All vegetarians can easily meet their protein needs. Protein doesn’t discriminate; it’s found in both animal and plant foods. Low-fat dairy and eggs can provide generous amounts of protein for vegetarians who dare to eat them, and the vegans in the crowd should become close pals with tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils, and tempeh. Read The Chemistry of Protein to refresh your memory on complementary proteins—that is, making a complete protein (a protein containing all of the essential amino acids) by combining two or more incomplete plant proteins.
The Many Faces of Soy Protein
Decades ago, soy foods were one of the world’s best kept secrets. Finally out of the closet and raring to jump into just about any recipe, soy protein can boost the protein, calcium, and iron content of almost any dish. Go ahead and experiment by incorporating some of the following varieties into your meals, and remember that unflavored soy will take on any flavor you cook or marinate with:
- Soymilk. Start your day with a glass of soymilk, or pour it over your cereal for breakfast. Soymilk provides about 4 –10 grams of protein per one cup serving and can be found in low-fat and flavored varieties.
- Isolated soy protein. This powdery substance is literally 90 percent pure protein because most of the fat and carbohydrate has been discarded. It’s made from defatted soy flour and can be strategically blended into muffins, pancakes, and cookies to help boost your daily protein. A 1-ounce serving (approximately 4 tablespoons) contains 13–23 grams of protein.
- Soy flour. Here’s another great way to hike up the protein in your baked products. Soy flour can be used for quick breads, muffins, cookies, and brownies, and a 1/2 cup serving supplies 22 grams of protein.
- Textured soy protein (TSP). Also called textured vegetable protein (TVP), this is made from defatted soy flour and takes on a granular, flake, or chunk characteristic. TSP comes both plain and flavored and can be mixed into chili, tacos, veggie burgers, vegetarian casseroles, and stews. When mixed with water, 1 cup prepared provides 22 grams of protein.
- Vegetable-type soybeans. These dry, mature soybeans are loaded with 14 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving. What’s more, they also contain fiber— double bonus. Tasting both sweet and buttery, their flavor makes them a nice addition to stir-fry dishes, salads, and soups.
- Tempeh. This cultured soyfood has a tender, chewy consistency that makes it a great candidate for grilled sandwiches, chunky soups, salads, casseroles, and chili. A 4-ounce serving provides 17 grams of protein, about 80 milligrams of calcium, and 10 percent of your daily iron.
- Tofu. Just about anything goes with this soy protein. “I’ll have a tofu à la mode!” It’s made from soymilk curds and can be blended, scrambled, stir-fried, grilled, baked; you name it, chances are it can be done with tofu. There are three types of tofu:
- Firm tofu is stiff, dense, and perfect for stir-fry dishes, soups, or anywhere that you want tofu to maintain its shape. A 4-ounce serving of firm tofu supplies 13 grams protein, 120 milligrams calcium, and about 40 percent of your daily iron.
- Soft tofu provides 9 grams protein, 130 milligrams calcium, and a little less than 40 percent of your daily iron from a 4-ounce serving. Soft tofu is good for dishes that require blended tofu (commonly used in soups).
- Silken tofu is creamy and custard-like and therefore also works well in pureed or blended recipes such as dips, soups, and pies. Silken tofu doesn’t provide as much calcium as the more solid tofu varieties (only 40 milligrams), but it is the lowest in fat and is packed with 9 1/2 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving.
Ironing Out the Plant Foods
Food for Thought
Vegans who don’t eat dairy and aren’t regularly out in the sun should buy foods fortified with vitamin D or speak with their doctors about vitamin D supplementation.
Unfortunately for this less-carnivorous crowd, the heme iron found in animal foods is much more absorbable than the nonheme iron supplied from plants. But that’s okay; just go out of your way to eat an abundance of iron-rich plant foods and you’ll meet your quota. Foods rich in iron include dried beans, spinach, chard, beet greens, blackstrap molasses, bulgur, prune juice, and dried fruits. You might also find that your favorite breakfast cereals are fortified with this mineral. Another trick of the trade is to boost the amount of iron absorbed at a meal by including a food rich in vitamin C (tomatoes, orange juice, and so on). For further information on increasing iron, see Symptoms of Iron Deficiency and Sources of Iron.