The Surprising Sources of Protein in Veggies
I live with a bunch of cavemen. My only daughter recently moved away, and now I am left with my husband and three of our four grown sons, all of them die hard carnivores who look at me with bemused horror when I mention that I might just try out that recipe I found for sweet potato and kale burgers. “Why, Mum? Why?”

They aren’t the only ones. Lots of people love to sink their teeth into meat, rip and shred their way into ribs and chicken wings, and slice through a pink-centred barbecued steak. They cannot possibly imagine life without meat based meals. I never got a great deal of enjoyment out of any of these dishes, even when I was an omnivore a few years ago, so I don’t miss any of it. I’m weird like that.

I am used to the puzzled looks now. “You don’t eat any meat?” This is doubly shocking to some as I make my living as a professional chef and have to handle, cook and even taste meat-based foods every day. The next question I invariably get is “So … what do you eat?” By this, I take it that they are wondering how I fill in the gap in my diet left behind when meat was removed, or how do I get my protein. Fair question.

Funny as it sounds, I probably get more protein now as a vegetarian than I did as an omnivore. Why? Because in my old pre-veggie life, I simply skipped meat most of the time and never made any effort to replace it. I was a meat eater in theory, but not very often in practice. So, becoming a dedicated vegetarian meant I would also dedicate myself to finding excellent sources of protein to nourish my body.  I became more aware.

Beans are my best friends now. I always liked them and now I relish adding them to as many dishes as I can. Chickpeas are my absolute favourite – think hummus, chili, falafel, and the mean Greek chickpea salad that I make and crave constantly.  One cup has 15 grams of protein. But that is just the beginning. Check out the nutritional values for kidney beans, lima beans and a whole range of others.

Probably, the best thing you can do for yourself is to find out exactly how much protein your body needs every day, and this varies greatly depending on your age, sex, height, weight, activity level and health goals. Use one of the many online calculators to find your number. I got anywhere from 56 to 169 grams/day.  Note: I tried several online calculators and the results vary wildly.

Once you have a handle on your personal daily protein requirements, look for high protein vegetable – yes, there are lots – and work them into your meals. I myself am no math genius, and find these calculations a bit boring, but after a while it becomes second nature. Break your day down into 3 larger meals and 2 snacks, or into a configuration that suits your life. Perhaps divide your number into 4. Use 3 of those 4 numbers as your protein target for the larger meals, then divide the last of the 4 into 2 snacks. Follow that? To demonstrate how do-able this really is, I will use my highest result (169 grams) of required protein and divide it into 4 parts of about 42 grams each. I would shoot for 42 grams of protein at each of my 3 larger meals and then break the 42 grams in half (21 grams) for each of my 2 daily snacks.

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought too. How on earth am I ever going to make one cup of chick peas, for example, into a dish that contains the 42 grams of protein that I need? Keep adding good stuff! My Greek chickpea salad, for one, contains chickpeas (30 grams – I make a BIG salad!) plus a wedge of feta cheese (5 grams), 1 tablespoon of olives (1 gram), 1 tomato (.5 gram), cucumber, red onion (nearly 1 gram), oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, and oregano. That is 37 grams of protein right there.  Add a slice of whole grain bread and a glass of V8 style vegetable juice and you are done. If the low-end calculation of 56 grams of protein is closer to correct, then I’m really laughing!

Load up that shopping cart, people! Get your hands on broccoli, corn, mushrooms, kale, spinach (all in the 3 gram/100 gram range), peas and lima beans (closer to 6 grams) and sprouted beans and lentils at a whopping 13 grams. Get some nuts and seeds. Experiment with tofu and other soy products. Throw in some cheese and eggs if you allow lacto-ovo additions. But seriously, you can get all of your required protein from purely vegetable based foods.

So, next time someone with a 4-ounce steak looks pityingly at you and your great colorful salad, point out to them that you are both about to eat 28 grams of protein. Boom!