What every vegetarian needs to know about protein

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Most criticisms of a vegetarian lifestyle revolve around the argument of protein. I know when I made the switch as a teenager, my parents were concerned that I wouldn’t be getting enough of it in my diet. It is a common belief that when a person cuts out meat from their diet, they will not be receiving the full balance of nutrition that their body needs. But is there any truth to that argument? And how much protein does a person need, anyway?

What are proteins?

Proteins are molecules made up of amino acids. They are absolutely necessary for health. In fact, every cell in the human body contains protein. It is a major part of the skin, muscles, organs, and glands. Protein is also found in all body fluids, except bile and urine. When we think of protein, we often think of it being important to the growth of our muscles, but the role it plays in our bodies goes far beyond this single function. Your body uses proteins to create new cells, maintain tissues, and generate new proteins that make it possible for you to perform basic bodily functions. They are essential for everything from eye health to memory to a healthy functioning immune system. Clearly getting enough protein in our diet is very important, but balance is key. Many studies show that too much protein can actually have negative effects on our health, such as kidney damage, risk of heart disease and seizures. and reduced liver and brain functions.

How much protein does the average person need?

The RDA of protein for adult women is 46 grams, while adult men should receive about 56 grams. And yet, the average american consumes up to 50% more than this in meat alone! A good example of a single days worth of protein would be one 6oz serving of steak (42g), or 5oz of chicken breast. For vegetarians, a breakfast of oatmeal with a glass of milk (21g), a soy-based veggie burger for lunch (15g), and a slice of cheese pizza (12) for dinner would put you right in line with the RDA (okay, men can just have another slice of pizza 🙂 ). Vegans may have to be a little more conscious of what they are eating to be sure they get enough, however there are plenty of plant-based sources that are extremely high in protein, such as beans and legumes, seeds and nuts, whole grains, non-dairy milks, leafy greens, and, yes, even unsweetened cocoa powder (yay!). Below is a list of high-protein foods to help get you started:

  • Green peas – One cup contains 7.9 grams
  • Quinoa – contains more than 8 grams per cup
  • Nuts and nut butter – contain 5 or 6 grams of protein per ounce
  • Beans (kidney, pinto, black, etc.) – 7-10g per half cup cooked
  • Chick peas – 7.3g per half cup
  • Tempeh and tofu – 15-20g per half cup
  • Edamame – 8.4g per half cup
  • Leafy Greens – one cup of chopped broccoli contains 8.1g
  • Eggs (large) – 6g each
  • Milk – 8g per cup
  • Cottage cheese – 15g per half cup
  • Cheese – 6-10g per oz.

Are all protein-rich foods are created equal?

Some foods, such as eggs, are considered ‘complete proteins’ because they contain all the essential amino acids (those which the body cannot make on its own and has to be supplemented through diet). Generally, proteins derived from animal foods (meats, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and milk) are complete, though gelatin is an exception. Plant-based complete proteins include soy, amaranth, hemp seed and quinoa. However ‘Incomplete proteins’ can be combined to help you meet your dietary requirement of complete proteins.

Grains can be combined with legumes:

  • Black beans and rice
  • Pasta and peas
  • Whole wheat bread and peanut butter
  • Bean soup and crackers

As well as nuts and seeds plus legumes:

  • Roasted nuts, seeds and peanuts
  • Hummus (chickpeas and tahini)
  • Lentils and almonds

With a balanced and varied diet, vegetarians and vegans alike should have no problems reaching the RDA of protein. In fact, compared to the traditional meat-based american diet, which tend to be too high in protein, plant-based diets appear to be the healthier choice. Just remember that variety is the key- make sure to eat lots of different colored veggies and plenty of whole grains. For non-vegans, dairy and eggs contain generous amounts of protein. Vegans should be sure to include plenty of legumes and nuts in their diet.

So, to summarize:

  • Protein plays a key role in basic health
  • RDA of protein is 46g for adult women and 56g for adult men
  • Most meat-based diets include an excess amount of protein, which can be harmful to health
  • A varied diet that includes eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy greens, and whole grains should provide ample amounts of protein in balanced proportions
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