I was eight when I came home crying about the perils of eating cute little piggies, thus declaring I was now a vegetarian. This, FYI, was nothing on the trauma I went through a year or so later when I realised people ate ducks. Ducks? I thought we were meant to feed them down the pond, not eat them. When I was young I didn’t really understand, or care about, a balanced diet or what nutrients came from where. However, as I became older I’ve realised that diet is inexplicably linked to health and wellbeing.
Protein is particularly important as it helps to keep the body strong and fight infection. A lack of protein can result in fatigue, weakness, chronic injury or illness, disturbed sleeping or digestion troubles. Please do see your GP if you have any of these symptoms, before self-diagnosing any deficieny.
Recommended intake depends on gender, age and activity level but on average should be 45g/day for women, 55g/day for men. If you’re particularly active you need more protein to develop and strengthen muscles. You can use apps like MyFitnessPal to record your intake of protein, and other nutrients, but don’t rely on these scientifically or get too caught up on exact amounts.
Vegetarian and vegan diets sometimes lack in protein so I am sharing my tips on good non-meat protein sources. These will also be of interest to meat-eaters looking for a more balanced and diverse diet. I’ve added average protein content but please note that these depend on type of ingredient and how they are prepared. I actually first wrote this post when I was still vegetarian and it contained some dairy and egg sources. I have removed them, as whilst they are still good for getting protein, I didn’t want to promote them on here as that is no longer my diet choice.
Tofu (bean curd)
8g protein/100 grams
If you’ve read any of my recipes you’ll know this is a firm favourite of mine. This soybean-based ingredient is a health freak’s potato waffle – it can be grilled, baked, fried… Check out this article on Greatist sharing 53 interesting ways to make tofu – it may well change your perceptions of tofu! The best thing about tofu is that it can take on any flavours and is therefore usable in most dishes and is an excellent meat alternative.
One of my favoured methods is scrambling as it’s so easy. No draining required, just cut the tofu into small cubes then mash it in a bowl until it resembles scrambled egg. Add a small drizzle of lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil then any herbs or spices you wish and voila, a protein packed breakfast or snack! Add tomatoes and spinach for an added treat.
9g protein/100g (average across types)
Linda McCartney brought these earthy little legumes to fame in the 1970s and since then they’ve been the pulse that hippy dreams are made of. Green, red, brown, black, puy, mung – you can’t beat a lentil. I usually buy big dried bags from the local ethnic superstore, although many supermarkets now have such brands as Natco at good prices.
I’ve heard so many people say “I couldn’t possibly be a vegetarian – all they eat is lentils” which is usually because they don’t realise a) how much you can do with lentils are and b) just how many other things you can eat, especially for protein!
Red lentils are the quickest and easiest to use, requiring no soaking. I mainly use these in soups. For curries, I tend to use a mix of mung beans (moong dahl), black lentils (urid dahl) and green lentils (masoor dahl) which are more commonly used in India, and that have a bit more flavour. Puy lentils and mung beans are great in salads as they don’t go as sloppy as red lentils.
8g protein/100g (average across types)
Cannellini (white) and kidney are most commonly used in my kitchen but any are great! And yes, this includes baked beans but do be aware of the high-sugar content in most brands. Your local health food shop will stock organic brands such as Whole Earth and Biona.
I use kidney beans mostly in veggie chilli, curries and bean burgers. Cannellini beans are quite plain tasting which helps them take on flavours well and can be used to bulk out soups, stews and other dishes. Again, these are great in veggie burgers. I love to make cannellini bean mash, which is a fab low-carb accompaniment. All you need to do is mash tinned beans, then add some olive oil, salt, pepper and any flavours you like – I either go for rosemary and lemon juice, or mustard and garlic, but feel free to experiment!
I also love edamame beans which are popular in Japanese cuisine. These are unripened green soybeans which are a complete protein meaning that they contains all essential amino acids which help to build and repair muscles and tissues. You can steam them in their shell, pop them out to eat them raw or even roast them to have as crunchy snacks.
These little dudes are a versatile little pod of protein that are high in fibre and also score on the delicious points. I’ve singled them out from the beans and lentils above as I love them so much. I always have tins, as well as dried bags, of these as staples in my kitchen. Dried chickpeas have much more flavour but you need to plan ahead and soak them overnight, plus they take longer to cook.
I use chickpeas regularly for curries, salads and soups. You can also whizz them into falafel or hummus, the latter of which is extra-packed with protein with the addition of tahini (sesame paste). Or a simple snack is to cover them with your spices of choice then put them on a baking tray for 20-30 minutes until golden and crunchy. In this instance it’s best to use tinned ones as dried chickpeas tend to dry out and pop more.
20g protein/100g (average across types)
Almonds, walnuts, cashews and pistachio are my favourites but all nuts are high in protein, as well as a source of good fats. Almonds in particular are high in vitamin E which is important for good skin and hair. Ensure that you buy nuts that don’t have added oils or sugars.
I mostly use nuts in salads or baking. For salads just sprinkle a few of your favourite nuts on. My top combos are walnut with feta and pear, almond with lemon and garlic, and pistachio with lime and mango. I use peanuts a lot in Asian dishes. Nut butters are really popular amongst vegans but can be enjoyed by all, and really simple to make from scratch. Great recipes and tips on these can be found on Tasty Yummies.
19g protein/100g (average across types)
Sprinkling seeds on salads or cereals is a great way to get some protein. Seeds are less fatty than nuts so are a great handy snack. I regularly use sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds in salads, but also in other dishes such as sesame seeds in Vietnamese sesame-crusted tofu.
Chia seeds are a particular hit on the health food circuits. They are not only full of protein but also fiber, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids making them the must have new addition to your kitchen cupboards. The easiest way to have them is to sprinkle them on muesli, granola or yoghurt or whizz them into smoothies.
Packing in all nine essential amino acids makes quinoa the ‘in’ grain of the decade. It’s so posh it’s got a fancy, unpronounceable name (keen-wah, if you were wondering). I mainly use it instead of rice, pasta or cous cous as it has more nutritional content, or in salads to bulk them out or when I don’t have any other protein ingredients in it. But you can also be more adventurous and use it as porridge or in burgers or patties.
My most recent use was in some quinoa and cannellini bean patties which were inspired by this recipe at oh my veggies. I love these patties as it’s a double protein hit which are great as full means alongside some salad and veg, or as handy wee snacks. My take on the recipe added some fresh basil, chilli and lime.
The high protein content of peas surprises people a lot but they’re cousins of the chickpea so why wouldn’t they be protein packed? I also wanted to add these to show that protein is available in commonly eaten vegetables. I usually keep it simple with peas like steaming them to serve alongside veggie sausage and mash. But they are also a key ingredient in my vegetable samosas.
Non-dairy milks, yoghurts and ice-creams
Soya milk: 3.3g protein/100ml
Soya milk is one of the most commonly sold alternatives in the UK and US, largely based on availability and that it’s been around for so long. It’s the most protein-rich of the milks, being made from soya beans. As with tofu it’s packed with vitamins A, B12 and D plus potassium and is much much lower in cholesterol and fat than cow’s milk.
There are also plenty of yoghurt alternatives too. I love the plain Alpro for having with my breakfast and their range of mousses is oh-so-dreamy. Or for something more savoury – akin to Greek or natural yoghurt – Sojade Organic yoghurt is the bees knees.
Don’t forget about the ice cream! Booja-Booja do luxury non-dairy ice cream and chocolates which are a treatful way to get some protein in you. But no need to kid yourself – you eat it because it’s delicious!
Almond milk: 2g protein/100ml
Almond milk is one of the best non-dairy milk sources for protein, containing more that double that of rice milk. I favour almond milk as it’s less creamy or thick as soya milk. I also find the taste more neutral (although some people quite rightly report that it’s got a nutty taste). As it’s made from nuts it’s a great source for Vitamins A & D. I use it in sauces, on muesli, in porridge, in baking – anything you’d use regular milk for!
There are other ingredients that are well known for being protein-rich which I don’t use regularly so I won’t pretend to know lots about them. However, I would encourage you to read up more about to see if they’d work in your diet:
- Tempeh: made from soy beans and similar to tofu, but with about double the level of protein.
- Seitan: a rather bizarre wheat gluten used often in dishes like veggie burgers.
- Spirulina: a blue/green algae that is most common as a health supplement.
- Hemp seeds: from the hemp plant and regarded in a similar way to chia seeds.
- Apricots: one of the highest sources of protein from a fruit.
Remember to drop me a line if you want any advice or recipes!