The American diet has a heavy emphasis on protein. As the building blocks of life, protein is often the center of any meal, whether it is a giant steak on a plate or a burger in the middle of a bun. When many people think of protein sources, however, they think that meat and dairy are the only ways to get it. This is not true. While both meat and dairy do contain significant amounts of protein, you can also get sufficient protein in your diet through vegetable sources. For people that have sugar intolerance, lactose intolerance or other dietary restrictions, not eating meat and dairy does not mean having inadequate protein.
Proteins are known as the building blocks for life because they form the base for all cells. Proteins are links of amino acids. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids and “complete proteins” contain them all. Nine of the amino acids cannot be created by the body, so these are known as “essential amino acids” because you must get them through your diet. Meat and dairy contain essential amino acids, but there are other ways to get them as well. It is commonly thought that you must get these nine essential amino acids in each meal, but you actually just need to get them in each day. By eating a variety of plant-based proteins, you can get the essential nutrients that your body needs without having to consume meat or dairy.
Grains like quinoa, buckwheat and Ezekiel bread are all good sources of protein. Add quinoa to your salad, substitute buckwheat for flour and skip white bread for nutrient-dense Ezekiel bread for sandwiches, and you will be packing in plenty of protein.
Seeds and nuts are also excellent sources of proteins. Just a few tablespoons can help increase your intake of select amino acids. Throw chia seeds into your smoothie, make a pudding or add them to a bowl of oatmeal. Hemp seeds are delicious on their own, like sunflower seeds. Enjoy some almonds tossed with your salad or spread some nut butter on a slice of Ezekiel bread for a protein-packed snack.
Beans and rice are not just a perfect side dish; they also make a perfect blend of essential amino acids. Beans and rice, when eaten together, are a complete source of protein. Enjoy Mexican style or as a Cajun main dish—just make sure that the dish is not prepared with lard or other meat in order to be completely meat free.
Tofu is a standard in many vegetarian diets for a reason. The soy-base packs a powerful protein punch. Soy beans are another good way to get the protein-filled benefits of soy without the processing of tofu and other soy products.
Seitan is an excellent substitute for meat. Try it in your favorite Mexican or Asian dishes. It is made of wheat protein, known as gluten, so avoid it only if you are gluten intolerant or have Celiac disease.
Other protein sources are peas, lentils and chickpeas. They can be made into soups, added to salads or used to create dips. Peas and chickpeas also make good snacks if they are oven-dried and enjoyed as crunchy bites.