How does a vegetarian or vegan get enough protein?
This is one of the first question people ask when considering vegetarian or veganism. However, contrary to popular belief, these diets don't have to involve complex recipes and food combinations to stay balanced. Vegans and vegetarians certainly need to make sure they're following a healthy diet - but so does everyone, including omnivores! Nonetheless, in a world where protein is usually measured by meat and dairy, how do you know you're getting enough?
Protein is an important macronutrient that maintains muscle, bone, hair and nail health, as well as supporting a strong immune system and energy production. Protein is made up of compounds called amino acids - these are often referred to as the 'building blocks' of life. Nine of these amino acids are called essential amino acids because we need them to survive and can't manufacture them ourselves - which means we have to get them from our diet. Meat, eggs, dairy and fish contain all nine essential amino acids and are often referred to as complete protein. But what about plant foods?
Complete protein for vegetarians and vegans
A number of plant sources contain the essential amino acids, including soya bean and quinoa. Other protein sources from plants usually have all of the essential amino acids but their amounts are very low. For example, grains are lower in lysine (an essential amino acid) and legumes are lower in methionine (another essential amino acid). As long as vegans and vegetarians eat a variety of plant proteins throughout the course of a day, they will meet their protein needs.
How much protein does one person need?
The amount of protein each person needs depends on their weight and level of physical activity. It is generally recommended that the base level (for someone leading a sedentary life) is around 0.9g protein / kg of body weight. People who exercise regularly will need more, and this will vary depending on the type and level of training - anywhere from 1.2 - 2g protein / kg body weight. Example: a 65kg person who exercises 3 - 4 times per week will need around 70-75g protein, spread out over 3 - 5 meals, each day.
How do you know how many grams of protein a meal contains?
Here are some examples to use as a guide:
EXAMPLE FOOD SOURCES
AMOUNT OF PROTEIN
½ cup cottage cheese
½ cup natural yoghurt
½ cup tofu
½ cup cooked beans
½ cup cooked lentils
½ cup cooked quinoa
What are some of the best sources of plant protein?
Soya products: tofu, tempeh, edamame, TVP (textured vegetable protein), soy milk.
TVP and tofu are extremely versatile - eat them alone or add into 'mock meat' dishes such as bolognaise, stir-frys, veg-meatloaf, lasagne, stew, etc.
Edamame can be found in the frozen section of many supermarkets and in all Asian supermarkets - these are delicious steamed and eaten as a snack.
Nuts and Seeds: almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, linseeds, etc.
These can be easily incorporated into snacks and main meals! For example: try hazelnut, almond or peanut butters on sourdough spelt toast; sprinkle sunflower seeds and pepitas over salads; make a delicious smoothie incorporating almonds, banana, berries and soy milk.
Nuts contain many other beneficial nutrients - each one imparts a different benefit, e.g. pistachios are especially high in the amino acid lysine.
Legumes: red beans, black beans, broad beans, kidney beans, lima beans, adzuki beans, mung beans, lentils, peas, sprouts, navy beans, etc.
People are sometimes wary of cooking with legumes, but nothing could be simpler! For example, chickpeas can be used to make falafel or hummus; cooked lentils can be stirred through a soup or salad.
Grains: rice, wheat, corn, rye, bulgur, oats, millet, barley, buckwheat, spelt, kamut, quinoa, etc.
All of these - not only wheat - are available as a whole grain flour, bread or pasta and noodles. There are many ways to incorporate a variety of grains into meals, such as using millet, polenta, or brown rice to accompany main meals; making sandwiches with spelt or rye bread; sprinkling wheat germ into casseroles or smoothies; mixing quinoa through salads.
If you eat a variety of vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds every day you can be sure you're getting plenty of protein (and many other beneficial nutrients!) in your vegetarian or vegan diet.