Vegetarian protein: everything you need to know

 

A growing number of Britons are cutting meat from their diets and looking to fruits, vegetables, nuts and other plant-based foods for healthier dietary options.  Whilst this may be considered a healthier way of eating, vegetarians need to keep a close eye on protein intake.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares some top tips for upping your protein intake the vegetarian way.

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VEGETARIAN VS. PESCATARIAN VS. VEGAN

Vegetarians eat all plant-based food, plus eggs and dairy produce and of course don’t eat any white or red meat.  Some vegetarians do eat fish which is known as a pescatarian diet.  Vegans eat only foods from plant origins – no dairy.

WHAT IS PROTEIN?

Much of the body is made up of protein or uses protein to function. It builds body tissue, including muscle and it can be used as an energy source. It helps build hormones, forms antibodies within the immune system and helps to maintain the essential fluid balance in cells, to name just some of its most important functions.

Protein is made up of amino acids; there are eight essential ones which the body cannot make, and therefore need to be eaten in the daily diet in adequate amounts.  Animal sources, including fish, generally contain all the amino acids essential for life, whereas plant sources (except soya and hemp), need to be combined to ensure adequate needs are met. Combining rice with beans is a great way of obtaining all the essential amino acids.

The body will make protein only as long as it has sufficient levels of all the amino acids stored up.  When one amino acid is deficient, our bodies are unable to produce most proteins; in this case, either muscle protein will be broken down or our metabolism will use protein for energy.

WHAT ABOUT VEGETARIAN PROTEIN?

Whilst we know that beans and nuts aren’t complete sources of protein, we also know that humans don’t need to eat all the essential amino acids at every meal.  For vegetarians this means that whilst combining vegetarian sources is the way to go to ensure adequate protein intake, this doesn’t need to be done at every meal.

Quinoa is an amazing grain that looks a little like couscous but has a much better nutrient profile.  It’s high in protein at around eight grams per serving when cooked, and it’s also packed full of iron and other essential trace minerals.  You can use it like rice but why not just add some roasted vegetables, using as many colours as you can find, and you’ve got a great evening meal.  It will also make an excellent cold lunch on-the-go the next day.

Soy is pretty much a complete protein; it’s a little low in a couple of amino acids but it fares much better than other beans.  Ideally try to use the fermented soya sources such as tofu, tempeh or natto.  Tofu doesn’t have much natural taste but it’s easy to add to smoothies for an additional protein source or can be included in stir fries where it will take on the other strong flavours in the pan, such as garlic or ginger.

Rice and beans tend to make up a large percentage of the vegetarian diet and when combined they provide all the essential amino acids.  Plus don’t forget chickpeas (think delicious hummus with some crudités) and lentils which can be added to soups or stews and substituted for meat in a chill con carne (perhaps with some soya mince).

Nuts and seeds are also great protein sources; if you’re stuck for an energy-boosting breakfast on the run, then nut butters such as cashew, almond or pumpkin are great to spread onto oatcakes or wholemeal bread and help keep blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day.

And finally, one other great source of protein is hemp.  It has an excellent nutrient profile including some essential omega-3 fats.  For those people who need a little extra boost, then it can be bought in powdered form and added to smoothies; this also makes a great recovery drink after a work-out.

And finally let’s not forget dairy and eggs – these provide endless meal possibilities and good levels of protein.

WHAT ELSE IS IMPORTANT FOR VEGETARIANS TO CONSIDER?

As well as protein, it’s worth acknowledging some other potential nutrient deficiencies that may occur with the vegetarian diet.

Although some essential minerals and vitamins are more readily available from meat or fish sources, a balanced diet should provide a vegetarian (although maybe not a vegan) with all the nutrients they need.  Care just needs to be taken to ensure adequate iron intake, as the most bio-available form is found in red meat. Vitamin B12 is also only available in animal sources, so some vegetarians and vegans may like to consider supplementation of these two nutrients.

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