Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays many important roles in the human body. A widely known statistic is that the average (non-pregnant, non-lactating) human adult requires about 0.8 grams of total protein per kg of body weight on a daily basis. What is less well known is further detail around the composition of this protein.
The essential building block of proteins is amino acids - a total of 20 organic compounds, that the human body converts into enzymes, hormones, antibodies, body tissue, and many other molecules and chemicals essential for the functioning of the body.
From a dietary perspective, amino acids are of two types: essential (a total of 9 amino acids which the body cannot synthesize and which must be obtained through the diet); and non-essential (which can be synthesized within the body). A protein source is considered 'complete' if it delivers all of the essential amino acids.
While most animal products such as meats and eggs are complete sources of protein, most products of vegetable origin are not. Vegetarians must therefore obtain their requirement of essential amino acids by combining different plant-based protein sources.
Plant-based protein sources
There are numerous plant-based protein sources that can help vegetarians meet their protein needs. The top protein-rich vegetarian foods include:
- Pulses: With 10-20 grams of protein per cooked cup, lentils are a great source of protein for vegetarians, but do deliver all of the essential amino acids.
- Nuts and Seeds: Nuts such as almonds, peanuts and cashews are rich in proteins, as are seeds such as hemp, sunflower, sesame, flax and pumpkin. However, in most cases nuts and seeds do not contain all of the essential amino acids 0 the notable exceptions are fox nuts (makhanas) and hemp seeds, which are both rich sources of protein and contain all of the essential amino acids.
- Some vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, contain a surprising amount of protein, albeit they also do not contain all the essential amino acids.
- Quinoa and Amaranth: These ancient pseudo-grains (which are closely related to each other) are not only high in protein (8-9 grams per cooked cup) but also contain all the essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source.
- Soybeans and soy-based products such as Tofu: Soybeans are a versatile and complete protein source with approximately 20% protein content, withall the essential amino acids
- For non-vegan vegetarians, dairy products, especially products such as cheese, are high density and complete sources of protein.
Tips for incorporating more protein into your vegetarian meals
Vegetarians must consume a wide range of products to meet their requirements of proteins and essential amino acids. Add soybeans, quinoa, amaranth, cheeses, nuts and seeds, along with pulses and whole grains, to meet your dietary protein requirements.