For vegetarians, getting enough protein is a constant struggle, or so I’m told.
As a vegetarian and former competitive bodybuilder, I have often been asked, “How do you get enough protein to maintain your muscle mass?” I never really had a good answer other than, “Easy!” The supplement industry’s marketing efforts have convinced people they need to consume massive amounts of protein to combat overtraining. While it is my opinion that you don’t need the 1–2 grams of protein per pound of lean body weight that bodybuilding magazines recommend, the 0.36 grams recommended by the USDA is probably too low for anyone participating in strenuous exercise. Although it isn’t difficult to consume enough protein, it does take more effort than most people are used to. A little planning and forethought are required for any healthy eating plan.
As I just mentioned, planning is the key to any healthy diet. Ask anyone who takes health seriously, and they’ll tell you they spend time planning their meals; the cleaner they eat, the more time they spend planning and preparing. Hand in hand with planning your meals is planning your shopping. To save money, you should scope out the local stores that have beans and nuts in bulk. Another secret is to find your local Asian market—not only for the great selection of tofu but also for a mind-boggling array of delicious vegetarian treats and sauces. Below are some of my go-to ingredients and foods.
One of my favorite high-protein foods is almonds or, more specifically, almond butter. This very gratifying, nutrient-dense food is an easy way to get a little protein in during a snack. Apple wedges dipped in almond butter is one of my all-time favorites. A scoop of almond butter, or most other nut butters, in your protein shake adds a little satisfying heft. In oatmeal, almond butter bumps the protein count up while adding a little creaminess. And, as mentioned above, it’s a great dip or spread on nearly any fruit and a number of vegetables.
Legumes are, or should be, a staple of anyone worried about eating enough protein. The high fiber, carbohydrates, and diverse array of amino acids in legumes make them hard to beat health-wise. Not only are beans and other legumes healthy, they are also quite delicious. They have enough taste to not be completely bland but are mellow enough for you to do with them pretty much as you please. I like black beans with chunks of tofu mixed into a super-spicy curry served over rice. In some Asian cultures, delightful deserts are made almost entirely of sweetened red bean paste.
Another great high-protein vegetarian food that works as a meat substitute is mushrooms. Mushrooms are awesome boiled in soup, sautéed as as taco meat, and even grilled—but you’ll probably want to use the large portobellos for grilling. Mushrooms have an almost meaty texture and are mild enough for you to season them to your liking.
Although I think protein supplements are way overhyped, they do have a place. The largest barrier to eating healthy for most people is time. They can’t find the time to plan, buy, and cook healthy foods. This is when protein powders are great. Every Sunday, I make sure I have plenty of Rennet-free whey, pea, soy, and rice protein powders measured out in my protein shakers, ready to be thrown in a bag as I run out the door later in the week. I use a wide variety of protein powders mainly because the texture and taste differences help stave off the monotony of “eating” the same food too often. If I’m lucky, I can mix the protein in a smoothie with blended-up fruits and veggies, or if I’m on the road or too busy, I’ll simply mix in water and a scoop of almond butter. If I’ve been training hard, I’ll often mix in branched-chain amino acid and creatine monohydrate to aid in recovery.
In my experience, if you eat frequent small meals, get enough vitamins and minerals, and include a moderate- to high-protein food in each meal, you should have nothing to worry about with regard to protein requirements.
What foods do you eat to get more protein in your diet?