I remember telling my mom, years ago, that I was interested in exploring a vegetarian lifestyle. She couldn’t help voicing her concern. How would I get enough protein?
Later I started dating a lifelong vegetarian. When we got serious, Mom wasn’t shy about sharing her worries. Would I become a “full-on” vegetarian? If we had children someday, would we raise them as vegetarians?
Moms worry – that’s part of the job description. And although it’s easy to laugh at her concerns, the truth is that naively eliminating meat from one’s diet can result in nutritional deficits. Vegetarians and vegans understand that they must manage nutrition deliberately, and that in particular they must work to ensure they eat enough protein.
That lifelong vegetarian is now my husband, and although we enjoy the occasional taste of humanely, sustainably raised meat or fish, we exist mostly on fruits, vegetables and grains, just as my mother feared. I have taken classes on nutrition and shared knowledge to help quash her fears. But I have also monitored and adjusted my diet to ensure that I get all the nutrients I need.
Nutrition: It’s Personal
Experts have worked with governmental agencies for years to create dietary recommendations for the average eater with a breakdown of various vitamins, nutrients and food groups. You’ve seen these guidelines on food and vitamin packaging.
The guidelines are generally updated every decade or so, sometimes drastically but usually only slightly. Lower (and sometimes upper) limits are set for daily intake of vitamins and nutrients. The numbers are general enough to apply to largest swath of the population. But the information can be confusing, and it is often misunderstood or ignored entirely.
When we take nutrition to the individual level, it’s important to recognize that everyone is different. Only you know your body. Age, gender, workload, climate, athletic activity, general health and other factors influence your body’s nutritional needs. Before you make a big change in your diet, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor.
Managing Dietary Protein
Most Americans consume more protein than their bodies need. When that happens, the body does what it does whenever we consume an overabundance of any type of calories, whether from carbs, protein or fat: It converts the extra energy into long-term storage. That storage takes the form of fat.
That’s one reason to manage the amount of protein you consume. Eating too much can make you fat. But how much is too much?
Nutritionists say the average adult’s daily protein intake should be between 10 percent and 35 percent of all calories consumed. That’s about 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men.
Pregnant women, nursing mothers and athletes can require significantly more protein. Individuals suffering physical pain or psychological stress may have increased protein needs.
The bottom line is that you need to eat plenty of protein.
The Dietary Connection
Before you pull out your credit card to order a case of protein powder with rush shipping, take a moment to consider your diet.
Do you consider yourself healthy?
Do you cook a lot of your meals at home, and do you make sure your food choices are varied and nutrient-dense? Perhaps time constraints make this difficult, or you’re just not a fan of cooking. Unfortunately, processed food is rarely the best choice when it comes to one’s health. We’ll return to this a little later. For now, let’s consider the protein content of individual foods.
This is something most people know little about. Though you might be able to name a few good protein sources, do you know how much protein they contain?
Let’s put the government’s daily requirements into perspective with some hard data:
- An egg has about 6 grams of protein.
- There are about 8 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
- There are about 69 grams of protein in a grilled ribeye steak.
- There are about 8 grams of protein in a cup of cooked quinoa.
If you’re a meat eater, you probably get enough protein in a single meal to carry you through the day. You might even get enough to make up for a particularly strenuous workload or ramped-up athletic routine.
Meat-based proteins often come with a significant fat content, so individuals who eat a lot of animal-based products should keep an eye on how many calories they consume.
Picking a Protein Product
A balanced diet includes protein, carbs and fat. Unless you are told otherwise by a medical professional, every omnivore should try to consume a balanced diet that includes legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products.
There are lots of protein-packed manufactured foods on the market, typically aimed toward an audience of uber-athletic or elderly consumers. Personally, I prefer food-based nutrient sources. I tend to avoid supplements and processed nutrition aids of all kinds.
If you do choose a protein-enhanced convenience food, be sure to check the label before you buy. A shake or protein bar that contains your entire daily protein requirement might not be good for you. Chances are it’s also full of non-nutritive sugar and added fat. Sometimes the bad outweighs the good, even if it’s found in the “healthy” aisle of the grocery store.
Why Our Bodies Need Protein
Protein plays an important role in human health, contributing to structural support, movement and immune functions. Protein is also important for keeping energy levels up, and it helps create certain types of enzymes and hormones, including insulin. Different proteins do different things within the body, so it’s important to eat a varied diet.
Proteins are made of amino acids, which are sometimes referred to as the basic building blocks of life. There are 20 kinds of amino acids that combine to form various proteins and perform different functions in the body. Eating a varied diet helps us maintain a good supply of different types of amino acids.
Complete and Incomplete Proteins
Some amino acids are manufactured by the body, while others must be consumed from food sources. Nutritionists call these others essential amino acids. There are nine of them, and the body must maintain sufficient quantities of each for good health.
Perhaps you’ve heard particular foods referred to as complete proteins. These are foods that contain all nine essential amino acids. Though it is not necessary to get all of the essential amino acids from a single source (or even in a single meal), it can be helpful to understand which foods pack the strongest protein punch. This is where a bit of research can come in handy.
Understanding complete proteins is especially important for vegetarians, since they tend to consume less protein than omnivores. Maintaining protein levels and varying amino acid intake can be a particularly difficult feat for vegans, as the top sources of complete proteins are animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
Luckily for vegetarians, quinoa is a complete protein too. In fact, it’s one of a handful of plant-based proteins that contain all of the essential amino acids.
Foods that contain some but not all of the essential amino acids are referred to as incomplete proteins. If eaten in combination with complementary incomplete proteins, these foods can provide the body with all of the amino acids that it needs, essentially forming a complete protein.
Though it was once thought that incomplete proteins needed to be eaten together in order to realize their full benefit, nutritionists now understand that incomplete proteins can be eaten throughout the day to provide the body with an adequate source of various amino acids.
Protein Around the World
As I was fascinated to learn in a food-policy class when I studied gastronomy in college, the traditional eating patterns of many cultures found around the world pair complementary proteins. For example, beans or legumes are often eaten with rice. (Think pita bread and falafel with hummus, or dal with rice and yogurt.) Though legumes, seeds, nuts, grains and some types of dairy are incomplete proteins, the amino acids found in some of these foods complement the amino acids found in others. The body gets all the protein it needs for good health.
Something else to consider: Even vegetables, grains and fruit contain protein. Though it might not seem like much (less than a gram per apple or carrot, for example), think of all of the different foods that you eat in a day. Just because a food source isn’t mainly comprised of protein doesn’t mean the protein isn’t there. It all adds up.
According to Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, unless you’re eating a diet composed almost completely of fruit or sweet potatoes, you’re probably getting your daily protein requirement making any dietary changes.
Why Junk Food Is Junk
That may not be the case if you’re eating a diet that includes lots of junk food.
We don’t say “junk food” anymore when we refer to foods that are overly sweet, greasy or salty, though they are still junk. Sensitive to the negative connotation of the word “junk,” the food industry has coined a number of inoffensive-sounding synonyms: processed foods, fast food, refined grains, shelf-stable foods, and so on.
Non-nutritive food sources pack on calories from fat and sugar without providing the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. It is possible to get enough protein if you’re eating burgers and fries every day, but other essential elements are probably missing from your diet. The same goes for vegans: You don’t get the benefits of a healthy diet if most of what you eat is meat-free cookies and pizza.
Meat is a fantastic source of protein that is easily assimilated into the body. Vegetarians get enough protein to meet their needs by eating a combination of seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, eggs and dairy products.
Vegans can get the adequate amount of protein in their diets too. They just need to be a bit more conscious of where their protein is coming from and how much they are getting.
Not Eating Meat
My husband and I work hard to eat healthy amounts of protein even though we are mostly vegetarian. We are both conscious of environmental issues as they relate to farming, and animal welfare is important to us. We don’t eat meat or fish very often, and we try to buy products that were sustainably and humanely raised when we indulge.
Because we eat meat so rarely, we need to be conscious of our protein intake. Fortunately, there are many great vegetarian-friendly protein sources. For example, a cup of tempeh contains 31 grams of protein. Vegetarian food sources can be just as protein-rich as meat. You just need to know where to look.
Let’s Eat Healthy Out There
Before you make a drastic change to your diet or run to the store for protein supplements, consider what you’re already eating. Chances are you’re already getting more than enough protein in your diet. There are a lot of foods high in protein.
The guidelines in this article should help you optimize your protein consumption for better health.