“But how do you get your protein?!”
Vegetarians and vegans hear this question ALL too often. The fact is, there are lots of great sources of dietary protein that don’t require the consumption of animals or dairy products.
Now, having said that, I just want to go on record that I generally don’t recommend a vegan diet. It’s extremely hard as a pure vegan to eat a fully balanced diet, especially as most people are far too busy to put in the effort required to make sure they are checking all the nutritional boxes along the way. (Note: I didn’t say impossible, just extremely hard. Save the hate mail, please!) We see a lot of nutritional deficiencies, fatty acid deficiencies, and blood sugar handling problems develop over time in people following vegan diets. Vegetarians–those who do eat eggs and dairy–are generally more successful at balancing their macro- and micro-nutrients.
Having said THAT, I *DO* believe that vegan sources of protein are something everyone should incorporate into a healthy balanced diet. Following are some of my favorites.
Peas: One cup of green peas has as much protein as a glass of milk. Add peas to pesto—peas, basil or cilantro, oil, pine nuts, cheese or nutritional yeast.
Quinoa: Technically a seed, not a grain, quinoa has 8g of protein per cup cooked. Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 of the amino acids considered essential for life (and which must be eaten, as the body cannot manufacture them). Therefore, it is considered a “perfect food.” Sadly, some sustainability issues are arising, as countries that grow quinoa are becoming monocultures in order to feed our demands for it. Serve as a hot cereal, use as a base for pasta-salad type of recipes, or make as a side dish with added herbs and spices.
Buckwheat: with 6 g of protein per cooked cup, this food comes from a plant similar to rhubarb and is not a grain at all. Buckwheat soba noodles, buckwheat flour for baking and pancakes, and buckwheat kasha groats as a side dish are just some of the ways to incorporate this.
Nuts and nut butters: Nuts contain lots of protein as well as healthy fat. Buy raw organic for best health benefits (not roasted), and butters that are just nuts and salt, with no added oils or sugars. Nuts are high in calories, but are a great part of a balanced diet.
Beans: two cups of kidney beans have 25 g of protein. And you don’t have to buy dried and soak overnight—canned organic beans are perfectly fine. And if you’re not worried about sodium (which most healthy people don’t need to be), you don’t even have to rinse them! Beans combined with brown rice are a perfect protein, together providing all 9 essential amino acids. Don’t forget about chickpeas, lentils, and all the other wonderful legumes out there.
Tofu and tempeh: Recommended with a bunch of caveats. First, organic ONLY—conventional soy is full of horrible toxins and is entirely GMO. I’m not flexible on this one. Second, soy contains compounds that make its proteins very hard on your body to digest, which leads to gastric upset in lots of people, as well as hidden stressors on your liver and pancreas. Fermenting soy, such as in tempeh or miso, removes much but not all of these compounds. There are also concerns about the estrogenic properties of soy and what it does to the body’s hormone balance. Organic soy should be treated as an occasional treat—if you can digest it—and not be an everyday staple of your diet.
Leafy greens: Greens don’t contain as much protein as nuts or beans, but a good amount is present, plus all the healthy antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Greens should be a large part of a balanced diet, whether you’re a carnivore or not.
Hemp: Hemp seeds or hearts have 10 g of protein in 2 tablespoons. They’re also packed full of minerals, and a rare vegan source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Great to add to yogurt, oatmeal, salads, smoothies, baked goods, or in the form of milk as a dairy-free milk substitute.
Chia seeds: Almost 5 g of protein in 2 tablespoons. Full of fiber, minerals, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Again, great in yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods.But also, when added to liquid they release a gelatinous coating that is great for creating vegan puddings. My favorite is to add ¼ cup of chia seeds to 1 cup of full fat coconut milk (from a can) and ¼ cup of unsweetened shredded coconut, plus a teaspoon of vanilla. Stir well and refrigerate, and in a couple of hours you have a delicious coconut pudding that is full of protein.
Seeds: sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, and poppy are all full of healthy protein and fats. I never eat a salad without at least three of these guys on top!
Spirulina algae: 4 g of protein per tablespoon. Sprinkle it on popcorn, add it to smoothies, bake it into energy bars. This dark green powerhouse is full of amino acids and minerals, and is very easy to digest.
One vegan protein I do not recommend: seitan. Made from wheat gluten, seitan is a concentrated hit of the inflammatory proteins that cause so many people problems. Even if you don’t think you have a wheat sensitivity, wheat creates inflammation throughout our bodies, from our joints to our bellies to our brains. While a little bit of organic wheat is ok sometimes, seitan is an enormous quantity of wheat gluten, which I don’t think is a good idea for anyone to ingest.