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Vegetarian Protein

by Cindy

by:  Hilary Blaney

There are many reasons a person decides to become a vegetarian. Whether it’s a matter of getting healthy, reducing your carbon footprint, animal rights, or something else, the vegetarian lifestyle comes with many benefits. And as many different reasons there are to become a vegetarian, there are just as many different complications that can arise from such a choice.

The question vegetarians are asked most often is, “Where do you get your protein?” Most adults were raised with the food pyramid – that triangle, horizontally sliced into six parts, containing the ideal targeted amount of what types of food should be consumed daily. Sweets and sugar at the top, followed by dairy, then protein, fruits and vegetables, and the largest slice went to grains. Since the food pyramid was originally published in 1974, there should be little surprise that as our understanding of nutrition has grown, there have been some errors discovered in the pyramid.

Protein, as shown in the pyramid, consisted of poultry, beef, ham, eggs, and legumes, nuts and beans. Technically, these are all excellent sources of protein. Ovo-vegetarians (those who eat no meat or dairy but do consume eggs) and vegetarians rely often on nuts, legumes and beans as a staple for their daily protein goals.

The current recommended daily value of protein for the average person is 50 grams a day. Because of this high number, we’ve become accustomed to centering nearly every meal around some form of meat or meat-substitute. Things like vegetables, fruits and grains are typically served as a side-dish, but that doesn’t make them any less protein-rich.

Remember how big Pop-Eye’s muscles were? While arguably in 1932, when the cartoon was first shown to be ingesting cans of spinach, they weren’t aware of the amount of protein the leafy vegetable contained, they also weren’t wrong about its power. An overwhelming 30% of the calories in spinach are protein, making it a low-calorie alternative to other protein sources like meat and nuts. Unfortunately, you’d have to eat a lot of spinach to equate the amount of protein found in a 3-ounce steak (about 21 cups, if you’re curious). But the truth remains that vegetables can be a great source of protein.

Fruit is another unlikely source of protein. Avocados, which have grown in popularity over the last decade, have 4.6 grams of protein. Guavas, apricots, blackberries and even oranges can all be a good source of protein as well, however, much like spinach, large amounts must be consumed to equate to meet the daily recommended value.

For lacto-vegetarians (vegetarians who do not eat meat or eggs but do consume dairy products), dairy in most forms deliver excellent amounts of protein. Remember the glass-a-day of milk your mom made you drink? Even if the reasoning behind that had been to form “good, strong bones,” she also was providing you with over 8 grams of protein. And because milk has so much protein, so do many of its by-products. Cheese, yogurt, Greek yogurt (which has twice the amount of protein as regular yogurt), and even ice cream all have plenty of protein.

While there’s little debate that the most efficient way to consume that daily recommended amount of protein would be meat, there are plenty of ways for vegetarians to easily meet that goal by combining various sources. A black bean burger, topped with cheddar cheese, spinach, two slices of avocado served on a whole-wheat bun would provide you with half your daily protein goal in a single meal!

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