One of the first questions vegetarians are asked when acknowledging their dietary preferences is, “Are you getting enough protein?” Many people assume it’s impossible to consume sufficient protein on a diet that consists largely of fruits and vegetables. But many vegetarians get the protein their bodies need.
Many people are overly concerned with protein intake, eating more than they really need to meet health requirements. The Recommended Daily Allowance of protein in North America is .36 grams of protein for every pound a person weighs. Many people need less protein than they think, which is likely one reason many non vegetarians eat roughly one-third more protein than vegetarians. The Vegetarian Resource Group says there are no distinct health advantages to consuming a diet high in protein.
How protein works
The body digests protein into amino acids to fuel its activity and aid in tissue repair. There are 20 different amino acids in food, but the human body can only make 11 of them. Your body cannot synthesize essential amino acids, which must come from your diet. The nine essential amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body, must be obtained strictly from food. Foods that contain all of the amino acids necessary are called “complete protein sources.” Many animal products are great sources of complete protein, but complete protein also can be found in plant based foods. One food that is a complete protein source is the soybean.
Other plant based foods may not be complete proteins by themselves, but when eaten together, can complement one another to provide all the necessary amino acids. For example, combining beans and legumes with certain grains, seeds and nuts is a way to get the protein one needs. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that intentionally combining foods at strict ratios is not necessary. As long as your diet contains a variety of foods, many protein needs are easily met.
Less protein healthier?
Many fad diets point to high protein sources for weight loss and improved athletic performance. But reports published in journals like Nutrition and Cancer and the American Journal of Epidemiology indicate high intake of protein, particularly animal protein, may be linked to osteoporosis, cancer and impaired kidney function. Eating a healthy, moderate amount of protein, such as that in vegetarian or vegan diets, can be beneficial.
Many vegetarians need not worry about their protein intake. As long as diets include plenty of grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, vegetarians can meet their bodies’ protein needs.