10 Minute Vegetarian: Can You Get Enough Protein?

Posted Tue, 03/02/2010 - 1:46pm by Denise Reynolds

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One of the first questions almost every new vegetarian is asked has to do with getting enough protein by only eating plant foods. Meat is not the only source of protein, and it is a misconception that vegetarian diets cannot meet a person’s daily requirement for all of the essential amino acids.

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Take a look at a nutrition label and you will not see a recommended daily target for protein intake. That is because protein is based on a number of individual factors, including body weight. When dietitians calculate meal plans, the minimum number of protein grams needed each day is generally 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person (68.2 kg), this equals about 55 grams of protein per day.

Can a Vegetarian Get Enough Protein?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the average American consumes about 100 grams of protein per day on the typical “Western” diet. Vegetarians and Vegans consume slightly less, about 60-75 grams according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. But as you can see, for most people, this is likely enough protein, as long as calorie intake is also adequate.

Complete Proteins

Years ago, it was thought that vegetarians could not meet their protein needs with a plant-based diet because only animal protein provided a person with a “complete” or “high-quality” set of essential amino acids (the building blocks of the protein molecule). Vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs are not likely to have any problems with “complete” proteins, but food experts were concerned about vegans who do not eat any animal proteins.

The soybean is the only plant food that contains each of the nine amino acids that the body needs every day. Today, foods made to look, taste, and function like meat and dairy are produced using the soybean, and so many vegetarians and vegans can easily meet their protein needs on a daily basis by including these foods in their meal plans.

But even those who do not regularly eat soy can still achieve a complete protein profile with fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. In the past, vegans were advised to combine certain foods within a meal to ensure a complete protein was achieved. Beans, for example are missing an amino acid that tomatoes have, so chili made with beans and tomatoes would provide a complete protein. Nutrition experts now know that these essential amino acids do not have to be present in a single meal. As long as the diet is varied and planned for optimal health, over the course of the day, vegetarians and vegans alike can easily meet their complete protein needs.

This is a part of my ongoing series, 10 Minute Vegetarian. I’m busy, you’re busy. We want to be healthy, but we don’t have a lot of time. In the 10 minutes it takes you to read this article, you can learn something about the health benefits of the vegetarian diet and how to implement it in your own hectic schedule.

This post was included in the latest All Things Eco Blog Carnival.

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