only is protein used as the material used for building and repairing cells, it can also be used as a backup energy source! This is why bodybuilders need to eat so much protein when they are training, otherwise their bodies will start to break down and use their own muscle as energy!
There are 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are essential and cannot be formed within our bodies, so we have to look to our diet to get them. Some of the foods we eat contain all 9 of these essential amino acids and are referred to as ‘complete protein’ sources, whilst others only contain some of them, and are aptly referred to as ‘incomplete protein’ sources.
People often mistakenly consider meat to be the only form of complete protein. However there are many complete protein sources that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans alike, including soy products such as soy milk, soy cheese, tofu, tempeh and edamame. Other vegetarian sources of complete proteins include:
- Hemp seeds
There are loads of vegetarian options that also provide incomplete proteins, and just because they don’t hold all 9 of the essential amino acids, doesn’t mean that they are not healthy and nutritious foods to have in your diet. They may not provide all of the amino acids your body needs on a daily basis, however they can be combined with other incomplete proteins, thus making a complete protein meal, and a delicious combo at that!
Some examples of incomplete proteins include:
- Seeds (though not quinoa, chia or hemp)
Getting The Right Combinations
One of the great things that vegetarians (and omnivores) can enjoy are some of the many delicious food combinations that conveniently group together combinations of incomplete proteins! The basic rules are to aim to combine grains with legumes, grains with nuts/seeds or nuts/seeds with legumes.
Here are some great incomplete protein combinations that will ensure you are getting all the amino acids you need!
- Lentil dhal (made from split peas or lentils) and rice
- Whole wheat peanut butter sandwiches
- Beans and rice
- Hummus and whole wheat pita bread (Hummus actually is a complete combination itself with both chickpeas and tahini made from sesame seeds)
So it doesn’t matter if you are a meat eater, a vegetarian or a vegan, there a loads of fantastic foods and food combinations that will ensure you get all the essential amino acids you need on a daily basis!