3 Things Vegetarians Need To Know About Protein

By: ray.perry : March 17, 2014

Lean meats. Search the internet for "best sources of protein," and 9 times out of 10, lean meats like turkey breast, chicken breast, pork chops, beef and veal will top the lists. For vegetarians, trying to track down protein-rich meals and snacks can be a little deflating.

There are, however, plenty of ways for the meat-free to get enough protein.

1) Supplements aren't always the answer

Supplements are a knee-jerk protein source for many vegetarians. Whey, soy and casein powders are common, particularly among athletes, but Becci Twombley, a nutritionist at the University of Southern California responsible for the diets of 700 athletes, tries to avoid that route.

For starters, NCAA rules are strict. Although most protein powders are benign, Twombley can't risk a violation. Second, she gets a big say in what the university's athletes eat every day, and she prefers the protein to come from a balanced diet.

"A supplement is only beneficial if you're lacking in something," she says. "We use whole foods instead. Are you going to love everything you eat? Maybe not, but … "

Even Twombley's burliest meat-eating football players know that vegetables like broccoli will up their game.

"One of the things I'm most proud of with our football team is that we run out of vegetables on the trey lines," Twombley says. "That says a lot about what these guys understand about their recovery. They're not eating vegetables because they like them, they're eating them because they know it'll help them recover."

2) Eggs and dairy are your friends

Eggs – sometimes called the "perfect protein" – are actually classified alongside meats by the USDA based on their high-quality protein content. One large egg has 6 grams of protein, about 12 percent of the recommended daily value for an average adult.

Eggs are inexpensive, filling and easy to prepare. Most important, they're a "complete" source of protein, meaning they contain optimal amounts of all nine of the essential amino acids that our bodies can't produce on their own. That's why Twombley makes sure omelets are on the menu before every USC football game.

"Eggs are number one," says Twombley. "They're the most complete source of protein."

Other protein-rich dairy sources include yogurt, milk and cottage cheese, and they have the added benefit of containing vitamins and minerals beneficial to bone health.

3) Go nuts for nuts

Nuts, are also a quick and easy source of protein. Pistachios, almonds, cashews and peanuts all have nearly as much protein per serving as ground beef.

Although the protein found in nuts does not contain all of the essential amino acids and is therefore considered "incomplete," a complementary helping of beans or dairy at some point in the day will complete the circle.

"Almonds and pistachios are great plant sources of protein," says Twombley. "We also put peanut butter, cashew butter and almond butter into smoothies for our athletes."