I recently saw an e-card featuring a young woman carrying a bounty of fruits and vegetables in her arms. The card said humorously, “No one cares about your protein intake until they find out you’re vegan.” If you’ve been a vegetarian or vegan for some time, the card would be sure to elicit a chuckle. You’ve heard the question a hundred times: How do you get enough protein?
Without a doubt, the protein question is the first one most people ask when evaluating a plant-based diet. And any responsible vegetarians or vegans will have asked it to themselves as well. Is tearing into a steak or devouring a rotisserie chicken the only way to get protein? No, in fact, we can get protein from many other sources; we are simply prone to forget it due to our cultural misconceptions and stereotypes.
Let’s take a look at the issue. In our diets, there are essentially three sources of calories: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. According to the most current USDA dietary guidelines, adolescents and adults should get at least ten percent of their calories from protein. (It might come as a shocker but at least twenty percent needs to come from healthy fats.) Ten percent doesn’t sound like much, what does that equate to?
Well, leaving meat aside, the protein content in wheat ranges from 12 to 18 percent. Dry roasted almonds are more than 13 percent protein. Even your humble boiled potatoes or carrots will get you over 10 percent. Beans and lentils are heavy hitters and are about 20 – 30 percent protein. Interestingly enough, even romaine lettuce and spinach have a good amount of protein, around 20 and 30 percent respectively—maybe that’s how Popeye got so strong.
As you can see, getting 10 percent is really not difficult. However, there is a little more to it—let’s take a look at protein quality. This is the subject that should really be of concern to people eating a plant-based diet. Protein is made up of amino acids, which could be described as building blocks for our body. Our bodies can synthesize many amino acids for themselves. However, there are eight essential amino acids (9 for children) that need to come from the foods we eat. A high quality or complete protein is a protein that contains a proper balance of all 8 essential amino acids.
Different foods contain different mixes of amounts of amino acids; this is one of the main reasons it is important to eat a wide variety of foods. One of the most important (and often overlooked) types of food to include in your diet is legumes. Legumes, foods that develop in pods, such as beans, peas, and lentils, should be a major component of those on a plant-based diet. They contain the amino acids that are often lacking in grains. Besides this, they are packed with protein and a host of other good things like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you are eating legumes every day, you are sure to be getting enough protein.
Because legumes happen to contain the amino acids that grains lack—and vice versa—many people have recognized the usefulness of combining these two types of food. Often, people refer to these combinations (rice and beans, bread and peanut butter, etc.) as a combined protein. The idea is that eating these foods together ensures a great balance of amino acids.
While this relationship is important to understand, it is also important to know that one does not need to combine proteins at every meal. Some people fret too much about this but it is not necessary. When we consume food, the body breaks it down into individual amino acids. Then, the body will assemble these amino acids into proteins and use them as it needs. The body is also capable of storing them for later use. This means that your body will have no problem creating protein as long as you are consuming a balance of amino acids sometime during the day. It is also worth noting that soy and quinoa are complete proteins; so it’s not a bad idea to include them in your diet sometimes.
In short: as long as you are eating a balanced diet, full of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes, you will be able to get all the protein you need. So don’t worry next time someone tells you that you can’t be healthy without eating meat; you don’t need to turn into a tyrannosaurus rex, your pinto beans and tofu are doing a great job.
If you have any more questions about nutrition and a plant-based diet, check out our article: The ABC’s of Vegetarian Nutrition.