As a vegan and a health coach, I am frequently asked how I am able to consume enough protein to support my active lifestyle without eating meat of any kind. Perhaps you, too, are interested in reducing your meat consumption but are concerned about your protein intake, or perhaps you are simply curious how we vegetarians manage to stay healthy. Whatever the reason for your interest, I have compiled some research to answer several of the most common questions I receive, and to hopefully address some common misunderstandings about vegetarian sources of protein.
Let’s first get the biggest misconception out of the way: You do not need to consume animal protein to receive enough protein, and being a vegetarian or a vegan does not require compensating with a complex diet of exotic vegetables and grains. Diets which heavily feature whole foods—that is, unrefined, unprocessed foods that come as close as possible to the food in its natural form—contain plenty of protein, and as long as you’re receiving enough calories, you’re in great shape. A variety of sources, including the World Health Organization, have concluded that our daily calorie intake should be comprised of 2.5-11% protein; as all whole foods average over 2.5% protein, and all except for fruit average over 11%, protein intake need not be a concern. In fact, certain vegetables, including spinach, actually contain more protein per calorie than ground beef!
Unless your name is Popeye, of course, you probably won’t want to limit yourself to spinach, so let’s take a look at some other excellent sources of protein. Spirulina, chlorella, and other blue-green algae may sound intimidating, but they’re actually quite accessible, and pack in more protein than almost any other food on Earth. Chlorella, in particular, can range from 58-75% protein, making it the single most protein-rich food you can eat. Chlorella and other algae make great additions to any green juice or smoothie, and when combined with enzymes, probiotics, and phytonutrients, can have massive health benefits.
Hemp seeds, which are considered a superfood and are widely available at specialty supermarkets, are 47% protein, and provide the ideal ratio (3:1) of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids—in addition to containing a variety of phytonutrients and antioxidants. A tablespoon of hemp seeds can add a healthy protein boost to a smoothie, or is delicious sprinkled atop a light salad.
Chia seeds, which are 21% protein and absolutely packed with amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, make another great (and delicious) dietary supplement. One of my favorite quick dishes these days is an incredibly simple chia pudding, which makes for a great healthy snack or a post-workout treat. Check out my website for the recipe! (Pro-tip: Try adding some cinnamon, which has been shown to decrease inflammation and lower cholesterol—and is especially yummy!)
So-called ‘ancient grains’ are also a great source of protein, and one of my favorites is quinoa. This tasty and versatile South American seed contains 14% protein, and is filled with manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, copper, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B9. As a probiotic, it also helps regulate bacteria in your digestive tract, promoting a healthy internal ecosystem. Quinoa is a great substitute for rice, which is relatively nutrient-less, and goes great with sautéed vegetables, beans, or in light summer salads.
Meat, poultry, and seafood are certainly viable sources of protein, but for those of you who are interested in cutting down on your consumption of animal proteins, there is no need to fear—it is easy to maintain a delicious, varied, protein-rich diet thanks to vegetables, grains, and supplements like blue-green algae!