Being Vegetarian: Protein Pressure

I can’t deny it no more. I love you vegetarians.

So I better not leave you hanging right? Right!

Pic: The Food Guys

While there are many drawbacks to a typical vegetarian diet, the one major drawback is a lack of protein. All vegetarians who chooses to make a change towards the better, face this huge challenge. They all go – ‘Cheese is bad, soy is bad, eggs have cholesterol… what the hell do I eat for protein?!’

So let’s get to the meat of the issue shall we? (See what I did there? Yea I’m awesome like that!)

Slim Pickins:

Vegetarians have few protein options and it is important that they use these options wisely in order to reach their goal of nutritious diet.

  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Legumes and nuts
  • Protein supplements

The deal with these protein options is that in addition to protein these foods come with other junk (phytoestrogens, lectins, phytic acid etc.) which make it unsafe to consume these foods in higher quantities.But fear not…  I gotcha back!

Make no mistake – animal products are an absolute necessity for optimal health, but we’ve got to work with what we have and hence the rest of this post will be dedicated towards finding an optimal mix of these third world proteins to get the most nutrition possible.

1. Eggs:

Eggs are by far your best protein option due to their exceptional nutritional profile. If you don’t know by now, egg yolks are far superior to the whites and yes, you are sinning every time you throw out an egg yolk! Click here to see the detailed nutritional info in eggs. No you don’t get it. Click that link… now!

Every vegetarian should include eggs in his/her diet (unless of course you’re allergic to them). Buy organic cage free eggs and eat at least 2 whole eggs every day. I know I know. You’re worried about the cholesterol in egg yolks. Here you go – Research shows that dietary cholesterol (especially via egg consumption) has no adverse effect on plasma cholesterol. And why organic cage free eggs? – Here’s why.

2. Dairy:

Sure dairy could irritate your gut and a bunch of folks are intolerant, but if you are a vegetarian you better have some dairy in your diet. Dairy proteins are complete proteins and come with beneficial fats.

We can spend days talking about raw dairy vs organic dairy vs regular dairy, but I have more to cover. So here are my recommendations – If raw dairy is available and you can afford/tolerate it, that should be your first option. If not, organic full fat dairy is the next best. If all you can afford is regular dairy, get the full fat version.

Whole milk and whole milk yogurt are calorie dense and contain ~ 12-15 gm of protein per cup. In addition to this, yogurt (which is produced by bacterial fermentation of milk) contains helpful live cultures that aid digestion. Yes, yogurt > milk.

(Note: Yogurt can be consumed in modest quantities by those who are lactose intolerant since the lactose has been fermented by the bacterial culture.)

Cheese is a great source of dairy protein (especially for those trying to keep the carbs low) offering ~ 6-7 gm of protein per ounce. Yes, cheese has some saturated fat, but there is no real evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease. So get some awesome full fat, unprocessed cheese and top your vegetables or eat it with some berries or have a couple of ounces with some fine wine.

If you want to cook with cheese, your best options are paneer and halumi. These two can be grilled, browned, used in a curry or however else you like to cook ’em. If you’re a cottage cheese lover, then that’s definitely another option. Each cup offers ~ 25-28 gm of slow digesting protein (casein).

3. Soy:

I’m sure you’ve heard the good and the bad about soy. The funny thing is, people who promote soy describe it a freakin super food and those who demonize it deem it pure evil. While it is easy for meat eaters to hop on and call it evil, the decision isn’t that simple for vegetarians.

Since this could get VERY long, I’m going to present to you just the facts.

Just so we’re clear – whole soy beans and fermented soy are possibly good for you in moderate quantities… processed soy products are NOT!

From a proteinstand point – soy is a complete protein and a couple of ounces of tempeh 3-4 days a week will probably help more than hurt, but consuming large quantities of soy products (tofu, fake meat etc.) will mess you up!

4. Legumes & Nuts

I have no idea where this ‘Oh lentils/beans are all protein’ nonsense was born, but this is where it will die.

Lentils and beans contain protein, yes. But they also contain 3-4 times more carbs. But when was the last time you ate just lentils/beans? Most people eat them with other grains like rice or wheat and now the carb to protein ratio shifts to ~ 10:1. Are you with me here? When you eat rice and beans, you’re not eating a protein rich meal. Wake the hell up!

In addition to this, in their unfermented form, legumes/beans contain enough phytic acid to harm you. I want to write about soaking/fermentation of legumes/beans, but most of you wont do it right anyways so I will just direct you to this article from the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF).

Summing up – legumes are not a great source of protein, but if prepared per the WAPF guidelines, can offer some protein and a good amount of fiber.

From a protein standpoint – eat soaked legumes/beans in limited quantities 2-3 times a week.

Nuts? Well, they’re pretty much all fat and contain negligible protein. Enough said.

5. Protein Supplements

Protein supplements are exactly that… supplements. You can use them to supplement a nutritious diet. In other words, if you have removed the junk, sugars and grains from your diet and if your diet revolves around real foods with plenty of vegetables and healthy fats you can include protein supplements in order to obtain your protein requirements.

Your options for protein supplements are whey protein powder, egg protein powder and hemp seed protein powder. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but if you buy one of these look for a brand that offers high protein (>20 gm), low carb (<5 gm), low fat (<4 gm), low cholesterol (<15%) and low sodium (<15%).

Note: An exception might be hemp seed protein powders which contain more carbs, but most of them are fiber.

Mixing it up!

Now for the important part – How does all this come together in a vegetarian diet?

Repeat after me – Variety. Is. Key!

Eating any food item (and that means ANY food item) over and over again will create deficiencies over the long term and hence it is critical to consume as many different types of foods as possible. This holds true for vegetarian protein sources as it does for fruits, meat, vegetables and everything else.

Case 1: 150 lbs male (Sedentary)

Protein requirement ~ 70-75 gm

  • 2 eggs [~ 14 gm protein]
  • 2 oz tempeh/tofu [~ 14 gm protein]
  • 2 oz paneer [~ 14 gm protein]
  • 1 cup whole milk [~ 12 gm protein]
  • 1 cup whole milk yogurt [~ 15 gm protein]

Case 2: 150 lbs male (Active, strength trains, interested in muscle gain)

Protein requirement ~ 140-150 gm

  • 4 eggs [~ 24 gm protein]
  • 2 oz tempeh/tofu [~ 14 gm protein]
  • 2 oz paneer/cheese [~ 14 gm protein]
  • 1 cup whole milk [~ 12 gm protein]
  • 2 cups whole milk yogurt [~ 30 gm protein]
  • 1 cup cottage cheese [~ 30 gm protein]
  • 1 scoop hemp/whey/egg protein powder [~ 25 gm protein]

But my case is unique…

  • If you have allergies/health conditions, talk to your doctor first.
  • If you weigh more/less, increase/decrease quantities.
  • If you dislike cottage cheese, have an extra scoop of protein powder.
  • If you’re moderately active, your protein requirements will fall between these two extremes and I’m sure the post has enough information for you to create your protein menu.
  • If you don’t eat eggs and milk products, this is not the blog for you!

Peace out!

PS: This post, like other long informational posts, took a lot of time and effort. So please share your thoughts in the comments section and spend a short minute to share this post. Buttons below!

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49 responses to “Being Vegetarian: Protein Pressure

  1. Sruti March 18, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    WOW! Thanks a TON for the wealth of facts & helpful details Raj

    • NAVIN MOHAN March 18, 2011 at 6:57 pm

      Raj, what is your analysis on the faux chicken(soy based) and the soy burgers? They seem to contain an ok amount of protein and fiber..

      • RG March 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm

        Navin –

        “Just so we’re clear – whole soy beans and fermented soy are possibly good for you in moderate quantities… processed soy products are NOT!

        From a proteinstand point – soy is a complete protein and a couple of ounces of tempeh 3-4 days a week will probably help more than hurt, but consuming large quantities of soy products (tofu, fake meat etc.) will mess you up!”

        faux = fake. faux chicken= fake meat = processed junk. stay away!

  2. Mahesh March 18, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    This is a very helpful post for all the vegetarians who are searching around for protein sources. Good job. Totally agree that one of the main drawbacks is the lack of good quality protein sources in a vegetarian diet. I try to mix and match with different varieties of proteins, vegetables, fats, carbs and eat clean. I avoid soy/tofu to a maximum extent though. Has helped me in my lifting goals and strength gains so far, much more than what I had expected. Its always important to maintain a clean diet and be wise on using the supplements.

  3. Reva March 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Is sprouting = fermenting?

  4. Lavanya March 19, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Oh this is a great post, Raj! And here you go, as usual, shattering my world again. Tofu is no-no too? sigh. This eating healthy lark is not easy, I tell you!

    • RG March 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm

      Tofu is fine… as long as you eat the fermented tofu in moderate amounts. The stuff you get at the super market – those are tofu products. Thats where the problem is.

  5. Lavanya March 19, 2011 at 1:38 am

    BTW, what the hell is seitan? Is it legit?

    • RG March 19, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Hahaha… seitain is concentrated gluten! Literally! It is one of the worst things you can eat really. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_gluten_(food)

    • Jes December 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm

      SEITAIN – sounds like very much like SHAITAN meaning “devil”. It’s amazing how Seitain (gluten) can affect our bodies and Shaitan affects our souls … Arrgh!! run from gluten!!

      I have a health book that says women have conceived even years after the couples switched to gluten-free foods recommended by Naturopaths and Nutritionists. These are proven facts… and yes gluten-free foods can reverse diseases… (DIS – EASE) and put the body back into EASE!!

  6. Rahul March 19, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Thnx for the nice post….. There are so many studies/researches that claim so many different things. How do you decide which to believe ? Two whole eggs have more than the daily required quantity of cholesterol. How can this excess be good ?

    • RG March 19, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Rahul – Read my previous posts about fat and read the link that is on this post. Dietary cholesterol has little to no relation to plasma cholesterol. Your body needs cholesterol in large amounts and since cholesterol is extremely critical for the bodys proper functioning, your body auto regulates cholesterol production. If you eat enough, your body will product just enough. If you eat too little, it will make more. If you eat too much, it will make less.

      Read this and you’ll get a good understanding of cholesterol – http://www.marksdailyapple.com/cholesterol/

  7. Carola March 19, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Any suggestions on good protein bars?

    • RG March 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Carola,
      Protein bars = junk. The ONLY decent bar I have seen are Quest Bars. They seem legit.

      I havent tasted them, but I hear they taste pretty awesome though.

  8. Manasi March 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Thank U Raj. I realize that as a vegetarian, I have limited choices, but I am going to make the most of it- and with these guidelines- even if my progress is not as rapid as expected, I will still trudge on. I am sure I will be a lot healthier than I am now 🙂
    Thanks once again

  9. SP March 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Love the blog. I have a hard time accepting eggs- just can’t bring myself to eat them. Is cottage cheese a good enough substitute? Loved the 4 course meal post. Will try some this Friday on a a bunch of friedns. How do I get more recipes from you?

    • RG March 20, 2011 at 12:56 am

      cottage cheese is legit… but wont replace eggs. click on that link to see how much nutrition egg yolks have to offer.

      how do you get more recipes from me? somehow make my days 26 hrs! kidding… will try to put on more recipes when time permits.

  10. SG March 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Considering that dosa is a common and staple breakfast item that many South Indians eat, it may be possible for many folks to switch to a healthier version of it to get more protein. Instead of the usual rice+urad dal lentil, one can add whole organic soybeans and organic quinoa and reduce the proportion of rice.

    Since dosa is fermented, I would assume the anti-nutrients would get reduced. I have tried quinoa based dosa and it tastes really awesome after it has fermented well but I’m yet to try adding whole soybeans to it. My mom has tried adding soybeans with success. Will ask her for the proportions and post it here.

    Obviously, eating tons of dosa will still produce a high carb load, so need to monitor the portions and timing when it is consumed (post exercise)… But for someone like me who needs my dosa fix once in a few days, this is a great alternative to the traditional dosa.

    • RG March 20, 2011 at 12:58 am

      sure. give it a shot and let me know how well it turns out.

      but if you need a dosa fix once a week… eat the real thing. its scary when people try to make something healthy (think soy dosa or almond flour pancakes)… cos they end up eat way more than they should due to the illusion of healthy food.

      • SG April 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm

        I can certainly eat the real thing once in a while. However, my attempt at trying to add soy into dosa was targeted more at my parents who are lifelong vegetarians. They won’t eat eggs. Diary and ghee are all the animal products they eat.

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  12. Smita March 19, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Wealth of information….Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    When I eat eggs for breakfast more than 7 days in a row, I get bored. Are there other options for breakfast other than eggs?

    • RG March 20, 2011 at 12:59 am

      try this. forget breakfast, lunch and dinner. just work on getting 3 clean, good meals. have dinner for breakfast, breakfast for lunch… you get the point. try it… you’ll be happy you did.

  13. Smita March 19, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Another question….isn’t dairy not allowed in primal diets?

    • RG March 20, 2011 at 1:02 am

      well… primal and paleo diets are strictly non-vegetarian diet and every meal is built around meat.

      when meat is involved you can afford to avoid dairy, but when meat is absent you need some form of complete protein… hence the dairy inclusion.

  14. NC March 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    This is awesome information…Very informative blog. I would like to know how to feed toddlers and kids, what are their requirements and how a vegetarian toddler could be fed a balanced diet. If you have already written about it, could you please point me to that post.
    But awesome information you have provided here neverthless!!! Thanks!

    • RG March 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

      Thank you. I have not written about nutrition for toddlers/babies/kids but plan on writing about it soon.

  15. S March 21, 2011 at 2:41 am

    I’m following your blog from couple of days. Well kinda of liked it. yes being a south indian ,we eat lots of grains. when we were kids my mom used to say less rice and more curry. Without knowing all this carbohydrates stuff etc,as it used to tastes good.we used to follow.I believe in real foods that’s what i try to include in my diet. I was almost 85kg post pregnancy. i got that off to 60 now in a year .
    i reduced oil ,no fried foods,no sugar(milk is sweet naturally) thats it. Actually i hate all those pastries/cakes /deep fried ones.

    Your blog is very informative. But seriously i really wonder how can you eliminate all grains? how to do that?
    We have diet meals in our cafeteria. They give fruits and vegetables bowls along with some sugarless fresh juice. you have that at 1pm again by 4,you will feel hungry. then you feed on junk food. i feel diet plan should be the one which we can stick on forever,not something thats a stop gap

  16. Ashok March 21, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Hi Raj
    They say that everything in moderation including moderation, so my questions is if I have all types of food with a balance of everything in moderate portions and work out 4-5 days a week is that not good enough? Just that there is soo many options out there with different diets claiming different things and am confused now what to follow?

    • RG March 21, 2011 at 9:20 am

      Ashok,
      Variety is key. Yes. But moderation in everything is BS. Would you moderately poison yourself? Would you moderately eat slit your wrists? There are certain things you want to say the heck away from. For eg. Cooking with vegetable oils is one of them.

      As a general rule. Eat real food (veggies, meat, full fat dairy, nuts, fruit) for the most part (6 days a week) and occasionally (one day a week or one meal a week) have what you crave. This could be pizza or ice cream or whatever else. That way you get to indulge and you enjoy it when you do it and you stay healthy overall.

      I’m not against eating grains… I’m against eating grains all the time in every meal! Know what I mean?

  17. Bea April 7, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Hi RG,
    This topic is really interesting and is a huge debate amongst nutritionists and probably will continue to be one.
    I totally agree that reducing grain can have an immense impact on the body. I have reduced grain substantially and have reaped the benefit of it.
    I do not eat meats, eggs and hardly any milk products but, I am not vegan. I enjoy cheese. Considering this,I am not sure I am being fair to comment on this blog 🙂
    However, I was curious and thought you would definitely be able to help me with this.
    Is there such a thing as minimum protein for a body? Each body is so unique with so many combinations of thoughts, beliefs, mental, physical issues. Can there be even a range of numbers that work for all.
    Btw, your story makes for an inspiring read on the amazing possibilities in life and the miracle that is the human body.
    Cheers,

    B

    • RG April 26, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      Bea… protein requirements change based on age, bodyweight, activity levels, goals etc. You need to find your ideal level or protein and strive to get good quality protein.

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    • RG April 26, 2011 at 11:41 pm

      id have to agree with the article at least partially. hence the recommendation…

      “If raw dairy is available and you can afford/tolerate it, that should be your first option. If not, organic full fat dairy is the next best. If all you can afford is regular dairy, get the full fat version.”

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  20. lala June 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I had been a dairy/but non egg eater vegeterian whole my life, and now I’m facing seriuos nutritional deficiencies. It seems like it’s time for a change, but I found my self reluctant to do it! Well, it can’t be that bad, isn’t it? Thank you Raj for all your work and kind atenttion!

  21. Andreas July 4, 2011 at 3:19 am

    Great article, I agree with everything !

    Nutreas Whey Protein
    http://www.nutreas.de/shop/de/whey-protein.html

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  24. Usha October 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Are you talking about, the soft, firm and extra firm tofu that we get in supermarkets ( when you talk about processed soy)?
    Whatz fermented tofu and where can I get it?

  25. Giri November 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Do you have any recommendations for protein powder

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