Vegetarian Sources Of Protein & Alternative Foods To Spice Up Your Meals

Even if you are not a vegetarian your diet could probably benefit from the addition of some plant based protein, so think twice before wiping it from your plate completely.

Proteins are necessary to sustain life, repair body tissues and promote cell renewal, to manufacture hormones, enzymes and blood cells. It is one of the most plentiful substances in the body second only to water, totaling approximately one fifth of a person body weight. Lack of protein in the diet could result in fatigue, weakness and increased susceptibility to colds, flu's and infections.

These are all facts I took for granted when I was living a vegan lifestyle, expecting my carbohydrate heavy diet to fulfill all of my nutritional needs. After a taking a deep breath and diving into the wonderful world of nutrition I came to realize just what I was missing out on.

Many people frown upon vegetable sourced protein viewing it as inferior to animal based proteins. However along with supplying the body with a valuable source of protein, plant foods also contain micronutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber that you will not find in meat.

It is also much lower in saturated fats and is often cheaper and less perishable. Many people consume their protein from only vegetable sources and have no problem meeting there daily requirements.

Even if you are not a vegetarian your diet could probably benefit from the addition of some plant based protein so think twice before wiping it from your plate completely. Now I realize tofu isn't everybody's idea of the perfect meal (my sister used to refer to it as fried snot) so I have come up with some suggestions to keep your plates forever varied and interesting.

Tempeh ///

Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that originally developed in Indonesia about 2,000 years ago. It is high in protein (19 grams) as well as fiber, iron, potassium, B12, calcium and isoflavones. It is made from cracked cooked soybeans inoculated with beneficial bacteria to give it a chewy, meaty consistency.

There are many different varieties of tempeh on the market today and alongside the plain versions you will also find blocks with additions such as grains, seaweed, tofu, herbs and spices. Because it is a fermented product the enzymes are already partially broken down making it easier to digest and metabolize.

Tofu ///

Also known as bean curd, tofu is made from soybean milk, water and nigari (a natural coagulant) and is probably the most common soy product. Tofu was first used in China around 200 B.C and is still used as an addition to many Asian dishes today.

In recipes, tofu acts like a sponge and has the miraculous ability to soak up any flavor that is added to it. Tofu comes in a few variations; soft, silken, medium, firm or extra firm and you can find it plain, flavored or marinated. It is best to use only extra firm tofu as it has been pressed for the longest and contains the highest amount of protein (16 grams) and the lowest amount of carbohydrates.

When cooking with tofu it is important to add some sort of sea vegetable to the final dish as there are goitrogens present in tofu that can suppress the thyroid and the naturally occurring iodine in sea vegetables helps to counteract this. This however should not stop you from consuming tofu because along with being low in fat, it is a good source of B vitamins, iron, and calcium as well as being a complete protein.

Sea Vegetables ///

In the orient sea vegetables are well renowned for their medicinal and healing properties. They are nutrient dense, full of vitamins and minerals and very low in calories. You might have to acquire a taste for them but it will be worth it for the benefits you will reap, they can be added to almost any salad, soup, and grain or protein dish.

  • Arame comes in dark thread like shapes and is probably the tastiest variety. It is rich in calcium, iron, iodine and protein.
  • Dulse is a reddish-purple leafy sea vegetable with a nutritional make up similar to arame. If you rinse dulse thoroughly it will lose some of its strong taste.
  • Kelp is often used as a salt substitute. It is higher in iodine and potassium than the other sea vegetables.
  • Kombu is meatier and also higher in sodium. It is good in soups and can also be added to beans to cut down on the gas producing enzymes.
  • Nori is the most familiar seaweed known for its use in sushi making. Nori is about 50 percent protein and is also high in vitamin A, calcium and iron.
  • Spirulina is richer in nutrients than any other green plant and 60% of its make up is protein. It has a fairly neutral taste and is usually sold in powder form.

Miso ///

Miso is another soy product, it is made from concentrated soybean paste and comes in many different types and shades, from dark brown, to ochre red or even white depending on what grains are added and how long it is aged for. They all have a distinctive taste so it is a good idea to experiment with a few versions to see which you prefer.

The white and yellow misos are generally lighter and sweeter than the darker versions with have a stronger richer taste. Miso can be used alone as a soup or as an addition to another meal as a stock or flavoring.

  • Hatcho miso is made from soybeans alone and has a rich hearty taste.
  • Kome miso is a combination of soybeans and brown rice and is the sweetest of misos.
  • Mugi miso is made with fermented barley and is mellow and light.

Basic Miso Soup

  • Chop finely garlic, onions, ginger and veggies of your choice (carrots, peppers, zucchini, celery, mushrooms etc).
  • Stir fry briefly in a pan with a small amount of olive oil.
  • Add some tofu, seaweed and a small amount of water and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  • Add miso paste to a cup of warm water and mash with a fork until smooth.
  • Then add to the veggie mix with some additional water.
  • Bring water to the boil, take off the heat immediately and serve.
  • You can top with finely chopped spring onions, seaweed or sesame seeds if you want to be creative.

Nuts ///

Nuts in general are very nutritious, providing protein and many essential vitamins, such as A and E, minerals, such as phosphorous and potassium, essential fatty acids and fiber. Because nuts are high in fats they should be eaten in moderation, an addition to a meal or snack as opposed to the focus of a meal.

However the fat that nuts contain is primarily the heart-friendly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated types of fat, which are known to prevent heart disease and lower total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol while protecting good HDL cholesterol levels.

They should be eaten in their raw state, NON roasted and NON salted to gain the most nutritional benefits. Some people have difficultly digesting nuts and seeds so it can be preferably to soak them or grind them first. Doing this helps to reduce the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors they contain.

  • Almonds are known as the "king of nuts." A slightly sweet variety that is high in calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and 21 grams of protein. It is the most alkalizing nut.
  • Cashews are grown mostly in India and Brazil. They contain a high amount of potassium, magnesium and vitamin A with 18 grams of protein.
  • Chestnuts are the lowest in fat content, but also lowest in protein. They are rich in dietary fiber, several minerals and B vitamins. The have a texture more like a vegetable than a nut and are a tasty winter treat.
  • Filbert (hazelnut) a mildly flavored nut that is high in potassium, sulfur and calcium. Filberts contain 15 grams of protein.
  • Peanuts, although they are technically a legume they are often referred to as a nut. Peanuts are complete protein source containing 26 grams but have the highest fat content of all nuts. Often contaminated with the mould aflatoxin, a known carcinogen so make sure you are buying high quality fresh peanuts.
  • Pecans have a taste similar to walnuts and are rich in essential fatty acids, potassium and vitamin A. Lower in protein than other nuts containing only 9 grams.
  • Pine nuts are a sweet and chewy nut popular in Middle Eastern and Italian cuisine and is an excellent source of thiamin, phosphorus, iron and niacin. Good source of protein boosting 24 grams. Pine nuts are highly susceptible to rancidity so it is best stored in the fridge.
  • Pistachio nuts have 20 grams of protein they taste sweet, bitter and slightly sour, an excellent source of iron.
  • Walnuts are high in potassium, magnesium, vitamin A and omega-3 essential fatty acids (five per cent of its total oils). Walnuts have 15 grams of protein.

An easy way to get the nutritional benefits from nuts with all the munching is to make nut milk. Nut milk is easy to prepare, does not need to be cooked and is alive with vitamins, minerals and enzymes.

Nut Milk

  • Take any nut of your choosing; almonds and cashews normally work the best (hard nuts, like almonds are better if soaked overnight and rinsed)
  • Water, usually 3-4 Cups of liquid per cup of nuts.
  • Blend together then strain the nut pulp with a fine sieve.
  • Refrigerate and drink within a couple of days, you can add a dash of cinnamon or vanilla essence to taste.

Seeds ///

Much of what has been said about nuts also applies to seeds, seeds are a lot smaller than nuts and are therefore harder for the body to digest and assimilate. To get the most benefit from seeds it is a good idea to grind them slightly before consumption.

  • Sunflower seeds are filled with potassium which helps flush and reduce sodium in the body. They are plentiful in magnesium, phosphorus and calcium. They contain an impressive 23 grams of protein. They are also a good source of omega 6 essential fatty acid.
  • Flaxseeds is one-third omega 3 oil; the remainder consists of fiber and 19.5 grams of protein. Flaxseeds promote good intestinal health and help to keep us regular.
  • Pumpkin seeds are a high source of vitamin A, calcium and iron, containing 24 grams of protein, B1, B2 and B3. Pumpkin seeds contain both omega 3 and 6 oils.
  • Sesame seeds are one of the richest sources of calcium; they contain 18 grams of protein and are an excellent source of B vitamins and minerals.

Beans And Legumes ///

Beans have had a fairly boring reputation. Time consuming to prepare, dull to eat and let's not even go into the after effects (beans beans the magical fruit…). Beans and legumes have been used widely around the globe for roughly 5,000 years; they are inexpensive and contain relatively more protein than other plants.

However it should be noted that only 70% of the protein from beans will be absorbed by the body the other 30% will passes through the intestinal tract with the fiber they contain.

Furthermore because they are also high in carbohydrates (with the exception of soy) it can be a good idea to prepare them with another protein rich source such as nuts, seeds, protein powder (soy or whey) or eggs.

Dahl ///

Start off by cooking some onions, garlic and ginger in a fry pan with either oil or a little bit of water. After about 3-4 minutes when they soften up you can add in a few veggies (carrots, celery are good) chopped up pretty small.

Then add heaps of spices; turmeric, paprika, caraway seeds, chili powder, cumin, coriander etc. Add a little more water and cook for a few more minutes. Then add about 1 cup of brown lentils and about 2 cups of water, mix well, pop a lid on and simmer for about 40 minutes.

If you aren't carb crazy you can add some sweet potatoes in when you add in the other veggies, or some mushrooms nearer to the end of cooking. You can also chuck in a scoop of whey powder right before serving for an extra protein punch. Serve with heaps of steamed broccoli and zucchini. The beauty of this recipe is you can just use pretty much what ever you have in the fridge.

Other Beans To Experiment With:

  • Black beans are medium-sized, black-skinned and oval-shaped. They have an earthy sweet flavor and 9 grams of protein.
  • Kidney beans are also called Mexican red beans, are a large kidney-shaped bean. Containing 9 grams of protein they have a strong flavor and soft texture.
  • Garbanzo beans, also called chickpeas, are a round, medium size, beige color bean. They have a nut-like flavor and firm texture. They are the main ingredient in the popular Middle Eastern dishes hummus and falafel and also contain 9 grams of protein.
  • Navy beans are small, white, and oval-shaped. They have a mild flavor and a powdery texture. Navy beans are most often used in baked bean dishes and have 9 grams of protein.
  • Pinto beans are medium-sized oval-shaped beans with a spotty beige and brown color. They have an earthy flavor and powdery texture. After cooking, pinto beans turn from a spotty color to brown.
  • Lentils are lens-shaped seeds found in the fruit pods of an annual herb usually grown in southwestern Asia. There are two common varieties of lentils, one is small and brown and the other is larger and yellow and they contain roughly 10 grams of protein. Quicker cooking than other beans and is the main ingredient in Dahl, an Indian dish.
  • Soybeans are the highest in protein supply 17 grams and also the lowest in carbohydrates. Soybeans are very versatile and are used in the preparation of many vegetarian protein products (see tempeh, tofu, and miso above).


If you are cooking your own beans make you sure you pre soak them and cook them thoroughly. If you have trouble digesting beans quietly there is a product called beano that you can use help avoid embarrassment. It is much like soy sauce and you just add a few drops to your first few mouthfuls. Some beans are also very tasty sprouted and are a good addition to salads and stir-fry.

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