If you’ve ever told anyone that you are vegetarian or considering it, you’ve probably heard one of these questions:
- “Do vegetarians get enough protein?”
- “Isn’t plant protein inferior to animal protein?”
- “Where do vegetarians get their protein?”
We hear these questions usually because people are legitimately concerned for our health. These are very valid questions and perhaps you also are not sure about the answers, so let’s see what the research says.
What is protein and why is it important?
Protein is a nutrient that we cannot live without. It is made up of amino acids. Some of these amino acids are created within our bodies, and some are not. Those that are not are called ‘essential’ amino acids and must be consumed within our diets.
The protein we consume helps to grow, maintain, and repair our bodies.
How much protein do we need?
This is a complicated question. Many factors affect how much protein you need: your age, your sex, and your weight. In order to know how many grams of protein is recommended for you, you should average .9 grams of protein for every kilo of weight. In other words, use this calculation:
Body weight (in kilograms) X 0.9 = recommended protein intake
EXAMPLE: A 60-kilo person needs about 54 grams of protein per day
This calculation includes a safety margin to make sure every individual’s needs are covered. In fact, many people do just fine and actually thrive on a diet including slightly fewer than the recommended guideline.
Do vegetarians get enough protein?
Vegetarians / vegans get their protein from plant sources. Some people are under the impression that plant protein sources provide protein that is less complete because it may contain only some of the essential amino acids. According to research (cited below), every plant protein includes at least some of every essential amino acids.
Also, it has been a popular belief that you must combine certain foods in order to obtain protein from certain plant foods. For example, eat bread and beans at the same meal in order to get “complete protein”. Considerable research has been carried out over the last few years and has consistently shown that our livers can store amino acids and they can be used when needed at a later time, so there is no need to combine certain foods at the same time.
So, where do vegetarians / vegans get their protein?
Here is a short list of some foods and the amount of protein in each.
|Plant-Based Food||Protein in grams|
|1 cup of firm tofu||40 g|
|1 cup cooked soybeans||29 g|
|1 cup cooked lentils||18 g|
|1 cup pinto beans||15 g|
|1 cup black beans||15 g|
|1 cup cooked chickpeas||15 g|
|1 cup cooked fava beans (foul)||13 g|
|1 cup red kidney beans||13 g|
|1/2 cup almonds||12 g|
|1/2 cup pumpkin seeds||12 g|
|8 ounces soymilk||8 g (same as cow’s milk!)|
|2 tablespoons peanut butter||8 g|
|1 cup oatmeal||7 g|
|1 cup bulgur (make some Tabouli!)||6 g|
|1 cup broccoli||6 g|
|1 loaf of baladi bread||6 g|
|1 cup brown rice||5 g|
|1 medium potato||4.5 g|
|1/2 ounce walnuts (7 halves)||4.3 g|
|1 cup white rice||4.1 g|
|1/2 ounce almonds (12 nuts)||3 g|
|1 cup chopped cooked cabbage||2 g|
|1 cup tomatoes||1 g|
|1 medium carrot||0.6|
This is a short list. Many more foods not listed here contain protein as well. As you can see, a wide variety of foods contain protein and it is possible to get more than enough protein in a vegetarian / vegan diet that includes a selection of these foods.
Too much protein: a health risk?
Recently, diets very high in protein and very low in carbohydrates have been the rage. The value of such diets, emphasizing high intake of meat and very little fruits and vegetables is not supported by the research in the field. In fact, they may have negative effects on our health, including contributing to osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, and heart disease. To avoid over-doing the protein, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine recommends trying to include the following in your diet each day:
- 5 or more servings of grains
- 3 or more servings of vegetables
- 2 or 3 servings of legumes
Protein is one nutrient of which we should be conscious as we plan our diets. There are others that we will discuss here soon.
More information about Protein:
Vegan Health.org: Where do you get your protein?
Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine: How Can I Get Enough Protein? The Protein Myth
Compassionate Cooks: Protein: Getting the facts straight