By Florencia Tagliavini, Nutritionist
Many people who are interested in a vegetarian diet or eating more plant-based are concerned about getting enough protein. It may take vegetarians, especially vegans, a little extra work to meet protein recommendations but it's usually not a problem.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that is not only absolutely vital for health but to exist. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Each macronutrient is responsible for many functions in the body. Protein is made of a chain of many amino acids which are basically the building blocks that help grow and maintain the body's tissues - including muscles, tendons, blood vessels, skin, hair, and nails. They produce hormones, enzymes, immune factors, and other molecules to keep the body´s systems functioning properly. Getting a good amount of protein aside from the minimal amount needed to meet all basic bodily functions, can also help you eat less. Higher protein meals tend to keep you satisfied for longer, help you build muscle, and help speed metabolism to burn fat and calories.
Animal protein vs. Plant protein
Protein is classified as animal protein or plant-based protein. They differ because their amino acid content is different. Animal protein is considered a "complete protein" because it contains all essential amino acids. They are called "essential" because your body does not produce them, they must be consumed through the diet. Plant-based sources of protein are usually missing one or another essential amino acid and therefore are classified as "incomplete". All essential amino acids need to be present in order for protein to carry out its many vital roles in the body, however, vegetarians tend to be overly concerned about getting sufficient protein and combining foods to ensure consuming a complete protein at each meal.
Typically, as long as the calorie intake is adequate and a variety of foods are eaten, including beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables it will be easy to meet protein recommendations.
Let's take a closer look.
How much protein do we need?
The Institute of Medicine, under normal circumstances, recommends about 0.8g of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight to maintain basic bodily functions. That translates into a daily recommended intake (or DRI) of 56 grams of protein for the average sedentary man and 46 grams for the average sedentary woman.
For vegetarians, adjustments are made to account for plant-based proteins being digested differently from animal proteins and for the different amino acid make-up in some plant proteins. So the recommendation is closer to 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of weight.
In addition to the DRI for protein, the Institute of Medicine also provides a recommended range for protein intake, suggesting protein should make up 10% to 35% of your total calories. If you take in 2,000 calories per day, 10% to 35% of calories translates to a range of 50 to 175 grams of protein. In other words, the DRI represents the bare minimum.
*Pregnant or lactating women, as well as children and adolescents, have higher protein needs due to their accelerated stage of growth.
Vegetarian sources of protein
Here is a sample menu of how to cover the protein recommendation in one day:
Breakfast: 1 cup of oatmeal (7g), 1 cup of homemade almond milk (11g).
Lunch: Grilled tofu sandwich: 2 slices of wheat toast (6g), 100g of firm tofu or 1 cup (20g).
Snack: Fruit or veggies dipped in 2 tbsp. of peanut butter (8g).
Dinner: 1 cup of cooked brown rice (5g), 1 cup of cooked lentils (18g), 1 cup of cooked broccoli (4g).
This adds to 79 grams of protein without counting the protein in fruits, veggies and other foods you might consume in your day which are not good sources of protein but certainly contribute to your overall intake. It's not hard to meet the recommended intake!
Here are some vegan sources of plant-based protein along with their protein values:
- Cooked black beans (1 cup) =15 grams
- Almond butter (2 tbsp) = 7 grams
- Veggie burger (1 patty) = 11 grams
- Cooked quinoa (1 cup) = 8 grams
- Homemade almond milk, cashew milk, peanut milk, or pumpkin seed milk (1 cup) = 7 grams or more
- Edamame (1 cup) = 8 grams
- Hummus (½) cup = 6 grams
- Large potato (1) = 8 grams
For those who consume some animal products, here is a reference of the protein values:
- Eggs (2 whole eggs) = 13 grams
- Cheese (½ cup diced) = 14 grams
- Whole dairy yogurt (6oz /17g container) = 6 grams
- Meat (3 oz. serving) = 17 grams approx.
Although many plant foods are rich in protein, they do not have all of the essential amino acids you need. However, that should not prevent you from eating plant-based. It is possible to get all of the amino acids by consuming only plant-based proteins. You'll need to eat a variety of different types of foods throughout the day and as long as all of the essential amino acids are present in your diet, you don't need to worry about combining foods to ensure a complete protein at each meal.