A vegetarian diet doesn’t need to raise nutritional red flags, especially when it comes to protein. Plant-based foods do provide amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Research indicates that eating plant food combinations over the course of the day, not just at one meal, can provide all the essential amino acids needed.
Food Combining for Protein
Protein, regardless of its source, is made from chains of amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be manufactured in the body and must come from the diet. Both animal- and plant-based proteins provide essential amino acids, but some plants have minimal amounts of certain essential amino acids, or the amino acids present are not absorbed well in the body. Combining the right types of plant-based protein throughout the day will provide all of the essential amino acids needed. A totally plant-based vegan diet should include protein from beans, peas, soy products, nuts and seeds. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can also rely on dairy products and eggs for protein sources. Though complementary plant proteins don’t need to be eaten together at each meal, there are some food combinations that are natural culinary partners.
Even nonvegetarians likely eat legume food combinations on a weekly basis. Legumes are more commonly known as beans, lentils, soybeans and peas. Classic bean and grain combinations include rice and beans, vegetarian chili with corn bread, refried beans and tortillas. Lentils and peas can be incorporated with grains such as barley and pasta into soups or stews. Peanuts are also legumes and partner well with whole-wheat crackers or bread.
Soybeans, though classified as a legume, are unusual in that they contain almost as much high-quality protein per serving as meat. Soybeans and processed soy protein can be found in a variety of meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and tofu. Soybean food combinations include vegetable and tofu stir-fry with brown rice, lasagna with soy cheese and meat substitute and veggie burgers on a bun.
Nut and Seed Combinations
Nuts and seeds work in a variety of dishes and provide a significant amount of protein in a relatively small serving size. Trail mix is an everyday snack food item that pairs nuts and seeds together. Try combining nut butter or hummus (chickpeas and sesame paste) with crackers or adding alfalfa sprouts to a roasted vegetable sandwich.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010: Vegetarian Adaptations of the USDA Food Patterns
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Position Paper on Vegetarian Diet
- Purdue University: Four H: Vegetarians
- Iowa State University Food Science & Human Nutrition
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition Q&A: What Are Legumes?
- MedlinePlus: Protein in the Diet