Protein is a pretty impressive macronutrient. It keeps us fuller for longer and helps restore and replenish our muscle fibres. When people discuss protein foods, they typically think of meaty options like a piece of steak or a chicken breast, but there are also many vegetarian protein sources that can ensure that our plant-loving friends are well catered for too.
The building blocks of proteins are the amino acids, and there are hundreds of these in nature. Of these, about 20 are important in human nutrition, with eight being classified as essential, meaning that we must obtain them directly in our diet as our body cannot make them.
Animal proteins like meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant sources of proteins on the other hand tend to be lacking in at least one of the essential amino acids. It is not difficult to meet all of your amino acid requirements from plant foods if you know what to do! It just means you have to eat combinations of foods to obtain complementary proteins.
Group one: Dairy products and eggs (e.g. milk, yoghurt, cheese, boiled egg)
Group two: Grains and grain products (e.g. oats, wholegrain bread, pasta, rice)
Group three: Nuts and seeds (e.g. almonds, pumpkin seeds)
Group four: Legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, tofu)
Vegetarians need to include at least two groups in the same meal, and across the course of day include them all.
Examples of complementary protein meals for vegetarians:
• Indian Dahl with a dollop of natural yoghurt
• Wholegrain toast and nut butter
• Wholegrain crackers and hummus
• Pumpkin and chickpea soup with a slice of crusty sourdough
• Tofu stir-fry with brown rice
• Oat porridge with mixed nuts and seeds
• Pita bread with falafel
• Baked beans on wholegrain toast
• Vegetarian bolognaise and spaghetti (using lentils)
• Poached egg on wholegrain toast
• Yoghurt with untoasted muesli
• Tortilla and Mexican refried beans
• Smoothie including oats and yoghurt
Lisa’s top ten favourite vegetarian protein sources:
Eggs – delicious scrambled, poached, hard boiled or as an omelette eggs are a versatile and affordable protein source.
Dairy products – skim milk is a rich source of leucine which muscles love, but your body will also love yoghurt and cheese so mix it up.
Nuts – nuts make the perfect snack or can really transform a stir fry or salad sprinkled on top!
Seeds – pumpkin seeds to quinoa, don’t overlook these tiny little morsels. They pack a punch in the protein department!
Lentils – are perfect in a vegetarian bolognaise or an Indian curry, but they also work beautifully tossed into soups and salads.
Tofu – whether you use diced in a stir fry or grilled on a BBQ, tofu is a sensational protein source that really has filling power.
Spreads – nut butters, ricotta, hummus, tahini are all wonderful sources of protein. Spread on a wholegrain wrap with salad and you are hitting the complementary protein goals.
Quinoa – quinoa actually contains nine amino acids, so it’s already a complete protein – BOOM! It truly does deserve its superfood crown.
Oats – blitzed into a smoothie, cooked as porridge or added to muesli, oats have a range of health benefits. Oats at breakfast with some yoghurt or milk will keep you satisfied all morning.
Chickpeas – are amazing in salads, but don’t forget to add some to your soups and curries. Smash some on your plate as an alternative to mashed potato.
Until next time, eat well, be well…