Many who consider or embrace a vegetarian lifestyle wonder if they're getting enough protein. Plenty of plant-based foods contain protein and contrary to what many people believe, the average vegetarian diet contains plenty of protein.
Importance of Protein
As a building block for the body, protein is essential to good health. But with today's advanced research and technology, scientists, doctors, and nutritionists have discovered that the human body doesn't need nearly as much as was once believed. In fact, according to WebMD, extra protein in the diet doesn't help you build more muscle and usually means you're consuming more calories and fat than you need.
In the past twenty years, the recommended daily intake of protein has been reduced by nearly half, across all age groups, yet most North Americans ingest far too much protein on a daily basis. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital found that this can lead to an "adverse impact on women with kidney problems."
In addition, too much or too little protein may contribute to osteoporosis, indicates nutrition expert Joy Bauer's website. Overindulgence in certain proteins (such as soy) can also be a trigger for food allergies, as the sufferer is reacting to the protein content in the offending foods.
Varying Protein Needs
The amount of protein that each person needs varies by gender, age, weight, and activity level. Athletes or those who work out regularly will need a little extra to build and maintain muscle mass. In addition, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers will need more protein to nurture their fetus and provide nourishment for their infants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein the average person needs each day based on gender and age.
- 18 to 70+ years - 46 grams
- 18 years - 52 grams
- 19 to 70+ years - 56 grams
The RDA is meant to meet the requirements of 97 - 98 percent of healthy individuals. However, the protein RDA is based on a formula that includes weight (0.8 grams/kg/day for adults). Depending on your weight, your protein needs may be higher or lower than the RDA. To determine your specific protein requirements, follow these steps:
- Divide your weight by 2.2 to determine how much you weigh in kilograms.
- Multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8 to figure out how many grams of protein you need each day. Pregnant and lactating women should multiply their weight in kilograms by 1.1.
Protein Needs for Children
Children are unlikely to care about how much protein they eat. However, as parents, it is necessary to make sure children are getting their required daily intakes of all nutrients including protein. Here are the recommended daily allowances for children, according to the CDC.
- 1 to 3 years (male and female) - 13 grams
- 4 to 8 years months (male and female) - 19 grams
- 9 to 13 years - 34 grams
- 14 to 17 years (female) - 46 grams
- 14 to 18 years (male) - 52 grams
As with adults, children may have higher or lower protein needs depending on their weight. Here's how to determine a child's specific protein needs:
- Determine the child's weight in kilograms by dividing their weight by 2.2
- Multiply their weight in kilograms by the following to determine how many protein grams are needed per day:
- Infants: 1.5
- Ages 1 - 3: 1.1
- Ages 4 - 13: 0.95
- Ages 14 - 18: 0.85
Protein for Vegetarians
Many people still believe that animals are the only good sources of protein for human consumption, but this has been proven false. While eggs and meat are complete proteins in and of themselves, vegetarians can still feed their bodies with all of the essential proteins and other nutrients they need with a varied diet.
Soy and More
The most common and complete source of protein that doesn't originate from an animal source is soy and soy products such as tofu and edamame. Many meat substitute products such as veggie burgers are also high in protein. For vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy, these are also excellent ways to boost protein intake.
Other foods, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and even some vegetables all contain proteins. These proteins are not considered "complete," as they only contain part of the nutrients that make up a whole protein. Combining these ingredients, however, results in complete proteins.
For example, a whole grain cereal with seeds and soy milk would make a complete protein. A bowl of baked beans with whole grain toast would also be a serving of complete protein. Even broccoli and potatoes are fair sources of protein, so it's quite easy for those eating a plant-based diet to get their daily recommended servings.
A Varied Diet
The bottom line is that a varied diet that encompasses all of the major food groups for vegetarians will provide enough protein on a daily basis. If you're at all concerned that you may not be getting enough protein, or any other nutrient, visit your doctor or nutritionist to build an eating plan that will cover all of your needs.