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!)
Vegetarians have few protein options and it is important that they use these options wisely in order to reach their goal of nutritious diet.
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
- Soy has been consumed by humans for ~ 5000 years.
- But soy is not fit for human consumption unless it is fermented. In its unfermented form, soy contains phytochemicals that are toxic (phytates, enzyme inhibitors and goitrogens).
Unfermented soy has been linked to a bunch of health issues
like digestive distress, immune system breakdown, PMS, endometriosis, reproductive problems for men and women, allergies, ADD and ADHD, higher risk of heart disease and cancer, malnutrition, and loss of libido
- In its fermented form, soy has many health benefits.
- Tofu, especially the one you get from your fancy super market, is made from soy milk, is highly processed and doesn’t have much to offer.
- Whole edamame beans provide protein and fat and are good enough to be consumed as snacks in limited quantities.
- Fermented forms of soy, that have health benefits, are miso, tempeh and natto.
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!
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!