For many people, becoming a vegetarian or vegan can be daunting for a number of reasons – from coming up with daily meal ideas and variety of choices to concerns about intake of sufficient amounts of necessary nutrients for maintenance of good health. The most common criticism I frequently come across against vegetarianism is to do with protein. Arguments like, “You can’t possibly get enough protein in your diet without meat and dairy”, or “Only meat and dairy products are a source of complete protein”.

Let’s Talk About Protein

Protein is often defined as the building block of the body. It controls almost all of the cellular processes in our bodies required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. The human body’s muscles, skin, bones and many other parts contain significant amounts of protein. In fact, protein accounts for 20% of total body weight.

Proteins are molecules made of amino acids. They are part of our genetic code and form the basis of living tissues. There are 21 different types of amino acids that can be combined to make a protein (many references tell you there are 20 but that’s because the last amino acid was discovered quite recently). The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique structure and its specific function. They build muscle; repair body tissue; provide energy; transport molecules such as oxygen; act as antibodies, messengers, hormones and enzymes to coordinate biological processes between different cells, tissues and organs.   

There are 10 amino acids that your body can’t make. Amino acids that depend on diet are called essential amino acids, mostly because they are necessary for the body to function properly. A protein is complete if it provides all of the essential amino acids. You have to get these from the food you eat. They are found in foods like milk, eggs and meat and also a wide variety of plants.

Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete proteins that when eaten together provide all the essential amino acids. For example, rice has nine essential amino acids, but lacks lysine. Chickpeas have also nine of them, but don’t have methionine, so when eaten together they make a great source of a complete protein.

You don’t need to eat essential and nonessential amino acids at every meal, but getting a balance of them over the whole day is important. A diet based on a single plant item will not be adequate but you don’t need to worry about pairing proteins (such as beans with rice in the example above) at every meal. The important thing is the adequacy of the diet overall throughout the day. Getting a daily supply of protein is crucial because your body doesn’t store amino acids. 

How Much Protein Do I Need

The amount of protein we should consume for optimal health is a heavily debated topic and can be confusing. Research is ongoing but far from settled.

It is common for athletes and bodybuilders to consume extra protein to maintain or increase muscle mass. But eating more protein does not mean eating more meat. There are also many plant foods that can provide high-quality protein without the added saturated fats.

According to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans we should get between 10% to 35% of our daily calories from protein. To put it another way, the average person needs 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That means a 140 pound woman would need to take in about 50 grams of protein every day.

But that’s not the final word, there are several other variables. If you engage in endurance training, the number goes up. If you lift weights, the number goes up.

I found a couple of tools that I think are very helpful in measuring individual protein and overall daily nutrient and calorie intakes.

The interactive calculator below is a great tool to calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI), daily calories and nutrients. It is used by healthcare professionals to calculate daily nutrient recommendations for dietary planning based on the most current scientific knowledge on nutrient needs developed by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine.

This one calculates your minimum and maximum protein intake based on weight and level of physical activity. LINK: 

How Do You Get Enough Protein On A Vegetarian Diet 

Now that you know what your protein requirements are, how do you go about getting enough if you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet? I compiled the chart below to help you figure this out and plan well-balanced, nutritious meals. Click on the chart to enlarge.

plant protein chart

*This food is a complete protein by itself.

**It’s important to note that every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born. Peanut butter on whole wheat is an easy snack that, while pretty high in calories, provides a heaping dose of all the essential amino acids and plenty of healthy fats to boot. Another combination is hummus with pita – 2 tablespoons of hummus with 1 whole-wheat pita gives you approximately 7 grams of complete protein.

***Hemp seed contains all of the essential amino acids, though technically it’s too low in lysine to be considered complete.

Additional Tips for a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet

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  • Egg yolks, while packed with protein and nutrients, are high in cholesterol. Be aware of this, especially if your cholesterol levels are high. If you eat only egg whites, you will be limiting the amount of protein by 40 percent.
  • It’s important to note that plant-based proteins also come with a wide range of other vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fibre.
  • Recommended daily amounts of protein vary depending on age, gender, physical activity, and health status. Plant-based proteins may be digested differently from animal proteins; it’s possible you’ll need to adjust the amount you eat. you can visit a nutritionist or health care provider to review your specific nutrition needs.
  • Vegetables contain incomplete proteins, so it’s important to remember to combine them with whole grains to form a complete protein. Legumes like lentils and chickpeas, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are among the veggies with higher protein content.
  • Nondairy milk provides different amounts of protein, depending on the type. Protein in soymilk is similar in quantity and quality to that provided by dairy milk. Almond milk has a very high nutritional value, but has a much lower protein content. Make sure to look out for organic and GMO-free soy and nut milks.
  • Hemp powder, milk, oil, or seeds can be eaten raw in smoothies or salads. Even though hemp is made from the Cannabis plant, it lacks the psychoactive ingredient, so it’s safe to consume. Hemp has a high quality of protein content.
  • Quinoa – apart from its high content in antioxidants, carbohydrates, and minerals, this whole grain cereal contains an excellent amount of high-quality protein with all essential amino acids. Other grains may contain good amounts of incomplete protein.
  • Tofu – the amount of protein in tofu is comparable to the protein content in meat and milk, and being a derivative of soy, it also has a complete protein content.
  • Tempeh is also a food made from soybeans; it’s less popular, but has significantly more protein than tofu, and is a great source of fiber and vitamins.
  • Some nuts and seeds like almonds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios, and grains like buckwheat, oats, wheat and rye, have an adequate amount of protein. Most seeds have an adequate amount of a highly digestible incomplete protein, so be sure to combine them with other whole grains or veggies.

Some vital nutrients like vitamin B12 are only found in animal products and you may need to take a supplement.You can find good plant-based protein sources, but be aware of the fact that digestibility, nutrient absorption, and amount of daily intake may vary. As soy intake is still controversial, you may want to be aware of the amount you take on a daily basis. Choosing from a variety of protein sources is always the best option.

To help you include more plant-based and meatless protein foods in your diet, here are 3 recipes:

Quinoa Lentil Salad with Cumin

Not only will your taste buds love all the different textures and flavours in this dish but your body will also appreciate the fibre and many nutrients such as folate, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron and protein just to name a few! It can be served as a salad, entrée or side dish.

Roasted Vegetable Frittata with Asparagus and Mushrooms

Frittata is an egg-based classic Italian brunch dish.There’s no such thing as a frittata for one. It is something you make when you want to feed a few more people.

Vegan Protein Goddess Bowl

Even if you are not a vegetarian, this meal is a great alternative for meatless Mondays! I altered the recipe to make it gluten free by replacing the wheat berries with quinoa and chick peas.

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