If you’ve been considering following a vegetarian or vegan Mediterranean diet, or if you’re looking for ways to optimize your vegetarian meals, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll dive into how to build a meal that’s high in protein, keeps you full, and is packed with nutrients. Consuming enough protein on a vegetarian diet can be easy and tasty, so keep reading for our tips and favorite vegetarian protein sources.
Is The Mediterranean Diet Vegetarian or Vegan?
While the Mediterranean diet itself is not exclusively plant-based or vegetarian, following a vegetarian Mediterranean diet can be a delicious, sustainable, and healthy way to eat. Research consistently shows the many health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. Many of these benefits come from the diet’s emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Following the Mediterranean diet without fish or meat can be easy with a little extra attention to a few key nutrients.
The Importance Of Protein
Protein is a key building block for our muscles, immune system, skin, bones, and pretty much every other system in our bodies! Protein is also the most satiating macronutrient so when a meal lacks protein, we often feel unsatisfied and hungry again quickly after eating.
Will I Get Enough Protein On A Vegetarian or Vegan Mediterranean Diet?
Animal foods are generally very high in protein and help many Americans meet their daily protein needs. However, there are plenty of delicious plant-based foods that can be great sources of protein. The Mediterranean diet includes:
- legumes (think lentils, beans, and chickpeas)
- dairy products
These foods are all great sources of vegetarian protein. By including at least one source of vegetarian protein at each meal, you’ll easily be able to meet your protein needs on a vegetarian Mediterranean diet. In fact, most Americans vastly overestimate how much protein they actually need and therefore tend to consume too much protein from animal sources, which crowds out plant-based foods on their plate!
How Much Is Enough Protein
Wondering how much protein to eat and how much protein is in a meal? While everyone’s body needs different amounts and works differently, here are a couple protein tricks to keep in mind. Including about 15-20 grams of protein in each of your meals will help signal fullness, and promote strong muscles and bones.
For example, in our Slow Cooker Lentil and Mushroom Bolognese the protein content looks like:
- Mushrooms, tomatoes, onions = 1-2 grams of protein
- ⅛ cup of lentils = 5 grams of protein
- 1 serving of whole wheat pasta = 7 grams of protein
- 1 tablespoon of cheese = 2 grams of protein
- Total = 15 grams of protein
To optimize protein in your meals it can be helpful to consider complete proteins. Protein is made of chains of amino acids. Animal sources contain all types of amino acids, which is known as a complete protein. Complete proteins provide your body with all the amino acids needed for growth and repair, in one meal. Protein sources such as nuts and legumes contain some types but amino acids but not all of them.
By pairing certain foods together you can get all the amino acids in one meal, creating complete proteins by combining foods. For example, whole grains combined with beans is a complete protein source. Another tasty example, nut butter on whole wheat toast. Eggs, yogurt, and cheese are also great sources of protein and they are complete proteins.
Getting Enough Protein On A Plant-Based Mediterranean Diet
Consuming complete proteins at each meal isn’t necessary and it doesn’t need to be stressful. Instead, the Mediterranean diet makes it easy to include vegetarian, well-rounded protein sources, simply based on foods that are commonly eaten together. Eating legumes, whole grains, nuts, diary and seeds throughout the day will provide your body with plenty of great protein. Strive to include a variety of protein sources in your meals throughout the week and your body will be well nourished.
Getting Enough Iron On A Plant-Based Mediterranean Diet
Animal foods are a primary source of iron for many people. Animal proteins contain a type of iron called heme iron which is more readily available for our bodies to absorb. Plant foods, like leafy greens and legumes, also contain iron but they contain non-heme iron which is a little more challenging for our bodies to absorb.
In addition, these plant-based foods contain less iron overall compared to animal sources. Therefore, for individuals following a vegetarian mediterranean diet, its important to consume plenty of plant-based foods that have greater amounts of iron.
Vegetarian and Vegan Sources Of Iron
Here are top vegetarian sources of iron:
- Legumes like beans, lentils, and tofu are great sources of iron.
- Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale are good sources of plant-based iron.
- Enriched grains like cereals and breads have added iron.
- Nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds are good sources of plant-based iron.
As you can see, all of these foods are the main components of the Mediterranean diet. By consuming a variety of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains, it’s reasonable for vegetarians to consume sufficient iron.
Tips For Better Iron Absorption
Pairing certain foods together can help your body more effectively access the key nutrients in those foods. Eating iron-rich foods in combination with vitamin C-rich foods, can help your body absorb significantly more iron. For example, our Quick & Easy Three Bean Chili contains several beans as an iron source and canned tomato for vitamin C, together supplying your body with accessible iron. Cooking in a cast-iron pan is another great way to easily increase your iron intake.
Good Sources Of Calcium For A Plant-Based Eater
Calcium is another key nutrient for vegetarians to pay a little more attention to. Calcium is most well known for being in milk, yogurt and cheese. These are good sources of calcium, protein, and vitamin D for vegetarians. Additional plant-based sources of calcium include: leafy greens like collard greens, beans, broccoli and nuts.
Overall, following a vegetarian Mediterranean diet can be both good for your health and the planet’s health. There are so many delicious Mediterranean vegetarian dishes to try cooking. By exploring new recipes and new ingredients, you will be able to enjoy plant-based dishes and take great care of your health.