Where’s the protein?

Sometimes when I look at vegetarian recipes, the first thing that pops into my mind is “Where’s the beef?“, a phrase from a famous Wendy’s commercial in the early 1980’s (truly, you have to see it to appreciate it).  I’m not looking for beef obviously; I’m looking for protein.  “Where’s the protein?” isn’t as catchy, but it certainly applies to some of these recipes.

More and more people are cutting back on meat, or giving it up entirely.  Vegetarian and vegan diets can be very healthy.  If your meatless diet is based on grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes and nuts, your intake of a variety of nutrients can be stellar.  But intake of some nutrients can fall off.  Protein is one significant example.  It’s not that plant foods can’t provide enough protein.  It’s more that people aren’t paying attention.  They think it’s enough to just abandon meat.  Vegan and vegetarian automatically = “healthy”.  No so.  And inadequate protein can be especially problematic for growing children, pregnant women and for the elderly, who need to maintain a consistently excellent protein intake everyday to maintain muscle mass.  Recipes and meals that include eggs or dairy foods are more likely to have adequate protein.  I’m more concerned about vegan meals, which would be based entirely on plant foods.

The terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” are frequently used interchangeably for recipe descriptions, when a recipe is entirely plant-based and so officially vegan.  For example, I came across this article “20 Protein-Packed Dinners with No Meat” by way of Pinterest.  Let’s look at the first recipe for Homemade Fried Rice.  According to the nutrition analysis, a serving has 350 calories and 11 grams of protein.  That’s 32 calories for every gram of protein.  Or another way to put it: the cost for a gram of protein from this recipe is 32 calories.  That’s not what I’d call “protein packed”.

Why do I say that?  Let’s look at high protein foods.  The calorie cost for a gram of protein from one egg is 11.  The calorie cost from chicken breast is 5.  The calorie cost from ground beef is 7.  When you need to eat triple or quadruple the calories to get a gram of protein, that’s packing on calories.  Let’s say your daily protein requirement is 60 grams, an OK amount for a young adult female of normal weight, not an athlete.  If you divided your intake equally among 3 meals, you’d eat about 20 grams per meal.  Most people tend to eat less protein in the morning and more at dinner, but for argument’s sake, we’ll say each meal should have about 20 grams.  That means you need to eat more like 2 servings, or 700 calories of that fried rice dish at dinner to get 20 grams of protein.  For plenty of women, that’s a lot to eat at one meal.  Keeping in mind, if you are a vegan, you’d be eating this way every day.

The internet and magazines and cookbooks are chock full of similar recipes.  Grains, vegetables, seasonings and maybe some token high protein plant foods, such as a tablespoon of nuts or a scoop of beans.  Here’s another one from Vegetarian Times: Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger Peanut Dressing.  Sounds yummy.  But I wouldn’t consider it to be a stand alone meal.  For the 404 calories per serving, you only get 13 grams of protein, at a calorie cost of 31 per gram protein.

What to do?  There are some ways to boost protein intake without adding meat.  If you’re vegetarian and eat dairy and eggs, and can include some of those foods at the meal.  Cow’s milk works well for kids.  It’s a beverage, they like it.  Drinking milk with a meal significantly boosts protein.  Soy milk can also add some protein, but other plant-based milks are very low protein.  Another easy protein boost is tofu, which works well for some dishes, such as soba noodles or other Asian-flavored recipes.  Another trick: add side dishes based on legumes.  Accompany a rice and vegetable dish with a bean-based casserole or bean salad.  Or add grated cheese (vegetarian).  A side salad can be garnished with cooked eggs, grated cheese or chopped nuts.  Finally, follow your meal with a yogurt dessert, even something as simple as Greek style (higher protein) vanilla yogurt on fresh fruit.

On a plant based diet, you probably can’t get recipes down to a 10 calories/gram protein level unless you eat pure tofu, but you don’t have to.  What really matters is the average for your whole diet.  For a healthy adult, an average of 20-25 calories/gram protein is probably fine.  For older adults, that number can be closer to 20.  But if you don’t want to bother figuring out numbers, just make sure to add high protein side dishes or beverages to meals that include lower protein dishes.  Most recipes nowadays include some basic nutrition facts.  Take the per serving calorie value and divide it by the per serving protein in grams to get the number.  If it’s in the range of 30 or more, add a high protein side dish to the meal.

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