Ask Emily: Is There an Easy Way to Get Protein and Iron from Vegetables?
Q: I was a vegetarian for a number of years, but started eating meat again when I was pregnant (craving iron, protein). I’m finding it surprisingly hard to go back to vegetarianism because meat is so easily available as an energy-rich meal on the fly. What suggestions do you have for high-protein fast & quick snacks that can give traditional hamburgers or jerky a run for their money?
A: Dear Katura,
Thanks so much for writing in. This is a great question. As a former vegetarian yourself, you know we’ve all been inundated with the idea that meat and dairy are the best way to get protein. When I was a kid my parents told me to eat my meat or I couldn’t have any pudding. Or was that Pink Floyd? I get the two confused.
Anyway, there are a lot of misconceptions about proper nutrition for vegetarians—as you know.
The biggest myth is that we need to eat animals for protein. The truth is, plants pack protein too. And here’s where the myth chimes in: Isn’t it a different type of protein, though?
Let’s get advice from a nutritionist. Amy Schachtner-Appel is a registered dietitian and applied nutrition PhD student at the University of Maryland. Here’s what she has to say about protein:
There are 20 different amino acids that make up proteins, 10 of which are essential (meaning the human body cannot produce them, so we need to consume these from food sources). Animal protein contains all of the amino acids, meaning that they are complete proteins. Beans and vegetables are usually missing one amino acid, called methionine, and grains/nuts/seeds are usually missing an amino acid called lysine. But when people consume foods from these two groups together (say by having bread with peanut butter), they are complementing the protein sources and consuming all of the essential amino acids.
As Amy said, eating a variety of vegetables, nuts, grains, and beans will provide the right mix of amino acids that we need to thrive. Researchers used to think that you needed to eat complementary amino acids in the same meal to get complete proteins, but we now know that you don’t need to combine foods all in one sitting. As long as you’re eating a mix of grains and vegetables, you will get enough protein to support your active lifestyle.
Regarding iron, I defer to Amy again:
Nuts and seeds, legumes, whole and fortified grains are sources of iron that are helpful to include and people can increase their iron absorption by eating vitamin C-containing foods at the same time as an iron containing food (so peppers, tomatoes, oranges, etc.) For people who are iron-deficient, an iron supplement is probably the most helpful strategy, but can sometimes cause constipation so people who go that route may need to try a couple different kinds and should focus on staying well-hydrated and eating enough fiber.
Vitamin B-12 only naturally occurs in animal sources, so vegans should take special care to make sure that they consume foods that are fortified with B-12 or take a supplement. Nutritional yeast is a great option (not to mention, it tastes really good).
So, to your question about an easy iron-packed snack—a trail mix with nuts and raisins provides both vitamin C and iron. Dark leafy greens are a great source of iron, but not exactly convenient snacking unless you’re into kale chips (confession: I’m not). Chickpeas also contain a lot of iron and you can buy them roasted at the store which are good for snacking.
Lentils, soybeans, and kidney beans all have a lot of iron and Kris Carr, an author and wellness activist, has put together a cheat sheet of how much iron is in a serving of these foods. In doing a bit of research on iron, I found some great recipes from the BBC you might be interested in.
As with all things health-related, check with your doctor before making any major life-changing decisions. But I’m confident you can find some great plant-forward recipes that are packed with iron. If not, chicken also contains iron and doesn’t have the heavy carbon footprint that comes with beef.
If you’re interested in more ways to help build a better food system, check out our PlanetVision Action Guide.
Keep the questions coming!
Emily Cassidy is Sustainability Science Manager at the California Academy of Sciences. Ask Emily any climate or sustainability questions by emailing AskEmily@planetvision.com!