Vegetarian Cooking and Protein

It is a misnomer that we need a lot of protein in our diet. Of course we do need some and pregnant women and young children need more than others. Meat-eaters take great delight in saying that there is not enough protein in vegetarian cooking, in fact, it is usually one of the first questions they ask a vegetarian – what do you eat for protein.

Let us look at what protein actually is and what it does that makes it important. Essentially it is necessary for cell growth, to repair and reproduce tissue and to manufacture the substances that protect us against infection. So, as you can see, it is very important that our bodies have daily protein.

However, it is the amount of protein that we have which most people have no idea about. The daily requirements is really quite small. It is probably a legacy from exceptional marketing strategies on behalf of the meat industries that we have been led to believe that the best source of protein is meat. True, there is no denying that meat is rich in protein, however, meat-eaters really do consume too much protein on a daily basis and can overload the body.

It is fairly easy to get over-concerned about the daily intake of protein. The western world eats far too much protein as stated above, and the excess is converted into body fat. Very rarely do we have cases of protein deficiency even when people are haphazard about their diet and their nutritional needs and are eating takeaway or fast foods. Even vegetarian cooking can get a bit slapdash but it still works out o.k. in the end.

The real problem is too much fat, sugar and salt.

Getting protein from vegetable sources can be a bonus as the high fiber content of vegetarian foods such as legumes and grains seems to be able to put the breaks on over-eating.

There are 23 different amino acids that make up protein. These are substances that, when combined, make what is known as “complete” protein. Complex proteins are broken down by digestion into simpler units in order for the body to make its own protein. The human body needs complete protein.

There are eight essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and must be obtained directly by food – the body can make the others with just an adequate diet. Protein from animal sources do have all the amino acids and are therefore complete proteins. Foods such as eggs, cheese and yoghurt and, of course, meat, fish and poultry. Unfortunately these foods also contain too much fat so should not be overloaded in the diet.

Of course Vegans do not eat any animal product and vegetarians shouldn’t eat too much only due to the fat content. So they must find a different way to get the “complete” protein and this is where combining food comes into play.

Here is a few simple guidelines for combining foods.

The proteins in dairy products, nuts and seeds, pulses and grains are complementary, so eating foods from two or more of these groups will make plenty of protein and can be a good variety of vegetarian food.

Here are some to get you started:

Dhal and rice

Beans and corn.

Hummus and pitta bread.

Peanut butter on wholemeal bread.

Baked beans on wholemeal toast

Split pea soup and a bread roll

Brown rice and chickpeas.

Rice and tofu.

Corn tacos with kidney beans.

Pasta and cheese.

Muesli with milk.

Beans and vegetables.


Vegetable pies – potato, spinach.

Mueslie with nuts and seeds.

Chickpeas and couscous.

That is only the beginning. There are many different combinations and experimenting with a variety of foods makes for wonderful and tasty vegetarian cooking.

By Laura