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Protein that packs a punch!

Find out the best vegetarian sources of protein with our handy guide

Protein is crucial for a healthy body – we need it for many different functions such as growth, digestion, energy and vitality, mood and behaviour, performance and recovery and a healthy immune system, plus assisting the digestion, absorption and metabolism of foods.

“Protein literally means ‘Primary Substance’, an accurate description since all the tissues of the body are built and repaired with protein,” says Hannah Dare of health store and café Organico in Bantry, Co Cork. “The antibodies of the immune system, most hormones, the haemoglobin of red blood cells, and all enzymes have protein as a basic component.”

Nuts and seeds

“Nuts and seeds are rich in protein and fat, and are incredibly healthy when eaten in small amounts,” says Hannah Dare. “One of my favourite ways of eating more seeds in particular is to lightly toast them in a dry pan, then drizzle with tamari and sprinkle over salads (or eat on their own as a snack!). They really are delicious and nutritious.

“Amaranth and quinoa, which are seeds but cook like grains, contain as much protein per serving as meat. Amaranth is particularly good for people who need extra nutrition such as breastfeeding mothers and children. You can combine amaranth with bulgar wheat to make a pilaf.”

Nut butters, spreads, dips or pates made from beans and lentils are a great protein source.

Legumes/pulses

“Legumes and pulses, such as beans, lentils and peas, are one of the best sources of plant based protein, but a lot of people have difficulties digesting them,” says Hannah Dare. “I have two tricks to help solve that problem - one is to always cook beans with seaweeds. I always have a pack of dried kombu at home, and I use a stick of it when cooking lentil soup or bean chilli. Throw it in the pot at the start and fish it out just before you serve. It won't make a huge difference to the taste, but will make the dish much more nutritious and easy to digest. Another way of improving the digestibility of pulses is to sprout them before you cook them. Once you see the tiny nub of the sprout poking through a split in the skin of the bean you cook them in water, and when they are cooked you can freeze them in amounts that are enough for a soup or a chilli.”

Dairy-free yogurts and cheese

“In Organico, the plant-based yogurt and cheese section is a lot bigger than the dairy section,” says Hannah Dare. “We have coconut, almond, rice, soy and oat yogurts, and a huge range of cheeses for all dishes, from pizza to pasta to vegan gorgonzola. And it’s growing all the time.”

“Dairy-free cheeses and yoghurts come into their own when people are missing cheesy pizzas or toasties while following a dairy-free or vegan diet,” says Martha Brennan of health store Harvest Fare in Blessington, Co Wicklow.

Grains

“Quinoa is a complete protein and handy as flakes to make porridge or healthy flapjacks,” says Martha Brennan. “Cooked as a wholegrain it makes the base for a great tabbouleh.” “Oats, spelt and kamut all contain very good amounts of protein, and are rich in healthy fats as well,” says Hannah Dare. “Eaten in their whole form, these grains are slow release carbohydrates as well, so are good for blood sugar balancing. Spelt and Kamut are both older types of wheat and contain more nutrients than the overdeveloped durum wheat. Both can be used instead of arborio rice in a risotto.”

Tofu

“Tofu is an excellent source of protein, but I’m much happier eating the fermented one,” says Hannah Dare. “Fermentation helps to make soy beans digestible, which is important if you are going to rely on tofu as your main source of protein. Tempeh and miso are other sources of fermented soy protein.”

Veggie Protein Alternatives

Swap for

Meat or fish burgers

homemade veggie quinoa, mashed bean or sweet potato burgers

Mince meat

quorn mince, lentils or shredded cauliflower

Dairy milk

nut/oat/rice/soya milk

Dairy cheese

soya cheese

Butter

nut butter such as almond or peanut

Roast meats

nut roast, quorn roast

Dairy ice cream

coconut or soya ice cream

Cooked chicken

grilled halloumi cheese

Fish

seaweed

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