“But where do you get your protein? How do you get iron?” Any vegetarian knows these questions all too well. It’s typically the first thing someone says to you when you tell him/her that you’re a vegetarian.
Many people have a false belief that meat and animal products are the only food sources rich in protein and iron. This is simply not the case. Luckily, a vegetarian diet, just as most other diets, can be chock-full of all the nutrients, vitamins, minerals and proteins that your body needs without having to resort to taking supplements if you eat smartly and wisely.
The only catch as a vegetarian is that most plant-based sources of protein are not, in and of themselves, complete proteins as most meat products are. Therefore, vegetarians need to be smart in the food combinations they eat in order to fully absorb all of the benefits of the proteins they consume.
The following are just a select few of the many vegetarian foods rich in protein and iron:
1. Beans & Legumes
Beans and legumes are any vegetarian’s best friend. Rich in both protein and iron, these superfoods are essential ingredients in vegetarian cooking.
Foods such as soybeans (and soy products such as tofu, tempeh, etc.), chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, peanuts and lima beans all fall into the beans and legumes category.
Soy proteins are complete, but be sure to pair all other beans and legumes with whole grains to provide the full complement of complete amino acids for the body to absorb (think things like rice and beans, whole grain chips with hummus, peanut butter on whole grain bread, etc.).
2. Nuts & Seeds
Another must-have in a vegetarian kitchen, nuts and seeds are the perfect addition to any meal for a little extra sprinkle of protein and iron.
Foods such as pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, pistachios, almonds and cashews fall into the nuts and seeds category.
Again, be sure to pair nuts and seeds with whole grains to create complete proteins when you eat them (think things like sesame seeds over brown rice, almonds in tabbouleh salad, etc.).
3. Whole Grains
As noted, beans and legumes as well as nuts and seeds most often need to be paired with whole grains to produce complete proteins in a vegetarian diet. But, whole grains, in and of themselves, are also excellent sources of both protein and iron.
Foods like whole grain bread, whole grain brown rice, quinoa and bulgur wheat are all categorized as whole grains.
Quinoa, on its own, is actually a stand-alone, complete protein (thus why it's considered a superfood!). Most other sources of whole grains should ideally be paired with nuts and seeds and/or beans and legumes to create complete amino acids.
4. Fruits & Vegetables
While not a rich source of protein, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of needed iron.
Dark green vegetables are high sources of iron, and iron absorption can be aided by consuming iron sources with foods containing Vitamin C (such as lemon juice over kale, etc.). Dried fruits are also another excellent way to supply iron to your body.
5. Dairy & Eggs
Although not an option for a strict vegan diet, vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs can find these to be excellent sources of protein to add to their diets.
Eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese are all rich sources of stand-alone, complete proteins.
Whether you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian or you already are one, using the aforementioned plant-based sources of protein and iron are more-than-sufficient ways to absorb these necessary portions of your diet.
So, the next time someone tries to convince you that being vegetarian is unhealthy because you’re “missing essential elements in your diet,” you’ll have a whole arsenal of facts to counter that argument…because, yes, it is completely possible to consume all of your needed protein and iron purely from plant-based sources. :)
Image credit: Loren Peta