Being a vegetarian, at least in our house, means that you have an immense variety of delicious and nutritious plant based foods to choose from. It also means that you get asked a lot of questions about your health and diet. (And I do mean a lot) I usually welcome the questions. I love talking about all of our great meal and dessert options (here’s one) and chatting about the greens we grow in our own garden. (You can find one of our awesome gardening articles here if you’re curious.) Now, no matter how great or badly the conversation is going, the most popular question, “But where do you get your protein?” always gets asked.
Before I answer that question in this post, I want to go back to almost 10 years ago when Mr. AJ and I decided to go raw vegan. We were just married, excited to have different experiences together, and ready for a challenge. Mr. AJ had just learned about the raw vegan diet, and he really wanted to try it out for a week. I thought he was crazy, but I figured I could humor my husband for a week. We bought a fantastic, but very intensive, recipe book (Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow) and we planned our week. We tried greens we had never tried, we had the most amazing raw lasagna, and our lives were completely changed. We were healthier and happier. We started eating the best dark leafy greens and an enormous variety of different plant based foods that we had never tried before. Who knew there was so much variety when you weren’t eating meat? We sure didn’t. Fast forward to when I was pregnant. Suddenly, uncooked greens were off the menu. My stomach just couldn’t handle them. I was crushed when we had to cook our greens again. Surprisingly, that’s not what upset me the most.
The protein question quadrupled when I was pregnant. Suddenly everyone, except for my doctor, was concerned. Was I getting enough protein? Was this a good choice? Those questions came from all directions, and it was extremely frustrating to me at the time. I was having a very healthy pregnancy, after all, so why all the doubt? Regardless, I answered their questions nicely, and told them about plant based proteins that I happily ate on a daily basis. This is where their eyes glazed over a bit, and they, usually, just nodded and went on with their day. Most of them remained unfazed in their disbelief that humans can be healthy on a plant based diet. I didn’t understand the disconnect then, but I understand it a little better now.
Most of us, at least in this culture, have been taught that meat products are necessary for good health. We were taught to connect protein to meat, so when someone tells you that this is not entirely accurate, it’s really easy to reject the person’s argument. It was a hard concept for me to understand at first, but we were feeling healthier, as vegetarians, so I knew that we had to be doing something right. Now, I’m a lot more careful when I answer the protein question. I welcome the feedback and the challenges, and I love pointing other people to resources about it. If you want to know more about how much protein we truly need, Mr. AJ wrote a wonderful and very detailed article about it for our blog. I hope you read it: Thoughts on the Plant based diet.
Personally, we don’t worry about where we get our protein anymore, so that question no longer bothers us. Plant based proteins are readily available in our house in most foods that we usually eat. We already know that we’re getting enough. We have been doing this for a long time at this point. If you’re just starting out with a vegetarian diet, or if you’re just genuinely curious, these are our five favorite sources of protein:
1. Dark leafy greens
We are huge fans of kale, chard, and spinach. Not only are these greens delicious, but they provide a high percentage of protein along with other vitamins and minerals. We love to eat these raw or sautéed. We’re also big fans of dehydrating kale for a healthy snack for the entire family. We eat dark leafy greens mostly everyday.
2. Rice and Beans
Known as a “complete protein,” rice and beans make getting enough protein an easy task in our house. Our kids demand to eat rice and beans almost on a daily basis. We usually add our dark leafy greens to this meal, and we have an easy and nutritious dinner.
We love lentils in our family. Lentils are great in soups, veggie burger recipes, or just by themselves. We eat them frequently. Not only do lentils have protein, but they have also been shown to lower your risk for heart disease and cholesterol.
Before we had both of our kids, Mr. AJ and I used to make our own nut milks every weekend. Homemade nut milks are seriously delicious. We usually buy our nut milks now, but we still make them on special occasions. Nuts are high in protein, and a fantastic snack item to have around. We also like to add them to cereal, granola, or smoothies.
I’m a big fan of tofu. Mr. AJ not so much, but he usually puts up with it for me. Thankfully, our kids have learned to love tofu as much as I do. Tofu is versatile, and easy to incorporate into your recipes. You can put it in smoothies to add nutrition and protein to your mornings. You can also add tofu to stir-fry’s or even make a tofu scramble.
This list is by no means inclusive of everything we eat, but it’s a good starting point if you’re just starting out, or if you are just looking to add some vegetarian days to your week. If you’re looking for more variety, some other simple protein rich items that we use frequently, include peanut butter, chickpeas, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, potatoes, and avocados. We’ll share some of our favorite recipes in future posts. For now, I hope this post helped to clarify the protein question and even give you some ideas of how to incorporate more vegetable based proteins in your menu.