I don’t avoid carbs. I don’t avoid protein. I think it’s just, again, about balance and finding what works for you and your body.
Many of my clients are vegetarians or don’t eat a lot of meat, so they are always on the lookout for “protein advice,” as one of them aptly put it. This is where I come in to save the day!
This article aims to cover some basic guidelines on protein intake and practical tips on how to meet your daily protein requirements if you follow a vegetarian diet.
The specific topics include:
How much protein do you actually need?
In the UK, the government guidelines recommend 0.75gr of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. However, this amount is only adequate to cover the needs of an average individual of average weight and average age, who is not very active or particularly interested in resistance training and in increasing their muscle mass.
If you lift weights, at maintenance calories or in a calorie surplus you would want to eat at least 1.6gr of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Yep, more than twice what the guidelines recommend.
Don’t panic. It would be unrealistic to expect to be able to have this much protein starting now, just because a blog article told you so, especially if you already struggle to reach the minimum target of 0.75gr per kilogram of bodyweight.
Instead, approach the change like a long-term project. Small nutritional behaviours repeated consistently over time in an incremental fashion, whether positive or negative, add up to outcomes of significant magnitude.
In this case, you can try to add 10gr of protein to your current total one day or one week at a time.
If you don’t track your macros, add a serving of protein-rich food to at least one of your meals or snacks as often as you think is feasible, for example every day or every two days. Stick to the same schedule, keep a diary or calendar, and cross out all of your successful days, so that you have a reminder of your progress.
Keep adding to your diet until you are having protein with every meal and snack at least one day a week, then two days, and finally every day.
If your goal is to lose weight or maintain, then you might have to reduce your consumption of fat and carbohydrate sources to ensure you either stay in a calorie deficit or at maintenance calories.
If your goal is to gain weight, increasing protein whilst keeping all your other food portions the same will contribute to the calorie surplus.
In time, you would be aiming to eat 20 to 40gr of protein per meal and at least 10gr of protein with every snack.
Let’s have a look at high-protein, veggie-friendly foods in the following section.
High-protein foods for a vegetarian diet
Strive to select complete protein sources for the most part. When that isn’t possible, try to combine different sources of incomplete protein to make up for their lack of certain essential amino acids.
Complete protein sources
Eggs contain about 12gr of protein per 100gr serving and a medium egg weighs about 60gr, so each contains around 7gr of protein. Two medium boiled eggs have around 14gr of protein and 160 calories.
Try them in a sandwich with avocado or as a topping for ramen soup.
A low-calorie alternative would be egg whites, which contain about 10gr of protein per 100ml. You can use them to make protein pancakes or microwave cakes.
Fat-free yogurt, Quark, and fromage frais usually contain anywhere between 7 and 12gr of protein per 100gr serving. They also tend to be low in calories at around 50 to 60 calories per 100gr serving, so they are a very convenient protein source for someone who needs to watch their calorie intake.
If you aren’t concerned with calories or if you prefer the taste, go for the medium- or full-fat versions.
Try any of them with some fruit and oats, or mix them with tomato puree to make a creamy pasta sauce.
What not many know about Quorn products is that they are made up of a protein called Mycoprotein, which has a complete amino acid profile, like dairy, eggs, meat, and fish.
Furthermore, Quorn foods are easy to cook: for example, frozen Quorn mince is pre-cooked and needs only microwaving if one is short on time.
When choosing one of these products, look at the nutrition label and opt for an average portion size containing at least 10gr of protein.
My personal favourite Quorn products are low-fat sausages and mince. I love a good vegetarian hot dog or a bowl of veggie chilli con carne.
Soy protein is another vegetarian complete source of protein, so anything like soy beans (edamame), tofu, and other soy protein-containing foods – such as some protein bars – would be a great choice if you are veggie.
In fact, a 100gr serving of edamame contains about 11gr of protein; a similar serving of tofu contains around 7 to 11gr; and a protein bar might contain 10 to 20gr depending on the brand and size of the bar.
You can top a noodle bowl with edamame (and maybe a boiled egg or two), fry or grill some tofu, and keep a protein bar in your backpack as a quick snack.
In general, a good-quality protein powder would be at least 80 to 90% pure protein, meaning it would contain at least 80 to 90gr of protein per 100gr serving.
The most reliable choice would be unflavoured protein powder, the ingredients for which are usually only protein and a preservative, whereas the flavoured options have added carbohydrate and fat in varying amounts.
To make unflavoured powder tastier without compromising on quality, you could add something else, like cocoa or cacao powder, vanilla extract, or another ingredient bought separately.
The least trustworthy option would be what is called a “proprietary blend”: when using this term, the manufacturers don’t always disclose the exact amount of each ingredient on the ingredients list. For instance, a blend may contain soy protein, vanilla extract, and sugar, but for all you know it could be 5% soy protein, 20% vanilla extract, and 75% sugar!
Whey and casein protein powders are two of the best and most popular choices. They are derived from milk, therefore may not work well for you if you are lactose intolerant.
Examples of lactose-free powders that are also complete protein sources would be egg white protein and soy protein.
Dried nutritional yeast undergoes a process that prevents it from fermenting like active and beer yeasts. It looks like flakes of parmesan cheese, tastes like it, and even qualifies as a complete protein source. What more would you want?
It contains 50gr of protein and 340 calories per 100gr serving, but it is usually added to foods in the same small amounts as, you guessed it, parmesan cheese.
In other words, don’t expect it to contribute much protein to your diet, but, if sprinkling 10gr on your pasta can add 5gr of protein to your total and only 30 to 40 calories, I say, why ever not?
What about beans, legumes, peanut butter, and nuts?
These foods are often recommended as vegetarian protein sources. This is not wrong, but they are not complete sources, therefore ideally they would be used as a “protein boost,” whereas complete sources would make up the bulk of your daily protein intake.
As a reminder, combining plant-based incomplete protein sources is important to make sure that you are actually getting all of the essential amino acids. These combinations can be made in the same meal or in the same day, as long as all the essential amino acids are consumed on a daily basis.
If a lot of your protein comes from complete sources, then you don’t need to worry about mixing up incomplete sources too much. Nevertheless, it is still good practice if you think you would ever want to transition towards a more vegan style of eating, in which case mixing incomplete sources would become more critical.
Examples of incomplete protein combinations include:
Eating more protein on a vegetarian diet can seem daunting if you have never done that before. Applying the advice given in this article, you will boost your intake in no time!
In Future Episodes:
How do you approach diet and exercise during a social event?
Do you struggle to eat enough protein or are you already a veggie protein warrior?
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