Protein seems to be all the rage these days. It’s making an appearance in sports drinks, breakfast cereals, ice cream, bread, pasta, and of course energy bars and yogurt. The latest diet trends seem to revolve around protein. Many people interpret this as an invitation to load up on meat, but there are also plenty of protein sources available for vegetarian and vegan diets.
Before we dive in to protein-rich foods, let’s take a look at what protein is and what it does for our bodies. Protein is made from chains of amino acids. Some amino acids can be made by the body and some, “essential” amino acids, need to be eaten since the body cannot make them. These essential amino acids have important functions in the body such as muscle production, tissue repair, bone development and production of certain substances in the body such as dopamine, niacin, and serotonin. Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass, for keeping the immune system healthy and for energy.
It is true that animal products are high quality protein sources, however, there are plant-based foods that are also protein-rich and contain all or almost all of the essential amino acids the body needs.
Although many of the plant-based foods above contain a decent amount of protein, each of them may not be a complete source of amino acids by themselves (unlike meat), so it is important for vegetarians and vegans to eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day. In addition, there are some amino acids and nutrients that are not available in plant foods and so may be worth taking in supplement form or eating specifically fortified foods:
- Vitamin B12 needed for red blood cell formation and nerve and brain function.
- Vitamin D3 is only found in animal products. It is important for bone strength. It is a more potent form of Vitamin D than D2.
- DHA, an omega-3 fat is only found in fish and fish oil. Microalgae is a vegan supplement that contains DHA.
- Heme-iron comes from animal products and is absorbed better than plant sources of iron.
- Taurine, carnosine, and creatine are three substances only found in animal products but they have necessary health functions.
How much protein do we need? The usual recommendation is .8gr/kg or .36g/lb. for the average person. For vegans or when taking into account that some plant proteins are harder to digest, the recommendation increases to .9g/kg or .41 g/lb. or about 10% of calories. Depending on your size, the recommendation for protein for adult male vegans is around 60-70 grams per day and for adult female vegans it is about 52-60 grams per day. For vegetarian or vegan athletes, it is recommended to eat 1.3-1.8g/kg/day protein to maintain a good protein balance. For weight loss on a low carb diet it is recommended to have 25-30% of calories from protein so that would be 2 1/2 -3 times the protein as recommended above.
So how do you know if you are eating enough protein in a day? Here are some amounts of protein in grains, veggies and nuts:
As usual, I recommend eating a variety foods including fruits, veggies and various protein sources. Sites like OliveNation make it easy to find a few of these plant-based protein sources in one place. Everything in moderation is usually a safe rule to go by. You can email me if you have specific question on your diet or protein intake at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com