Welcome to the World of Vegetarian Proteins

Rimma_Bondarenko/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Rimma_Bondarenko/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Without protein, life would not exist. Its essential amino acids aid in the building of tissues, cells and DNA. Because it is so important, it’s crucial to consume proteins that best support health and proper body growth and repair. At a most basic level, protein must be a part of a balanced diet.

That being said, Americans on the whole consume too much protein, especially from animal sources. This can displace other foods and food groups such as fruits, vegetables and grains. Consequently, due to the lack of dietary fiber in animal proteins, many people fail to intake the recommended 25 to 35 grams of dietary fiber each day.

Traditionally, when people think of protein in their diet, their mind immediately turns to animal proteins. However, it’s important to understand that proteins come from many different foods and food groups. With the growing population of vegetarians and research in support of plant-based diets, vegetarian protein sources are gaining attention—and rightfully so. Vegetarian diets tend to include more fruits, vegetables and fibe than omnivore diets and because of this suffer less from chronic diseases. People are not only recognizing meat-free protein alternatives, but are finding unique and innovative ways to include these proteins throughout the diet and within their favorite recipes.

While it may seem a bit obvious, eggs are one of the prime sources of vegetarian proteins. Not only are they incredibly versatile, but they are affordable and readily available. A single large egg offers up 6 to 7 grams of complete protein and can easily be incorporated into meals and snacks.

It likely comes as no surprise that nuts also pack in protein. With pistachios topping the charts at 6.3 grams per ounce (about ¼ cup), almonds are not far behind offering 6.0 grams per ounce. Cashews (5.2 grams per ounce) and walnuts (4.3 grams per ounce) are also excellent sources of protein. Nut butters are another great option for vegetarian protein, as both peanut and almond butter contain approximately 8 grams of protein in a two tablespoon serving.

Similar to nuts and nut butters, seeds contain plentiful amounts of protein. Sunflower seeds contain a notable 11 grams per ¼ cup while pumpkin seeds contain 9 grams per ¼ cup. Another seed quickly gaining popularity in the United States—thanks in part to its protein content of 6 grams per 1 cooked cup—is quinoa. Similar to the look of couscous and the taste of a heartier grain such as barley, quinoa can be used as a high-protein, gluten-free replacement for pasta, rice and other grains.

Beans and Legumes
We cannot forget about the protein and fiber-packed beans and legumes, either. Available all over the world and versatile enough to be included in most any meal, beans offer an abundant 6 to 7 grams of protein per cup (cooked) and a very generous 5 to 7 grams of fiber. Likewise, cooked lentils serve up nearly 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per ½ cup serving. Both are affordable protein sources that have numerous other health benefits.

Bottom line: including vegetarian protein sources in the diet has benefits that span from increased fiber intake to decreased chronic disease risk. Vegetarians and omnivores alike could benefit from including less meat and more vegetarian protein sources in the diet.

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Nicole Morrissey
Nicole Morrissey, MS, RD, BC-ADM, is a registered dietitian, diabetes educator, and author of the new cookbook Prevention RD’s Everyday Healthy Cooking. Read her blog at PreventionRD.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.