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Myth: You can't get enough protein from vegetarian or vegan food sources
Disclaimer: I am a big fan of protein, which you may discover why in part from reading this article.
Do you NEED to eat meat? No.
Should you AVOID eating meat? From a health perspective, certainly not. But that's your choice.
There are many reasons why someone may choose to eat vegetarian or vegan protein sources, either in following a vegetarian or vegan diet altogether, or having a meatless meal. This may include the sustainability and ethics of food sources, the environmental impacts, the economic feasibility, and potential health effects. However the health benefits of following a vegan or vegetarian diet are largely due to the increased intake of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats, as opposed to the decreased intake of animal protein in healthy individuals.
This isn't an argument for choosing to eat meat or not, but rather an appraisal of the adequacy of protein intake from vegetarian or vegan food sources.
Protein can be found in many foods, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, soy, dairy products and others. Protein is an essential part of a healthy, well balanced diet. It provides the building blocks (amino acids) of muscles, cells, hormones, enzymes - essentially every part of your body requires protein to function properly. When comparing animal and vegetarian protein sources the quality and quantity of protein should be considered.
There are many factors which may impact the nutritional quality of protein sources, such as saturated fat (less is more), the way the animals are raised (although controversial), and amino acid profile, among many others. Animal protein sources are considered to be complete protein sources, as they contain all the essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those which cannot be produced by the body, and are therefore required to be consumed daily. Vegetarian protein sources, such as legumes and nuts, are often deficient in one or more essential amino acid. It is a myth however that you need to combine vegetarian protein sources at every meal. To ensure you are consuming all the essential amino acids when choosing vegetarian proteins, focus on consuming a variety of protein-rich foods throughout the day. Although vegetables, fruit, and grain products contain some protein, the amounts are insignificant to be considered protein sources.
To ensure you are getting enough protein, it is recommended that adults consume at least 0.8 g of protein for every kg of body weight per day. For example, a 60 kg female requires at least 48 g protein daily. However this recommendation is intended as a minimum as opposed to optimal intake. In those who are active or trying to increase muscle mass greater protein intake is recommended, between 1.2-2 g/kg/day, with the latter intended for strength athletes or those who weight train regularly. In those aiming to lose weight and gain muscle, protein intake up to 2.5 g/kg/day may be beneficial when combined with a heavy resistance training program. This in part is due to dietary proteins role in preserving muscle mass and promoting satiety during an energy deficit (reduced caloric intake relative to needs). Additionally, it is a myth that consuming a high-protein diet will lead to kidney failure in healthy individuals. However in those with a history of kidney dysfunction, excess protein intake (>1.2 g/kg) may exacerbate the condition. Older adults and pregnant and nursing women require slightly greater amounts of protein to support growth and prevent muscle loss (1.1-1.2 g/kg/day).
The following list highlights the protein content of animal and vegetarian protein sources:
Food: Portion: Protein:
Meat, fish, poultry: 75 g (2.5 oz); 21 g protein
Eggs, whole: 2 large: 12 g protein
Egg whites: 1 large: 4 g protein
Cow's milk: 1 cup: 9 g protein
Soy milk: 1 cup: 8 g protein
Cheese: 50 g (1.5 oz): 12 g protein
Greek yogurt : ¾ cup: 15 g protein
Regular yogurt : ¾ cup: 7 g protein
Cottage cheese: ½ cup: 13 g protein
Tofu: 150 g (3/4 cup): 12 g protein
Nuts or seeds: ¼ cup: 8 g protein
Nut or seed butters: 2 Tbsp: 8 g protein
Legumes: ¾ cup: 12 g protein
Quinoa: 1 cup: 8 g protein
As an example, an 80 kg active (strength training) male would require about 1.8 g protein per kg body weight per day, or 144 g to meet this daily needs. This may include:
From Animal Proteins:
• Breakfast: 2 eggs + 4 egg whites (28 g protein)
• Snack: 1 cup Greek yogurt (20 g protein)
• Lunch: 4 oz fish (34 g protein)
• Snack: 1/2 scoop protein powder (15 g protein)
• Dinner: 4 oz meat (34 g protein)
• Snack: 1/2 cup cottage cheese (13 g protein)
Total Protein: 144 g
From Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian Sources:
• Breakfast: 1 cup Greek yogurt (20 g protein)
• Snack: 1 protein bar + 2 oz cheese (30 g protein)
• Lunch: 300 g tofu (24 g tofu)
• Snack: ¾ cup soy beans (12 g protein)
• Dinner: 1.5 cups beans + 2 eggs (36 g protein)
• Snack: 1 cup cottage cheese (26 g protein)
Total protein: 148 g
From Vegan Sources:
• Breakfast: 1 scoop vegan protein powder (30 g protein)
• Snack: 1.5 cups vegan yogurt + 2 Tbsp hemp seeds (20 g protein)
• Lunch: 2.5 cups beans (40 g protein)
• Snack: ½ cup nuts (16 g protein)
• Dinner: 300 g tofu (24 g protein)
• Snack: 2 cups soy milk (16 g protein)
Total protein: 146 g
Although the nutritional quality of protein sources is controversial, from a quantitative perspective vegetarian and vegan food sources can provide just as much protein as their livestock derived counterparts. When choosing vegetarian or vegan protein sources it is important to focus on consuming a variety of proteins between meals to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids and total protein, among many other nutrients (calcium, iron, zinc, and B12 to name a few are rich in animal proteins and dairy). For additional support speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian to ensure you are consuming all the essential nutrients when following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
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