A pale-faced, scrawny, spluttering wreck trawls the city. His sallow complexion, gaunt features and terrible flatulence reveal much as the stranger stalks the night, endlessly searching. He flinches as the passing headlights attack his eyes, the circles beneath them as dark as his soul. He is a man in torment; the skeletal remains of a man once called ‘beefcake’, now a desperate spirit in search of protein. He is the ghost that walks among us. He is the tragedy of modern times, the mark of a morality gone mad. He is… a vegetarian.
We have an image problem here, gang. The myth of the scrawny, pasty-faced vegetarian is alive and well and not helped by your old pal The Zero, who happens to be pasty-faced and scrawny and vegetarian. The myth comes largely from the idea that there’s not enough protein in a vegetarian diet. But that myth is not true. It’s more what you might call ‘a myth’. Dull science awaits:
The British Nutrition Foundation, which knows a thing or two about nutrition (and, presumably, about Britain and Foundations) says protein is needed “for growth and repair of the body” and that men aged 19-50 should be downing 55.5g a day, men aged over 50 should guzzle 53.3g, women aged 19-50 should chew on 45g, and women over 50 should take out their false teeth and suck up 46.5g. So protein is one of the basic must-haves in the exciting world of nutrition but the typical source of protein for most people is animal. Animal is packed full of the stuff: beef jerky boasts 52g of protein per 100g. But animal is one of the things vegetarians look to avoid. Luckily, there are alternatives: nuts, seeds, pulses, grains, cereals, and soya and dairy products. That sounds fairly vague so let’s get away from food groups and onto buyable stuff you can picture on a supermarket shelf.
Soya and tofu
With soya beans we’re talking dairy replacements like soya milk (3.3g of protein per 100ml), soya yoghurts (3.8g per 100g) and soya cream (2g). We’re talking easy meat replacements like soya mince (22g) and soya burgers (20.5g).
Tofu (10.5g) gives us a good meat replacement for stir fries. It can be grilled, thrown into soups and stews and, when scrambled, is a good replacement for scrambled eggs if you’re ditching them.
Easy meat replacements
Just because we’re aiming for the moral high ground doesn’t mean we can’t be lazy. There are non-soy meat replacements that require no effort and barely any thought. Linda McCartney’s range gives us sausages (22.5g) and burgers (22.8g), and Quorn gives us sausages (11.7g), burgers (18g), chicken-style roasts (15g), mince (14.5g) pretend bacon (11.8g), meat-free meatballs (16.4g) and deli-style fake meat slices (16g), all of which taste only slightly like the things they’re pretending to be, rendering their flavouring pointless. But sling them on a plate in place of meat and you get to be a protein-eating bad-ass mutha without having to think much about it. (As Quorn is made from fungus and uses egg white as a binder it’s not suitable for vegans).
We can be lazier still thanks to ready meals. Linda gives us lasagne (6.3g), sausage rolls (13.1g), Cornish pasties (5.4g) and pies (5.1g), among other things. Quorn’s range includes those as well as curry (3.8g), chicken-free nuggets (10.3g), and a ton of escalopes (7.8g) and flavoured fillets (13.3g). Cauldron gives us all the basics and falafel (8.4g), cannelloni (4g), moussaka (5g) and enchiladas (5g). These are the brands you’ll find in your supermarkets; hit the health food stores and you’ll find more variety. I’m not endorsing them or even liking them particularly, just casually acknowledging their existence like you would a passed out a drunk at a bus stop.
For dairy products we’re talking cheese (yer average cheddar is 25g per 100g), milk (4g), free range eggs (6g each) and yoghurt (4g per 100g). These are unlikely to be new additions to your kitchen, but you’ll be upping the quantity and keeping an eye out for rennet and gelatine.
Seeds, nuts, grains, beans, pulses
Seeds and nuts are where your snacking’s at, with sesame seeds offering 20g per 100g, almonds giving 21.5g, sunflower seeds boasting 22g, peanuts stepping up with 25g, pumpkin seeds topping that with 28g, and soya nuts coming in with 37g like they own the place. You don’t need to turn pigeon to get grains; just get them from bread (4g for white, 11g for wholemeal or granary), pasta (12g), and something like a wheat/biscuit based breakfast cereal (11.8g).
Then you have your classic, mockable vegetarian staples: your lentils (24g per 100g), your baked beans (4g), your broad beans (6g), your kidney beans (8.3g), your aduki, pinto and borlotti beans (7g), your chick peas (8.4g), your nut roasts (22g). If these are unfamiliar don’t assume they’re difficult; introduce a few cans of beans to a few cans of tomatoes and you’re on your way to five bean chilli and the tin opener’s bearing the brunt of the work.
Combinations and supplements
So this protein lark’s easy, ain’t it? Turn some veggie mince into veggie bolognese and you get 35g. The only complication is some proteins are more proteiny than others. Let’s quote the Vegetarian Society without their permission so I can go to bed: “You have may have heard that it is necessary to balance the complementary amino acids in a vegetarian diet. This is not as alarming as it sounds. Amino acids are the units from which proteins are made. There are 20 different ones in all. We can make many of them in our bodies by converting other amino acids, but eight cannot be made, they have to be provided in the diet and so they are called essential amino acids. Single plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids we need in the right proportions, but when we mix plant foods together, any deficiency in one is cancelled out by any excess in the other. We mix protein foods all the time, whether we are meat-eaters or vegetarians. It is a normal part of the human way of eating. A few examples are beans on toast, muesli, or rice and peas. Adding dairy products or eggs also adds the missing amino acids, eg macaroni cheese, quiche, porridge.”
We also need to keep an eye out for leafy greens (spinach, kale) and it’s always worth getting vegetarian multi-vitamins. So this is easy; mix this stuff up and we’ll be fine. No dark circles under our eyes, no pasty-faces for us! Well, not for you. I’ll still hang on to that look because, Gawd love me, I do like a bit of heroin.