Whether you're motivated by ethical, environmental or health concerns, a vegetarian diet can be healthy and satisfying. One area of potential concern, though, is protein intake. Since most omnivorous humans get most of their protein through meat and animal sources, vegetarians must pay close attention to ensure they're getting everything their bodies need for peak health and fitness.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which your body is incapable of producing on its own. There are nine amino acids considered "essential," which your body cannot synthesize: histidine, phenylalanine, lysine, valine, isoleucine, threonine, methionine and tryptophan. Your body needs these amino acids to function healthily, and only has access to them through your diet. "Complete proteins" are those which contain ample amounts of all nine of these essential acids, and are often associated with meat, dairy or eggs.
There are, however, vegetarian-friendly options for complete proteins.
Quinoa – High in fiber, iron and magnesium, quinoa is recommended for growth in space by NASA to provide humans with a nutritious food source. Easy to prepare and very versatile, quinoa can be served on its own or integrated into baked goods, casseroles and other recipes. Unlike many other plant-based proteins, quinoa does contain all nine amino acids and is considered a complete protein.
Buckwheat – With 13 grams of complete protein in every 100-gram serving, buckwheat is an inexpensive and nutritious source of all nine amino acids with no meat or animal products. Buckwheat is the backbone of Japanese soba noodles and can help to lower cholesterol while aiding in the control of blood sugar.
Soy – Unlike other beans which are typically low in methionine, soy is a complete protein. Tofu, tempeh and natto are all soy products, as are many processed meat alternatives in grocery stores. When choosing tofu for its protein content, it's a good idea to keep this rule of thumb in mind: the firmer the tofu, the higher the protein content.
Mycoprotein – While you may know it by its commercial name, "Quorn," mycoprotein is a developed product designed to combat malnutrition during food shortages and famines. Free-range egg whites are used as a binder, so it's suitable for ovo-lacto vegetarian diets. Because it is loosely considered a member of the mushroom family, it can be an allergen for a very small portion of the population.
Beans and Rice – Inexpensive and easy to prepare, the combination of beans and rice is also a nutritional powerhouse. Separately, they lack sufficient amounts of key amino acids. Beans, for instance, are high in lysine but contain insufficient amounts of methionine. Rice is high in the methionine beans lack, and low in the lysine beans contain in abundance. Together, beans and rice form a complete protein.
Ezekiel Bread – Named after the book of the Old Testament where this bread recipe said to keep Jerusalem fed during supply shortages while under siege can be found, Ezekiel Bread contains all nine essential amino acids in abundance. It's also high in on the digestibility scale, contains plenty of fiber and is high in vitamins, thanks to the sprouted grains used to make this a protein of truly biblical proportions.
Seitan – While it's certainly popular to eschew all gluten, there's no nutritional benefit to excluding gluten unless you're one of the rare humans who suffers from celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Seitan, a wheat-gluten product, is not a complete protein on its own. However, the simple addition of soy sauce provides the lysine it lacks to become a source of all nine amino acids.
Pita Bread and Hummus – A favored combination in Middle Eastern cuisine, hummus and pita bread are also a complete protein thanks to the ample lysine content of chickpeas, which are the primary ingredient in hummus.
Spirulina with Nuts or Grains – While popular myth states that spirulina, a member of the algae family, is a complete protein, this isn't the case. The lack of cysteine and methionine is easily remedied with the quick addition of nuts, seeds or whole grains.
- Protein Powder – 25 Grams of Protein per Serving. Perfect for post-workout recovery and on-the-go snacks to curb hunger, a high-quality whey protein isolate supplement like Pinup Girl Protein contains all nine amino acids, 0 grams of carbs or sugar and can even be integrated into many of your favorite recipes for extra protein. While these ten dietary sources of protein can be important parts of a healthy and balanced diet, high-quality protein supplements can also be an invaluable tool. Microfiltered whey protein isolates like Pinup Girl Protein can be ideal for busy vegetarians as meal or snack replacements and are incredibly effective as post-workout recovery drinks. Paired with a protein-rich diet, they can help you meet all your dietary goals without consuming meat products.
In addition to these meat-free complete proteins, there are a couple of honorable mentions: hempseed and chia. Both are high in everything but lysine, while containing a host of other beneficial nutrients.
Unlike its controversial cousin, hemp seeds won't leave you intoxicated. They will, however, provide high amounts of eight essential amino acids and trace amounts of lysine along with calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. Hempseed is also a great source of essential fatty acids, including much-hyped omega-3s.
Once famous for providing green fur-like sprouts on ubiquitous clay figures, chia is now recognized for its many health benefits. In addition to being high in zinc, iron, calcium and antioxidants, chia is an ideal thickening agent for smoothies and pudding recipes. For a supercharged protein and nutrient smoothie, combine it with a complete whey-isolate protein like Pinup Girl Protein and your favorite fruits to make a high-octane protein smoothie for quick meal and snack replacements.
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