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June 22, 2011 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Calling All Vegetarians: Help us get enough protein and iron in our new, mostly vegetarian diet.

Mrs. gauche and I are in our late 20s and early 30s (respectively), fairly fit and active, and we are trying to cut down our consumption of industrially-grown meat for ethical reasons. Note that when I say "cut down our meat consumption" I mean from about twice a week to never. Cutting down our industrial meat consumption means that we won't be getting much meat at all due to the price of non-industrially-raised meat.

We are pretty active outdoors, and my wife is training for a couple of races this summer. We are, therefore, concerned with getting enough protein, iron, and the rest of what we need from a mostly-vegetarian diet. What should we be eating?

I should add that we are pretty leery of the kinds of highly-processed meat substitutes that are available in the grocery store, as we try to stick to eating things that our ancestors would have recognized as food.

So, vegetarians, what's the trick? What delicious, traditional foods can we eat to ensure that we're doing this vegetarian thing right? How do we make sure we're getting enough protein without substituting industrial meat for industrial soy? How do we get enough iron and other nutrients?
posted by gauche to Food & Drink (40 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was a vegetarian for a while and I decided pretty quickly that tofu and fake meat wasn't my thing. For protein I'd usually go with eggs. Nuts, cheese, beans and so on are also good. Simple food that doesn't require much preparation. In terms of veggies, broccoli and spinach are both good things as well.
posted by Rinoia at 6:15 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm (mostly) vegetarian, but slightly hypocritical on the ethics. I gave up meat for similar reasons (more ecological than ethical; trying to reduce waste), but to get protein I eat a lot of eggs and drink a lot of milk. Dairy cows and hens aren't treated too well either, but alas. I get my non-animal protein from grain (good bread can be 5g protein per slice), lentils, and black beans. In honestly, I don't really like food very much and consequently don't mind a bland diet. I try not to eat "fake meat"; it's probably just as fossil fuel soaked as a burger.

I shoot for 60g protein a day. An egg/glass of milk is 8, so 2 eggs at breakfast and milk at every meal gets you 40g, and the other 20 are easily made up.

I think bean/lentils have good iron, and the eggs/milk give you all that animal whatever you're supposed to have.
posted by Buckt at 6:21 PM on June 22, 2011


Unless either of you has very specific health problems that would affect this (anemia comes to mind), you are good to go. Seriously, just eat good healthy food until you are full and you're pretty much fine.

If either of you does have health issues that make this a concern, then you should be talking to your doctor or a nutritionist and not the internet.

Eggs, nuts, and dairy are all very good, proteinwise. Dark leafy greens are chock full of iron. Don't rule out all soy, either. Edamame is like popcorn with nutrients, and tofu is a perfectly valid authentic food ingredient that features heavily in lots of wonderful Asian recipes.
posted by Sara C. at 6:24 PM on June 22, 2011 [13 favorites]


Oh, yes, beans. Also beans.
posted by Sara C. at 6:24 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Quinoa is proteiny, too, while being super different from beans.

At least, I appreciate it's relative floofiness. I find beans get so.. dense.. to eat.
posted by ambilevous at 6:31 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Organic almonds soaked for 4-5 hours.

Soup with frozen edamame beans in pods (important!!!).
posted by rainy at 6:42 PM on June 22, 2011


Coming in to second the suggestions for lentils/beans/eggs/nuts/whole grains/tofu (as Sara C. pointed out, it's not a "meat substitute") and to add tempeh, another traditional soy product, to the list.

You might also check out 101 Cookbooks, which has an amazing selection of healthy, meat substitute-free, vegetarian recipes that use real, whole food. The high protein section may be of particular interest.
posted by rebekah at 6:57 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lentils!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2011


Unless either of you has very specific health problems that would affect this (anemia comes to mind), you are good to go. Seriously, just eat good healthy food until you are full and you're pretty much fine.

This is not true for everyone. I am healthy and fit and have no ongoing health issues. But I have gone vegetarian twice and followed the "eat healthy and don't worry about tracking protein/vitamins/minerals" approach, and both times ended up with serious iron deficiencies. I don't even have heavy periods to explain it, and I love tofu and beans.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but I do think it is worth making an effort to get it right, as the OP is trying to do. My doctor told me that lentils are one of the best sources of vege iron, surprisingly, and that nuts, dried apricots and molasses are also good. Spinach and tofu, on the other hand, he said you'd need a ton of before it was doing you much good. You might want to try using a meal tracking tool like Sparkpeople or Fitday or something for a while to see exactly how much iron and protein you are getting until you develop a good sense for it intuitively.
posted by lollusc at 7:02 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Protein is everywhere, for some reason people think it's just in meat, dairy and soy but it's not. You can find it in cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli), leafy green vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, sprouts, seeds, nutritional yeast. And not in tiny amounts, either -- there's more protein in some legumes than in meat. A good topic for you to google is "protein complementarity" -- that's how you figure out which foods go together to make up a complete protein.

By the way, many Americans eat WAY too much protein. You should figure out how much protein each of you really needs, it's probably a lot less than you think.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:07 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously, though, unless you know right now that you have problems with iron deficiency, just start out eating whatever you like. It probably will not be a big deal at all. If you find that you aren't full, don't have energy, whatever, then start tweaking with your diet. If it goes beyond "so it turns out I need a handful of walnuts mid-afternoon", see a doctor.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been a vegetarian for almost 23 years. I'm also a CrossFit athlete. I supplement my diet with whey protein. Lots of non-vegetarian athletes supplement their dietary protein with whey as well. Supplemental whey shakes tend to be fortified with a wide variety of other nutrients. Every grocery store, whether Whole Foods or Walmart, has whey.

(Also, if you object to whey, there's also soy protein.)
posted by phoebus at 7:10 PM on June 22, 2011


"protein complementarity" -- that's how you figure out which foods go together to make up a complete protein.

Humans do not need to eat "complete proteins" in the same meal to get the full benefit of the nutrients. This is a relic of some weird fad diet of the 70's that just will. not. die.

If this was the case, we would be extinct.
posted by Sara C. at 7:11 PM on June 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Blackstrap molasses is high in iron and isn't bad as an additive to lentil curry. I add a bit of that plus some apple cider vinegar to all my lentil curries and it gives it a nice kick. Mixing a little molasses and peanut butter is nice on toast, also.
posted by wowbobwow at 7:20 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seconding quinoa! Healthy, easy to make, and oh-so-tasty. I like it best in a cold salad with a garlic-lime dressing, cilantro, black beans, tomato, and cucumber. But see if you can find a place that sells it in bulk, because it's pretty expensive when it's sold in a tiny organic-crunchy-looking package.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:24 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cook in an iron skillet. Bonus: it makes food taste awesome.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:33 PM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


dark greens (spinach, kale, chard) are a good source of iron.

nuts and beans are a good source of protein. you can also make your own seitan (wheat gluten--almost all protein, almost no carbs) if you are ambitious and not, obviously, gluten-intolerant.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:35 PM on June 22, 2011


Nthing eating more beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables. If you like chickpeas there are tons of chickpea products. Quinoa is awesome too, and can be used to replace (and improve, in my opinion) rice in pretty much anything. Nuts or sunflower seeds can be thrown into a surprising number of dishes, too.

I don't blame you for wanting to avoid processed, artificial meat substitutes. Still, soy should be on the list - edamame's great, but I can assure you that many people's grandmothers would have recognized other soy products like tofu and tempeh as food also. Try cooking tempeh with tamarind sauce.

Eggs are good too, especially cooked in cast iron, though you may have the same ethical concerns about eggs as you do about meat.
posted by one little who at 7:35 PM on June 22, 2011


I'm vegan and have absolutely zero problem meeting my protein and iron RDAs, without eating any kind of processed, pre-packaged foods or, basically, paying any attention to it at all. I'd recommend tracking your food for a while on a site like nutrimirror.com so you can see what you're eating, nutrient-wise - you're probably already doing a lot better than you think you are.

Specifically, greens like collards and kale and spinach will help with iron and calcium. But, simply put, eat a well rounded diet with lots of different beans, nuts, grains, and vegetables and you will almost certainly be fine.
posted by something something at 7:44 PM on June 22, 2011


Where are you ethically on fish? I'm a pescatarian and eat fish about twice a week. The rest of the time, as stated above, beans, eggs, tofu, and soy products fill in the gaps.
posted by Errant at 7:53 PM on June 22, 2011


Quinoa is a complete protein, as is buckwheat and spirulina.
Eat your high iron foods with foods containing Vitamin C to help increase iron absorption. Lentils, spinach, garbanzo beans, and kidney beans are high in iron.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:25 PM on June 22, 2011


Also watch out for your vitamin B12 intake...it is pretty much only in animal products and I got a B12 deficiency when I started as a vegetarian. You can get it in dairy, eggs, and also in some fortified foods.
posted by vanitas at 8:28 PM on June 22, 2011


Ashley801: "protein complementarity" -- that's how you figure out which foods go together to make up a complete protein.

Sara C: Humans do not need to eat "complete proteins" in the same meal to get the full benefit of the nutrients. This is a relic of some weird fad diet of the 70's that just will. not. die.


Whoa, I stand corrected, thank you Sara C.! I've been a vegetarian almost 18 years (since childhood) and I have thought for years that you were supposed to match proteins, if you were "doing it right." Despite that, I have never actually bothered to do it, myself, but I thought I was just a bad vegetarian. Indeed, I am still alive and quite well.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:43 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you are getting enough calories, and you eat even a somewhat reasonably varied diet (eg, you're not subsisting entirely on fruit), you are getting enough protein. You don't need to combine, there's nothing complementary, you don't need to supplement.

Iron is tricky. Individual iron requirements vary widely. Women need much more iron than men, and more again if they're pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating. Intake is not the same as absorption - you may add up the iron content of your food and thinking you're getting enough, but you may well not be, because it's not being absorbed.

Specifically, greens like collards and kale and spinach will help with iron and calcium.

It's more complicated than that. Greens that are high in calcium or oxalic acid (like spinach) can interfere with non-haem iron absorption. Ditto for phytates (in whole grains) and tannic acid (in tea). So you think 'yay I'm so healthy eating whole grains and leafy greens and drinking green tea' and feel giddy about all the calcium and iron and so on you're getting - except they're all interacting and interfering with one another. Consuming vitamin C with your non-haem sources of iron can enhance absorption.

If you get anough variety it may all balance out, but the only way to really be sure you're getting enough is a blood test.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:58 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


People that are on an autologous blood transfusion protocol, where they are donating/banking a pint of their own blood (for subsequent use in their own surgery) every 3 ot 7 days or so, are often advised to eat lots of Cream of Wheat, as well as take prescription iron supplements. There is a blue ton (66% of RDA per serving) of bio-available iron in Cream of Wheat, apparently. Sweeten it with a couple tablespoons of blackstrap molasses (at 15% of iron RDA per 2 teaspoon serving), and that goes up to just about 100% iron RDA per breakfast bowl, with no fat. It may take some adjustment to get used to the taste/texture of the mix, but add a few raisins, some dried figs, or a handful of currants, and it's a pretty good breakfast.

Milk and most dairy products have nearly no iron, unless supplemented. It's not unusual for calves with common bowel problems to quickly become anemic if left to nurse only on cow's milk, which is one reason most calves that will be raised for meat or dairy production are switched off to formula as soon as possible, or at least heavily supplemented.
posted by paulsc at 9:49 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tofu is a highly concentrated protein source -- at least an order of magnitude more protein than lentils or beans. Press it to expel the water, then roast or shallow fry it. The aim is to get as much water as possible out, so it becomes chewy and meatlike. It'll need a marinade or spicy sauce -- soy, garlic, honey.

Many posters have suggested eating eggs instead of meat. This is the worst possible thing you can do, if you care about animal suffering. Consuming eggs causes much, much more animal suffering -- gram for gram -- than eating beef. It is actively harming the cause you wish to support.

Citation.
posted by dontjumplarry at 10:42 PM on June 22, 2011


Also watch out for your vitamin B12 intake...it is pretty much only in animal products and I got a B12 deficiency when I started as a vegetarian. You can get it in dairy, eggs, and also in some fortified foods.

A handy vegan trick is to sprinkle B12 rich nutritional yeast on things.
posted by eddydamascene at 11:09 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whoa, I stand corrected, thank you Sara C.! I've been a vegetarian almost 18 years (since childhood) and I have thought for years that you were supposed to match proteins, if you were "doing it right." Despite that, I have never actually bothered to do it, myself, but I thought I was just a bad vegetarian. Indeed, I am still alive and quite well.

Matching proteins is still good practice; even if not in the same meal, you should think about which types of food you need to get all the essential amino acids. They have recommended daily amounts.
posted by eddydamascene at 11:31 PM on June 22, 2011


Consuming eggs causes much, much more animal suffering -- gram for gram -- than eating beef.

Like most things that come out of utilitarians' mouths, that table is batshit insane. Watch me quantify suffering by pulling numbers out of my arse!

"For instance, since I think the suffering of hens in battery cages is perhaps 2.5 times as intense, on average, as the suffering of beef cows, I put a "1" in the beef-cow entry and "2.5" in the egg column."

Because you know what goes on in the minds of chickens and the minds of cows and can make meaningful, accurate comparisons between them! Throw in a healthy dose of 'Who gives a fuck if I make wild generalisations about how food animals are treated and act like there aren't any humane alternatives' and voila - you're a published philosopher.

OP - get free range eggs from a farmers market from a supplier you know and trust, or raise your own chooks. You'll be fine.

Tofu is a highly concentrated protein source -- at least an order of magnitude more protein than lentils or beans.

And now you're pulling things out of your arse. Wrong things.

Food / grams of protein per 100g

Tofu (firm, raw) / 15.8 g
Lentils (raw) / 25.8 g
Beans, kidney (raw) / 23.6 g
Beans, pinto (raw) / 21.4 g
Split peas (raw) / 24.6 g

And if you want to say 'oh, but I can eat tofu without cooking', then my response is that tofu has less protein than peanuts (25.8 g). Stop making shit up - you're not helping anybody.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:27 AM on June 23, 2011


The Vegan RD blog (written by, um...a vegan Registered Dietician specialising in vegan nutrition) has some good information on these topics, by someone qualified to give it. Here she is on iron, here on protein, and here's her general food guide.

Note that she's a co-author of the American Dietetic Association’s Position on Vegetarian Diets, but she's talking to/for vegans here - so her advice assumes no meat, dairy, eggs, honey, animal-based additives, etc - but it's all useful for veggies and partial-veggies as well.
posted by Wylla at 4:29 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'd add Seitan to the list of 'real' food products used as meat substitutes in some veggie cookbooks. It's amazingly versitile, plays into some of the best veggie/vegan recipes, and is essentially made from flour with all but the gluten washed out. You can do this at home, or just buy active wheat gluten and use that to make some tasty seitan recipes.
posted by Wylla at 5:00 AM on June 23, 2011


I eat a lot of Eggs. And take a multivitamin for iron when I remember. My only nutritional deficit from being veg was a vitamin D issue.
posted by tremspeed at 5:13 AM on June 23, 2011


Spinach and broccoli have lots of iron for vegetables but not nearly as much as meat. I find I get weak after 5+ days if I don't take a supplement.

I've recently started making cold veggie pilafs for lunch and have been really happy with them. (Credit for the idea goes to a coworker.) The idea is that you can mix and match ingredients easily so the concept doesn't get too stale.

Take 1 grain (rice, couscous, quinoa)
1 or 2 kinds of beans (black, chic peas, pinto, kidney)
2-4 veggies (brocolli, snap peas, beats, corn, green peppers, etc.)
1 fruit (sliced apples, grapes, raisins)

Cook the grain and veggies (where applicable). Make sure you let any fruit and vegetables you wash dry a little. You don't want the mix to be too wet. Toss it all in a big bowl and add a little lemon juice or oil and vinegar for dressing.

I've found it's hard to screw up and great for putting into tupperware for lunches. You hit lots of food groups this way.
posted by davextreme at 6:34 AM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Spinach and broccoli have lots of iron for vegetables but not nearly as much as meat. I find I get weak after 5+ days if I don't take a supplement.

Jack Norris, another Vegan RD who blogs and hs written a book with Ginny Messina (above), has some salient comments on this issue from a 2009 entry. And way more detail and citations in a discussion of an NPR program on vegetarian nutrition for children. The upshot? Lots of people self-diagnose iron deficiency, but in general, it's not any more of a concern for veggies than it is for others, and those concerned should either supplement - as Daveextreme recommends above - or do the spinach-and-an-orange thing on a regular basis.

Q: While I was leafleting about vegetarianism, someone told me they tried to be vegetarian but got iron deficiency.

Answer: When someone says this, you might want to ask them if a medical doctor diagnosed them. A lot of people diagnose their own iron deficiency and are likely wrong about it.


I will stop reading dietician blogs now - this is not good for my health. The more nutrition guidelines I read, the more paranoid I get! If I keep this up, I will be eating nothing but kale sprinkled with nutritional yeast, in massive quantities, for the next month...
posted by Wylla at 7:07 AM on June 23, 2011


I buy eggs (from unconfined hens) from the farmers market, avoiding the industrial egg system, and those are probably my #1 protein source. Lentils and peanut butter are big for me as well, and I have a high-protein greek yogurt every once in a while. I eat tofu occasionally. (I'm currently pregnant, so I'm watching the protein and iron a little more closely then I did before, which was not at all.) I've been vegetarian for 20 years and every time I've had my blood tested, I've had normal iron levels.
posted by statolith at 8:06 AM on June 23, 2011


I really do recommend supplementing for iron if you can (iron pills make me nauseous, personally), and tracking your iron intake AND having a blood test after six months. My own iron deficiencies (see above) did not give me obvious symptoms until it was already very serious (and yes, diagnosed by a doctor, when he was running blood tests for something else) and I almost had to have a transfusion.
posted by lollusc at 4:45 PM on June 23, 2011


Wow. Thank you all for your answers. I had a long day at work and will be going over these many suggestions soon.

Thank you again!
posted by gauche at 5:29 PM on June 23, 2011


Here's an article about ultramarathoner & vegan Scott Jurek. Definitely makes a convincing case that one can fuel quite well without animal protein of any kind.
posted by judith at 6:18 PM on June 23, 2011


Like most things that come out of utilitarians' mouths, that table is batshit insane. Watch me quantify suffering by pulling numbers out of my arse!

The specific numbers are insane, but one could argue that chickens are subjected to worse treatment than cows, therefore your average supermarket egg is the product of greater suffering than your average supermarket hamburger. Comparing eggs and chicken meat is more ambiguous, since both laying hens and broilers live horrible lives, but a broiler will produce only a handful of servings of meat, while a layer will produce lots (I have no idea how many) of eggs, so the per-serving suffering of eggs may be smaller. That's off the top of my head; you could argue forever about how cows matter more because they live longer, or they're smarter (are they?), or four legs good two legs bad, or whatever. I agree with you that putting a number on suffering is pointless.

On the other hand, there's value to pointing out that commercial egg and dairy production have almost identical ethical problems as commercial meat production. If I recall the Safran Foer book correctly, he discusses eggs and dairy along with meat. I'd expect that someone coming to vegetarianism for ethical reasons would also be thoughtful about their egg and dairy consumption, so suggestions to replace meat with lots of eggs may be missing the point.

Back to the question, I think you'll be fine. You're not eating that much meat now, so you aren't going to suffer from the mental block that can accompany switching from a "meat as the centerpiece of every meal" diet to a vegetarian one. Protein is unlikely to be a problem unless you end up eating too few calories overall...which you'll notice, because you'll be hungry. There really isn't much that isn't readily available from plants. Vitamin D is more of an animal foods thing, something to consider supplementing (or read the labels on your food, it's often added to both soy and cow's milk). Dark leafy stuff (paired with an orange for extra goodness) and cream of wheat will help if you're nervous about iron. Try some new fruits/vegetables/greens/grains, because variety is a good thing and just because they're delicious. Enjoy!
posted by orangejenny at 7:17 PM on June 24, 2011


Short answer: don't worry. If you have even remotely healthy eating habits, everything is going to be just fine. As Sara C. pointed out above, the "complete protein" thing is pretty much horseshit. Just get your fruits and veggies, eat nuts, beans, and leafy greens, maybe a little peanut butter, and get your exercise.

I've been ovolactovegetarian for my entire life. For years, people scolded my parents- according to conventional wisdom, I was supposed to get rickets, brain damage, osteoporosis, what-have-you. Instead, I graduated as the valedictorian of a prestigious, 160+ year old prep school. I have a black belt in karate and an EMT-B. I have traveled the world. The 'rickets and brain damage' brigade have, for the most part, shut up.

I have never once regretted being vegetarian, and I have never once had to consciously plan my diet. Chances are, you'll be fine too. And if you're really worried? Spinach has more iron, per weight, than ground beef.
posted by fifthrider at 11:26 AM on June 25, 2011


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