Owner, CORE Pro-Elite Trainer, Nutritionist
The biggest challenge to being a vegetarian is getting enough protein. It is easy to find ample fat and carbohydrate in typical vegetarian fare. However, protein is more elusive when avoiding protein rich animal meat. Success starts with understanding the science behind proteins and how it relates to the body’s needs.
What about protein?
Proteins are made by the body and have a vast range of functions, as building blocks, as immune components and as an energy sources, to name a few. Since proteins are synthesized in the body depending on the body’s needs, we must then insure that our bodies are supplied with the right amount AND KIND of raw materials needed to carry out the process.
In the case of proteins, these raw materials are known as amino acids (aa’s). There are 20 essential amino acids in the human diet that will be our scope of focus. When searching for foods that are high in protein, one must consider the types and amounts of amino acids offered by that food.
Meat is typically rich in amount and in variety when it comes to the supply of aa’s it offers, but as vegetarians we must retrieve these diverse amino acids from a variety of sources (some high in some aa’s and low in others).
Vegetables, nuts, fruits, and grains also offer a wide range of aa’s, but they tend to lack or have low levels of one or two of them. To accommodate for this, it is recommended to have meals that provide all essential amino acids by combining food sources, like having a salad with nuts, berries, and cheese.
Since creating more elaborate meals is time consuming, it is sometimes difficult for vegetarians to keep track of the amino acids they consume and make sure the body’s needs are being met.
Plan of Action
Frequenting foods that are rich is all 20 amino acids, while continuing to keep track of aa’s from sources that are somewhat lacking is a good plan. Pumpkin seeds and cashews are good example, offering about 5 and 4 grams of all aa’s per ounce respectively.
Most cereals, bread, grains and pasta are rich in aa’s but are low in lysine. Oats and pasta offer around 5 and 8 grams of aa’s per ounce (with the exception of lysine) respectively. Most vegetables tend to be low in one aa or two, or lack them completely. This is why it is important to prepare salads with toppings that accommodate for the aa’s not being offered by the greens.
If you are concerned that you’re still not getting enough of each aa, adding a protein supplement to your morning smoothie can help. There are a wide range of protein supplement options in the market that are designed for vegetarians and vegans. I am a fan of Standard Process SP Complete as it is dairy free!
Soy products like tofu, seitan, and TVP (texturized vegetable protein) are rich in amino acid concentration, and are easy to use in the kitchen. Soy is a controversial substitute as studies show it is not as healthy as we all might think and it is one of the most genetically modified foods.
There is a mushroom meat substitute called quorn that is not just delicious but also an excellent source of protein. This microfiber can take on many flavors and is relatively low in calories but very high in protein!
As far as meat substitutes go, there quite a few options that are also packed with amino acids as mentioned above. However it is very important to be careful about consuming soy products because they have been linked to cancer and thyroid issues as well as having an estrogenic effect on the body.