What Every Vegetarian Needs To Know About Protein

For every vegetarian out there who is eating a well-rounded diet, there are many more who aren`t getting their nutrients. More specifically: not getting enough protein!

I have been a vegetarian since I can remember, refusing at age 5 to eat regular family dinners cooked with meat. A common concern posed to me throughout my life has always been: how do you get enough protein?

Getting enough protein as a vegetarian is easier than most people think, although it takes some planning and education.

Let's start at the very beginning. It's the very best place to start! The very first thing every vegetarian should figure out about protein is:

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein contains amino acids. We need amino acids so that our body can create enzymes (functional) for digestion, as well as healthy bones, skin, hair, teeth and nails (structural). It is also necessary for the production of antibodies, which help our bodies to fight infection and illness.

The human body is able to create a number of amino acids on its own, but another 8 are required essentially, and these we need to get through our diets. If we don`t eat enough protein, our body will basically eat its own muscles to get those essential 8 amino acids (a.k.a. starve itself).

Protein needs will vary from individual to individual. The RDA recommends that we take in 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that we weigh (or about 0.36 grams of protein per pound that we weigh). On average, the needs look like this:

Children ages 1 - 3 need 13 grams
Children ages 4 - 8 need 19 grams
Children ages 9 - 13 need 34 grams
Girls ages 14 - 18 need 46 grams
Boys ages 14 - 18 need 52 grams
Women ages 19 - 70+ need 46 grams
Men ages 19 - 70+ need 56 grams

But again, this is average. Athletes need much more protein than someone who is moderately active, and it`s important to know as specifically as possible how much you need.

Here's An Easy Way To Calculate Your Protein Needs:

Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 = this is your weight in kg
THEN multiply your weight in kg x (0.8-1.8 gm/kg) = this is your daily protein needs in grams.

I weigh 120 lbs, and I exercise 3 - 4 times per week heavily. So according to the calculations above, (54.54 kg x (1.4)) my daily protein needs are 76.35 grams.

The number in brackets should be closer to .8 if you are relatively healthy but not very active. If you are active daily, exercise 3 - 4 times per week or more, are stressed, pregnant or recovering from an illness, use a number from 1 to 1.8.

Now that you know how much protein you need every day, you need to know:

The Difference Between A Complete VS Incomplete Protein

As we learned above, the human body requires protein for its essential amino acids, in order to function optimally. When a protein is made up of all essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein - and when it`s lacking, it`s called an incomplete protein.

Animal foods are complete proteins, like beef, lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Most Fruits, veggies, grains, seeds and nuts in their whole states are incomplete proteins, which is why many people think that without eating meat we vegetarians are missing out.

But going meat-free doesn`t mean that we can`t get enough protein! While a few plant kingdom foods are complete proteins, including the ancient grain quinoa (pronounced key-noah) and soy beans, one can combine incomplete proteins (like beans and rice) to create a protein that is complete.

Contrary to popular belief, incomplete proteins don`t need to be eaten at the same meal - in fact, according to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention as long as incomplete proteins are eaten within the same day, our bodies can create a complete protein. So you could, for example, have a bowl of plain beans for lunch and a bowl of rice for dinner, and the two would count towards your complete protein requirement. But that`s not nearly as yummy as properly food combining!

How To Combine Foods

Food combining means taking 2 or more incomplete proteins and putting them together to create a complete protein. It can be as simple as eating split-pea soup with a slice of whole grain bread, or even beans and rice.

As long as we know which foods to combine, we can make sure we get enough protein every day! Food combinations that make a complete protein are:

Legumes (beans) + seeds
Legumes + nuts
Legumes + grains

Common meals made up of food combinations are:

Beans and rice or corn/flour tortillas
Corn and beans
Edamame or chick pea hummus with pita
Nut or seed butter on sprouted grain bread
Pasta with beans or nuts (ie. pesto)
Split pea soup with whole grain or seeded crackers or bread
Veggie burgers on a bun

It`s so easy for vegetarians to get enough protein by eating meals like those described above. But remember: in order to get enough protein, you have to know how much protein your body needs. So the key here is knowing how much protein is, gram for gram, in each food! Many people are surprised to learn just how high in protein vegetarian foods can be. Have a look at some common animal-free foods:

Large Egg 7 grams/egg
Milk 8 grams/cup
Cheese (eg. Cheddar) 7 grams/ounce
Bread 4 grams/slice
Cereal 4 grams/1/2 cup
Vegetables 2 grams/ 1/2 cup
Soybeans (dry) 10 grams/ounce
Peanuts 7 grams/ounce
Lentils (dry) 6.5 grams/ounce
Red beans 6 grams/ounce
Baked potato 9 grams/8 ounces
Cashews 5 grams/ounce

To find out per gram how much protein is in a particular food, check out the USDA Nutrient Data Library. Just enter your food and the food group you want to search.

A Super Food For Super Digestion

Some people are deficient in protein because they simply can't digest it! This class of people includes young children and the elderly.

For people who can't digest bulky protein, a class of plant foods called "superfoods" can offer valuable supplementation. A great example is Spirulina, a super blue-green algae that grows in fresh water. It is
grown under controlled circumstances, harvested, dried and powdered; it can be taken in capsule or powder form. Known as a complete protein, it contains all the essential amino acids necessary for our bodies. It's 85-95% digestible, and it has a whopping 60% protein content - higher than beef or soy!

Go easy, though. It's also really high in beta carotene as well as many other vital nutrients, so it is not to be used as a singular protein source. Instead, a tsp a day can significantly contribute to anyone's required protein amount.

And finally:

Is It Possible To Get Too Much Protein?

High intake of animal protein have been linked to various ailments like osteoporosis, since eating too much of it can cause the body to excrete extra calcium; too much protein is also super taxing on the liver and kidneys, since these are the organs used to excrete toxins. Animal products are also higher in fats, which can clog arteries and contribute to greater health risks. The troubles associated with high protein diets relate mostly to meat-eaters, but like anything too much of a good thing can mean trouble.

Most people already eat more than enough protein without even knowing it. Whether consuming animal or plant protein, the bottom line is to eat with awareness, and moderation. And enjoyment!

To your health, Sage

Photo Credits: kaibara, mymollypop , mesohungry , satoru_kikuchi

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