Whether you’ve been a vegetarian for years or are giving it a thought for the first time, the most common question you’ll get about your diet is, “where do you get your protein?” Instead of drawing a blank, get prepared and impress your audience with a solid answer. Here are some facts you can share:
Most of us are aware that protein has an important role in our bodies, but you may not know why. Made up of amino acids (oxygen, nitrogren, carbon, and hydrogen), protein is the nutrient responsible for growing new cells and building and repairing tissue. However, contrary to popular belief, we don’t need to consume very much of it to be healthy. The average requirement of protein is only about 5 ounces a day, or about 5% of your daily caloric intake. It may also surprise you to hear that too much protein can actually damage your bones and organs, and that reducing the amount of protein in your diet can give you more energy, put your digestive system at ease, and protect your immune system.
A common misconception is that meat is the best source of protein. Consider the following animals: gorillas, cows, elephants - all of them are vegetarians! While you probably aren’t aiming to have their body types, they are great examples of how big and strong a living creature can be on a plant-based diet. While animal products contain large amounts of protein, they are also high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which can lead to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The plant-based diet is low in fat, free of cholesterol, and full of fiber.
Almost every plant contains protein, though some have more than others. Luckily, we do not need to get all amino acids from one source, so eating a varied vegetarian diet will result in a complete balance of protein. Here are some excellent foods that you can depend on to keep your body fit:
1. Beans contain more protein than any other vegetarian source, and they are high in fiber so you’ll feel full hours after eating them. There are countless varieties, the most popular being black, pinto, kidney, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, and soy.
2. Whole grains are a great compliment to beans, and together they pack a protein punch into your diet. Rice is always a great choice, but give quinoa a try. While quinoa is technically a seed, it contains more protein than any other grain. Check out barely and millet, and keep in mind that even popcorn contains protein!
3. Nuts are also very high in protein - one ounce of almonds has the same amount as one ounce of steak (6 grams)! Enjoy your favorite nuts raw, salted, roasted, seasoned, or in butter form.
4. Seeds are a great addition to any meal - simply sprinkle them on top or mix them in to add an extra boost of protein to your dish. Flax, pumpkin, and hemp seeds are not only rich in essential amino acids, but contain other important nutrients like omega-3s, iron, and fiber.
5. Green vegetables. There’s a reason Popeye was obsessed with spinach - he wanted to maintain his big biceps! Other veggies with high protein content are: broccoli, kale, green beans, asparagus, and watercress.
Not in the mood to slave over a meal in the kitchen? Head to the refrigerator or frozen food aisle in your grocery store and pick up some veggie burgers, dogs, or sausages - they are rich in protein and can be reheated in minutes, and are are quite tasty. You may also want to experiment with tempeh (fermented soy) and seitan (“wheat meat”) - these are the highest sources of vegetarian protein and can be used in many different dishes, from sandwiches to stir-fries.
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