Is being a vegetarian a good way to eat? Absolutely! But there are some food challenges that a strict vegetarian must be aware of and learn to circumvent, and scoring enough protein is one of those.
Protein is very important for us. Since protein is not stored in our body, unlike fats and carbohydrates, it is very important for us to replenish it every day, as deficiency of protein leads to depletion of muscle mass. Secondly, everybody is partly made up of protein, so it is needed for maintenance, upkeep and regeneration of all our body cells and organs - right from hair to hormones, antibodies to nerves, and hemoglobin to bones.
Eating a balanced diet can help get enough protein in our diet, but it is important to ensure both quantity as well as the quality of protein. Not all food sources of protein contain all the 9 essential amino acids our body requires. In fact, many vegetarian proteins (cereals and lentils) are incomplete proteins (some amino acids are missing).
Since majority of the protein in Indian diets comes from vegetarian sources, our diets tend to be predominantly low in quality protein.
However, it is possible to circumvent this challenge by eating smart - and making your meals complete and protein smart.
Balance Your Protein
Combine plant foods wisely to cover all essential amino acids.
For example, legumes (cooked dried beans, dried peas, and lentils) are low in sulfur containing amino acids (such as methionine), but they are high in another amino acid called lysine. Grains are just the opposite.
Hence having legumes as well as grains gives you the goodness of both. Beans and rice, dal chawal, khichdi, pita bread with hummus (ground garbanzo beans and sesame seed paste) are good examples of complementary proteins.
Eat High-Protein Grains
Eat grains with higher amount of proteins like quinoa, oats, buckwheat and amaranth. All of these deliver much more protein than the regular staples like rice and wheat. My top two picks are: quinoa and buckwheat.
Cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein per cup and cooked buckwheat has 6 grams of protein per cup. Oats also give 6 grams per cup.
Cook it like an upma, make a salad and you can even toss in some vegetables and cook them like a light, healthy pulao. Bajre ki roti/khichdi and amaranth are excellent ways to up the protein in your diet too.
Include Lots of Nuts & Seeds
Include copious amounts of mixed nuts and seeds in your diet. Cashews, almonds, walnuts and peanuts, all are loaded with protein, so mix them up, sprinkle a bit of herbs and pepper, and munch on them.
Blend them into nut butters and spread on bread and crackers or toss them into your bowl of oats or muesli. Seeds are powerhouses of protein as well. Like nuts, you could toss them into your morning cereal, toast lightly and sprinkle as toppings on soups and salads and stir fries and smoothies.
Focus on Lentils & Beans
At 15-18 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml), lentils are a great source of protein.
Try beans on toast, stuff them in a burrito or cook them into a Tex Mex-style chili, or plain old, rajma chawal and kaali dal.
My pick: sattu (have as sattu shared or sattu roti) and sprouts - both are an easy way to boost your everyday protein intake.
Eat High Protein Vegetables
Some vegetables are surprisingly good sources of protein.
250 grams of kale gives 10.7 grams of protein, peas, broccoli and spinach give 7 grams, potato, cauliflower, okra, avocado, mushrooms, and French beans give 5 grams, and beetroot gives 4 grams.
Even though soy is not really part of a traditional Indian diet, it helps to develop a taste for it.
Tofu, tempeh, nutri nuggets, soy milk, soy flour, and edamame all originate from soybeans and are all brilliant and complete sources of protein.
This means that they provide us with all the essential amino acids we need. Try cooking nuggets or tofu as a bhurji, with a spicy Indian style masala. Have edamame beans lightly steamed and salted, and soya atta can easily be popped into your regular chapati atta.
Dairy Can Help
Diary as a source of good quality protein is a no brainer and in fact a life saver for many vegetarians.
Milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yoghurt, Greek yoghurt, buttermilk - all are brilliant sources of good quality protein.
Power Up with Spirulina
This blue-green algae is definitely a protein powerhouse. Two tablespoons (30 ml) provide you with 8 grams of complete protein. Just mix it up with water and gulp every day.
(Kavita Devgan is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of ‘Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico)‘. Her next book ‘Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa)‘ will be out in September.)
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