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"Protein plays a big part of our immune systems and helps keep us healthy," says Tristaca Curley, a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counselling company Fueling with Food based in Kelowna, B.C.
However, it can be a challenge for vegetarians to consume enough complete protein -- that is, protein that contains all of the essential amino acids in the right combination. "Vegetarians need the right balance of protein sources to get complete protein," explains Curley, who advises aiming for three to four daily servings of complete protein.
People's protein needs differ depending on their activity level. "The more active you are, the more protein you'll need," says Curley. Here are her top 10 dietary protein picks for vegetarians.
1. Chickpea flour: 21 grams of protein per 1 cup
Chickpea flour is a gluten-free flour that can be used in place of wheat flour in baking; it can also be used to make hummus and can be baked as chickpea fries.
2. Edamame: 17 grams of protein per 1 cup (shelled)
Edamame are young soybeans either shelled or still in the pod. Kids find the whole pods particularly fun to eat as snacks. Frozen edamame can be cooked in the microwave or boiled or steamed on the stove in only a couple of minutes.
3. Tempeh: 15 grams of protein per 1/2 cup
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans; however, grains are sometimes added to the soy before fermentation. Similar to tofu, but with a stronger flavour and consistency, tempeh is versatile and can be added to a variety of dishes, including veggie burgers, stir-fries and chilies.
4. Greek yogurt: 15 grams of protein per 2/3 cup
Greek yogurt goes through a process that removes the whey from the milk, leaving a lower carbohydrate, higher protein, richer tasting product. Opt for varieties without added sugar or fruit and add your own fresh fruit and a healthy sweetener, such as honey, molasses or agave syrup, instead.
5. Pumpkin-seed butter: 10 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons
Pumpkin-seed butter is a great alternative to peanut butter as it contains more protein, fibre, iron and omega-3s. Look for varieties with no sugar added.
6. Whole grain pasta: 10 grams of protein per 1 cup (cooked)
The carbohydrates in whole grain pasta are absorbed into the bloodstream slowly, helping you stay full for longer and making it an excellent low glycemic index food. Look for a whole grain, such as spelt, rye, semolina or kamut, listed first in the ingredient list.
7. Quinoa: 8 grams of protein per 1 cup (cooked)
Quinoa is actually a seed, not a grain, but it provides lots of complex carbohydrates and can be substituted in almost any recipe that calls for rice. Be sure to rinse quinoa prior to cooking it as the seeds contain natural chemicals that act as pesticides and that taste bitter and may cause an upset stomach.
8. Hemp seeds: 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons
Hemp seeds are among the few plant sources that provide a balanced amount of all essential amino acids, making them a complete protein. Sprinkle them on cereal or add them to smoothies and baking.
9. Artichokes: 8 grams of protein per 2 artichokes
In addition to its protein count, an artichoke contains only 100 calories and virtually no fat. This vegetable is also high in antioxidants and fibre, aids digestion and helps lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. Steam artichokes, then top them with lemon and season them with salt and pepper for a delicious and nutritious side dish. Or mash the pulp and add it to soups, dips or sauces as a nutrient-rich thickener.
10. Peas: 8 grams of protein per 1 cup
Babies love this vegetable for good reason! Quick to prepare, peas are deliciously sweet all on their own. In addition to their protein hit, 1 cup of peas has as much vitamin C as two large apples and more fibre than a slice of whole grain bread.