How Can Vegetarians Eat Enough Protein?
Anyone who has ever eaten vegetarian knows the typical question that crops up every time their dietary preferences are revealed: “How do you get protein?” While some vegetarians may be likely to pull out studies and facts to justify their protein intake, others will simply smile and say, “From plants!”
Despite Americans' deep love of all things meat and their heavy conviction that only animal sources can provide enough protein, it's easily doable (and definitely tasty) to live solely off of protein from non-meat sources. A recent Harvard study found that people who eat plant-based protein were likely to live longer than their meat-eating counterparts, even with unhealthy lifestyle choices like heavy drinking or smoking.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends for Americans on average to consume 50 grams of protein per day. Most people who abstain from meat easily meet these guidelines without much trouble.
Two categories of people live off meat-free protein: vegetarians and vegans. Some vegetarians eat eggs and cheese, but vegans abstain from all animal products. While eggs are healthy and can be a great source of protein for vegetarians, those who rely on dairy products as a protein option will be disappointed with the amount of saturated fat and sodium they're consuming as well. Vegans rely solely on plant-based proteins like legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
The key to making sure you get enough protein when not eating meat is to ensure there's some present at every meal and snack. Be smart about your choices, and you'll realize that it's not that difficult to meet your needs.
Why Is Protein Important
As we know, protein is the building block of every muscle and cell in the body. And because muscle is the body's weight-loss secret, your workout plan hinges on having enough to keep your muscles from breaking down, and as a result, losing strength. Without adequate protein, you will also put on extra pounds, contributing to the average American's five-plus pounds of added body fat each year.
Protein helps your body to build lean muscle mass, the muscle that keeps you strong and energetic and a great way to burn fat. However, more muscle isn't necessarily better. You have to be careful with your protein sources, especially if you don't have any genetic variations that affect muscle growth.
Despite what many don't realize, humans are only capable of processing 20% of the daily protein requirement, or approximately 54 grams per day. Even though it's rarely mentioned, the other 76% of the daily protein requirement goes toward building and maintaining muscle.
Protein helps our muscles grow bigger, stronger, and maintain proper muscle mass. Without sufficient protein intake, we don't gain the muscle we're looking for, our joints get weaker, and we end up looking like that guy in the hot dog commercials. Because of the over-exploitation of land, water, and other natural resources in the United States, the cost of producing enough animal protein to feed the entire world is almost unfathomable.
Protein is an essential nutrient for humans. From our most basic needs, protein makes up approximately 20% of the human body's weight and has the biggest influence on energy requirements, metabolism, muscle development, and body fat content.
Plant-based proteins are so high in dietary fiber, that they provide more overall calories and nutrients than animal-based proteins. Protein also has a number of beneficial biological properties. It is essential in allowing our cells to repair and regenerate, working to support a healthy immune system, and allowing for proper bone growth. Protein is necessary for growth and development. For infants, growth, development, and quality of life are largely dependent on adequate protein intake.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
First, it's important to get a general understanding of how much protein the average person needs to eat to maintain healthy body weight and healthy health. An average person (25 years of age or older) needs 2.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. That means an average 120-pound person needs to eat around 68 grams of protein every day (1.5 oz. per pound).
This can also be broken down into 50g of carbohydrates, 25g of fat, and 15g of protein. How much protein do you really need? While everyone's body responds differently to different dietary frequencies, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men between the ages of 19 and 35 need about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of their body weight every day.
The general consensus is that Americans need about 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight each day, or about 46g per day for a 150lb person. In other words, if you weigh 150lbs, you need about 3.3lbs of meat or poultry to meet your daily protein requirement. Keep in mind that this does not include other muscle-forming foods like dairy, soy, and legumes. However, here are a few ideas to help you get a handle on how many grams of protein your diet should contain:
- Plant-based foods (corn, peas, lentils, chickpeas, lentil, black beans, etc.): 2.5 to 4.5g per cup
- Legumes and whole grains: 4.0 to 5.5g per cup
- Seitan and tempeh: 5.0 to 6.5g per cup
- Seitan and tofu: 4.5 to 5.0g per cup
- Fresh fruit and vegetables: 1.5 to 2.0g per cup
- Vegetable broth: 1.5 to 2.0g
According to a list of recommended daily protein requirements, 1 gram of protein is considered the minimum amount that most adult bodies can handle on a daily basis. On a 1,000-calorie diet, for example, women need 55 grams of protein, while men need 55 grams of protein, and since both adults and children need 10 percent of their total calorie intake for protein, that's 40 grams for women and 55 grams for men.
Now that you have a general idea of what 1 gram of protein looks like in a 24-hour period, let's break it down into six simple meals to see how much you could have leftover for a few snacks. For women who are taking in 1,200 calories, a single breakfast of oatmeal, nuts, and berries is 170 grams of protein and 1,820 calories.
Protein From Plants
Animal sources of protein can be divided into two categories: Animal protein sources include all forms of animal flesh, organ meats, and products of animal digestion, including blood, bones, and organs (carbs are an animal source, but most of us don't eat too many). Plant sources include all forms of plants, but animal sources only make up approximately 30 percent of all proteins found in these foods. Though animal protein sources are the main source of protein for meat-eaters, it's easy to reduce the amount of animal protein in your diet, and, more importantly, it's easy to add in plant protein.
There are protein sources that are easily attainable in any vegetarian diet, and they include beans, nuts, soy, quinoa, and whole grains. All of these protein sources have been shown to be a solid source of protein, if not more so than meat, especially when they are consumed in an intelligent, portion-controlled way.
Plant sources also have added benefits to the diets of vegetarians, such as improving cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease, and helping in weight loss. While many vegetarian meat alternatives have been created to appeal to non-meat eaters and vegans alike, you can take advantage of those for the benefits they can provide your vegetarian diet. However, just because you're vegan or vegetarian, doesn't mean that you need to give up the meat.
The Best Plant-Based Sources Of Protein
The nutrition and protein content of each source of protein can be evaluated by comparing it to its animal source. To determine the nutritional content of each source of protein, I compared it to an animal source and I also threw in two percent of a well-known, high-quality, vegan protein supplement.
I chose the plant-based protein supplement, as it contains an all-natural combination of beans, peas, and peas. While that's more of a “non-meat” than a “meat alternative,” it does a good job of meeting the needs of vegans who do not want to use animal protein products or face the added health risk from an unbalanced diet.
While there are many plant-based protein sources, they are probably grouped into two main groups: fruits and vegetables. These sources alone provide the vast majority of the protein you need in a day (27 grams per day for those with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet), but they're also healthy enough to eat every day.
Plant proteins are divided into two groups: viscose fibres and non-viscose fibres. Both consist of protein in the form of polysaccharides, but one type differs from the other, which is important to know. Viscose fibres, or vegetables, come from plants that contain high levels of a type of starch that has been metabolized into glucose.
How Does A Vegetarian Get Enough Protein?
Most vegetarians will tell you that eating plants, like legumes and whole grains, is sufficient to reach their daily protein goals, while a few have discovered that the addition of vegetarian protein powders or vegan supplements offers an extra boost. What are some of the health benefits of meatless meals?
Meatless meals offer several benefits. They prevent the onset of many chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. Because they are typically lower in fat and higher in fiber, vegetarian sources of protein, also provide more energy for a given amount of protein than animal sources of protein. Not only are they high in protein, but they also supply iron, iodine, and the B-vitamins folate and B12, as well as calcium.
Take your protein source by whole food, not by packaged food. “Vegetarian” may be an umbrella term, but technically, if you don't eat meat, you can still be a vegetarian—unless you consume eggs or dairy products (which are not vegetarian-friendly). In this case, you can consider yourself “ovo-lacto” or “lacto-ovo” vegetarian.
By the way, there are many other ways to define “vegetarian” beyond eating meat. Vegans aren't vegetarian, and vegans, for the most part, do not eat meat either. So how can a vegetarian meet their daily protein requirement? Plant-based foods are loaded with protein and fiber, including beans, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, lentils, and even tofu. For example, one cup of cooked lentils has 4 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.
You still need foods that contain protein, and those foods will all be satisfying—and delicious—if you opt for animal sources. For vegans, plant-based proteins are the most effective. For omnivores, some good sources include nuts, seeds, legumes, quinoa, soy, and millet.
Depending on what you prefer, you can start eating these foods as part of your everyday diet or even incorporate them into your lunches or dinners. For example, beans have been recommended by dietitians for vegetarian diets since the 1980s because beans contain all eight essential amino acids (FAAs), and they're high in fiber, protein, and disease-fighting iron.
Vegetarian Protein Sources
While the number of protein-rich plant foods out there may be more than you thought, there are also a few key nutrient-dense plant foods that any plant-based eater can make a part of their daily diet. These nutritional powerhouses are chock full of fiber, unsaturated fats, and other nutrients that fuel an impressive nutrient profile.
Try some of these delicious vegetarian foods to get a taste of the plant kingdom! Fish like salmon contain a high level of omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that can help reduce cholesterol and can be beneficial for your heart. Because of this, it's no surprise that an omnivore is likely to be able to get the recommended daily amount of omega-3 fatty acids by eating two servings of salmon.
How do you get protein from plant sources? You can get most of the protein from legumes (beans, peas, etc.), nuts and seeds, as well as soy products. Plant sources of beans include:
- Black beans,
- Brown beans,
- Kidney beans,
- Rice beans,
- Pinto beans,
- Farro beans,
- Chickpeas, and
- Corn green beans.
All beans have a little something in them, even soybeans, which have a protein content of between 16 and 20 percent. Now, this can be confusing, because this doesn't mean that you can eat as much soy as you want. You may only get two or three servings from a serving of cooked beans. However, it is possible to increase your protein intake by taking in beans, especially if you enjoy refried beans and/or black beans.
How Much Protein Do Vegetarians Really Need?
The amount of protein we need depends on our own genetic make-up and our body's nutritional needs. For example, women in the United States require 55 grams of protein per day. For men, they require 62 grams. However, the amount of protein a woman needs to maintain muscle mass isn't as large as the need for extra protein to support bone and organ health.
So how much protein do vegetarians need? According to one study, adults who strictly follow a plant-based diet may be able to meet their daily protein requirements with just 13% of the amount of protein they would normally require in a day. That's a big difference from the 87 grams they would need by eating meat!
Recent research has found that it's actually quite easy to get the amount of protein you need in a vegetarian diet, and quite economical. A recent study from the University of Otago in New Zealand looked at the proteins that are actually found in most foods and discovered that plants can provide adequate amounts of proteins even when compared to meat sources.
Even better, vegans and vegetarians often eat less meat overall. What exactly is protein? Protein is made up of a family of amino acids called amino acids. It is formed by combining two separate molecules, and these two molecules have to fit together perfectly to form a functional protein.
According to EatRight.org, there are five main types of protein, which are amino acids that all have a name: branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), leucine, isoleucine, valine, and isopentenyl-β-methyl butyric acid (PBMBA).
Those interested in looking into protein from non-meat sources need only look to plant sources. There are a number of plants that contain sufficient amounts of these essential amino acids. Oats, almonds, dark, and green leafy greens are examples of plant sources of protein, and legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and peanuts are too.
Does A Vegetarian Diet Have Enough Protein?
The most widely accepted answer to this question is that a plant-based diet is definitely not deficient in protein. However, it can still be difficult to get enough protein if you're a vegetarian. First, protein takes longer to digest, so you need to eat more to get the same amount as if you ate meat.
Second, many vegetarians don't realize that beans contain a high amount of dietary fiber, which gets digested in your large intestine and eventually contributes to low levels of some important amino acids. These are the ones that your body uses to build proteins. A lacto-ovo vegetarian, for example, may have difficulty getting enough of the amino acids lysine and leucine, which are critical for muscle building and hair growth, respectively.
What Vegetarian Foods Are High In Protein?
You'll find that most, if not all, of these foods provide more protein than meat does. And that's pretty great if you're a vegetarian looking to maintain a healthy weight. Can You Get Enough Protein on a Vegetarian Diet? It depends. All plant foods contain some protein—even a small amount, like one egg, contains 5 grams of protein.
However, protein content is only one way to assess the healthfulness of a food. Do you need more protein than the other food groups? If you're 5'4″, you may need more protein than a “large” serving of meat.
Despite the fact that humans are supposed to be primarily vegetarian, we can eat plenty of meat-based foods, such as tofu, beans, and nuts. While many meat-based foods also contain some protein, they contain a much lower amount of protein than their plant-based counterparts.
For example, a one-ounce serving of beef has 10 grams of protein, while two ounces of soy has less than two grams of protein. Beans, nuts, and grains all contain less than two grams of protein per serving, while a serving of veggies has 3.5 to 7 grams of protein. So, when you're counting the number of servings of a certain food that have protein, it's easy to see why they're so low in the daily recommended intake.
In order to understand why, it's important to realize that we're talking about protein that you consume daily in the form of protein shakes, supplements, or your diet's single source of plant-based protein. Here's a complete list of the most common types of protein that people choose to eat:
- Pumpkin, and
Most of these foods are high in both protein and fiber, with beans, quinoa, and other legumes leading the pack in both categories. Another benefit of eating legumes (and other beans) is that they are low in calories, which is a huge plus if you're trying to slim down. Cultures around the world have been turning to beans for centuries as a means of survival.
Choosing the right protein sources can drastically increase the amount of protein that's accessible, and make the right nutrition choices easier and more enjoyable to incorporate into your diet.
The benefits of eating a vegetarian diet (aside from lowering your food bill) are a treasure trove of flavour and nutrients. Taking the time to evaluate your diet and incorporate healthier, lower-sugar, lower-sodium choices into it can make a world of difference. And remember: meat is only meat if it's processed with animal fat. From a plant-based diet, you're getting the fiber and other nutrients that you need for good health, without all of the saturated fat.
I trust you enjoyed reading the article about How Can Vegetarians Eat Enough Protein? Please stay tuned. There are more blog posts to come very shortly.
Your Opinion Is Important To Me
Ideas? Thoughts? Questions? I would love to hear from you. Would you mind leaving me your questions, experience, and remarks about How Can Vegetarians Eat Enough Protein in the comments section below? You can also reach me by email at Jeannette@LivingTheVeganLifestyle.org.
Here are some links to some of my favourite articles: