The key is to mix different vegetarian protein sources into your daily routine, and eat enough whole grains to insure you're getting enough amino acids. Your immune system will thank you, too, especially during flu season! "Protein not only builds muscle and maintains organ structures, but is also needed to mount prompt, strong immune responses," explains Carol S. Johnston, PhD, RD, professor and director of the nutrition program at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation. "You never know when you will be exposed to viruses or other infectious agents, so you want to have adequate protein intake daily to have amino acids ready for immune protein synthesis at the time of infection."
Here's what you need to know about protein sources for vegetarians:
• Know how much you need. The average 150-pound person needs 55 to 68 grams of protein a day, or about 20 grams of protein per meal. To put this into perspective, dairy generally contains about 8 grams per serving, while an ounce of nuts or seeds, or an egg white, boast 6 grams each. A half cup of legumes, such as cooked beans or lentils, contains about 10 grams, making them an important protein sources for vegans. Even grains and vegetables generally have a gram or two of protein.
• Figure out what you are. Lacto/ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy foods, two high-quality protein sources, meaning a little goes a long way towards meeting protein and amino acid requirements, explains Johnston. If you fit this bill, shoot for three to four servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy a day, including yogurt, milk, and cheese. Vegans, who avoid all animal-source food, need to pay closer attention and make use of the vegetarian protein sources listed below.
• Make planning a priority. When people switch over to eating meat-free, "a lot don't realize that when you eliminate big food groups, it may be more challenging to get certain nutrients," explains Joan Salge Blake, RD, author of Nutrition and You. Planning is a must for healthy vegetarians, and some people even sit down with a registered dietician to learn how to personalize vegetarian meal plans.
All plant foods are lower in one or another essential amino acids—the building blocks of protein—than animal foods. To remedy this, combine whole grains and legumes in the same day's meal plan (not necessarily the same meal). The amino acid combo in those foods is the reason rice and beans, for example, are such important protein sources for vegetarians. "Any whole grain like quinoa, corn, whole wheat, buckwheat, brown rice, plus a legume like pinto, lentils, black beans, and garbanzos is perfect," explains spokeswoman Cristine Gerbstadt, MD, RD. "Think of hummus and whole wheat pita, whole wheat pasta and red beans, brown rice and curried lentils, peanut butter on multi whole grain bread." If you're looking to lose weight, she says to shoot for three ½-cup servings of whole grain products a day. If you're superactive, you may want to eat six servings a day.
• Unlock iron; avoid B12 deficiency. Since just 10 percent or less of the iron in plants is absorbed in your gut, consider drinking a glass of orange or tomato juice at the same meal as high-iron foods such as beans. The vitamin C helps unlock the iron from the plants.
A 2003 German study found B12 levels low enough to cause attention, mood, and thinking problems in a whopping 68 percent of people eating vegetarian diets, and low enough to raise blood homocysteine—a risk factor for heart disease, dementia, and Alzheimer's—in 38 percent. Remedy: a daily multivitamin with 100 percent of the daily value for B12 (6 micrograms). If you skip out on fortified products like milk and cereal, you may need to supplement vitamin D and calcium, too.
Now that you know the basics, here's where healthy vegetarians get their protein:
1. Beans/Lentils: Examples include kidney, garbanzo, white, black, pinto, edamame (green soybeans), and lentils. "Buy lots of cans of beans, rinse, and drain
them to remove 40 percent of the sodium, and use them in everything," suggests Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. "White beans taste delicious in pasta; garbanzo or edamame in stir-fries; black beans and pinto in burritos, tacos, and quesadillas; and lentils or kidney are great in salads and whole grain pita lunches."
To avoid bisphenol A, or BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical, found in metal canned foods (except the Eden Food line), favor frozen beans, or buy dried ones and cook them accordingly.
2. Nuts/Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews, and pine nuts are all good protein sources for vegetarians. "Try a sprinkle of chopped nuts on everything from oatmeal to yogurt to salad, and nut-based dressings are healthy and delicious," says Blatner. On the seed side, she recommends pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower. "I particularly like seed butter, such as sunflower seed butter, on toast with an apple for breakfast," she says.
3. Faux Meats: Veggie burgers, chicken patties, and other nut- or soy-based fake meat products often have more fiber and lower saturated fat than the real thing. Beware, though, they are often highly processed and can contain a lot of sodium (don't exceed 350 milligrams per serving). And most soy comes from genetically modified (GM) crops.
4. Tofu and Tempeh (tofu's cousin). "I call tofu the veggie white meat...anything chicken can do tofu can do, too," says Blatner. "Tempeh has a fabulous texture and is a great burger stand-in or perfect crumbled in chili or seasoned or broiled into a high protein crouton on a salad." Look for organic products to avoid eating GM soy.
5. Dairy/Eggs/Fish. As mentioned, dairy and eggs are good protein sources. Fish isn't technically a vegetarian choice, but some otherwise vegetarians do eat it. If you eat fish, look for ones that are low in contaminants and that are harvested responsibly, without decimating populations or hurting other sea life. Alaskan wild-caught salmon, anchovies, and mackerel are good choices for healthy vegetarians who don't have a problem eating aquatic animals.