Vegetarian Protein: What’s Enough and How To Get it?
- September 2012
I recently saw you on 60 minutes or some other program like that, and I just saw an ad where you endorsed a vegan diet. I’ve tried to go vegetarian several times but cannot make it past a few weeks. I start getting nauseous. I always suspect I’m not getting enough protein. I don’t want to intrude too much into your busy schedule, but do you have a quick second to offer me some suggestions for good protein sources (other than tofu—I just don’t like that much at all).
Thanks much. An admirer,
Thanks for writing! A lot of people say to me that they “need” animal protein, and I’ve also had a lot of people tell me that veganism doesn’t work for men because of their higher protein and caloric needs, or that it doesn’t work for athletes who are extremely active. Scott Jurek, the vegan ultrarunner, is someone I admire very much, and a great example that veganism is not gender or activity exclusive.
I really like a website called NoMeatAthlete by another ultrarunner named Matt Frazier. He is extremely knowledgeable and thorough, and I learned a lot from reading his posts about protein.
Check out this guest post about protein on his site, this guide to vegetarian protein, and also this post about recognizing protein deficiency. You’ll find many more informative posts if you keep clicking on the links as you read.
In a nutshell, Matt explains much more thoroughly than I can that it’s definitely possible to become protein deficient as a vegetarian, but also that you need a lot less protein than people commonly assume. There are links to great online calculators to see exactly what the numbers are for you (for me, it’s 40-60 grams/day). There are a LOT of links to all sorts of good information from many outside sources.
A quick rundown of high protein foods from one of his posts:
Lentils (red are my favorites), 18 grams of protein per cup
Chickpeas, 12 grams/cup
Tempeh, 41 grams per cup
Black beans, 15 grams per cup
Nuts and nut butters (I eat a good mix, usually without peanuts), varied
Tofu, 11 grams per 4 ounces
Quinoa, 9 grams per cup
Other legumes, varied
You’ll see by reading the posts on the site that protein is present in all sorts of foods that might surprise you: brown rice, spinach, and broccoli, for example. One very simple switch is to start eating a lot more quinoa. Quinoa is very easy to cook, much faster than brown rice, and has a lot of protein. You can use it in place of rice, or you can eat it for breakfast instead of oats, so it is really versatile. You can also make cold salads with it, by adding some black beans and tomatoes, and some chopped vegetables with cilantro, oil and vinegar, and keep it in the fridge for snacking or to take along with you for lunch.
Here’s another link from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine with some quick and simple tips for switching your meals to eliminate meat.
The main thing I know about becoming vegetarian or vegan is that for many people it takes a lifestyle change, not just eating the same foods as normal minus meat and dairy. Many people are not accustomed to eating a big variety of whole grains and legumes, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. A lot of people have told me they’ve fallen into the trap of eating a lot of white flour and white sugar or similarly bleached out, processed food items when first turning vegetarian, because they just weren’t used to eating whole foods before and feel a little confused at first. After a while, they discover an entirely new way of eating, and most people I know who’ve become vegan or vegetarian, myself included, love the huge variety of healthy foods they eat, and never feel deprived or hungry without animal products. In fact, for a lot of people, going vegetarian is what starts them on a much more healthy eating style. I think my diet would be similar to what it is now even if I did eat meat–I’d still be eating a variety of things like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts and tons of vegetables. I also save a lot of money by not eating animal products or packaged food, even though I eat a lot of organic foods. In the grocery store, it’s always the meat and cheese products or pre-made, packaged foods that seem to be the most expensive.
I can definitely understand not liking certain foods! But I’m wondering if you’ve tried sauteeing tofu in a pan with some soy sauce or Bragg’s liquid aminos added at the end? I find it so delicious! I usually use a non-stick pan with a little grapeseed oil, and I make the effort to flip the tofu cubes or slices so all the sides get browned. At the very end, I squirt some Bragg’s over the cubes and let it sear into them. I sometimes eat these like snacks because I can’t resist, but I’m supposed to be putting them on salad.