VEG 101: “Oh You’re Vegan?…Well Where Do You Get Your Protein?”

Vegans & Vegetarians unite! The meat industry has done a great job convincing Americans that meat products are the only source of protein even though vegetarians & vegans around the world are living healthy, protein filled lives. The question is , how do vegetarians & vegans get protein?…Here’s how!

What is protein?

According to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), protein is an important nutrient required for the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. Amino acids, “the building blocks of protein”, can be created in the body or digested from food. There are 20 different amino acids in the food we eat, but our body can only make 11 of them. The 9 essential amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body, must be obtained from the diet. (PCRM) The Savvy Vegetarian has developed a list of all the amino acids that our bodies need. Click here to view the full list.

Complete Proteins vs. Incomplete Proteins

The Center for Disease Control says that a complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. Animal-based foods; for example, meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese are considered complete protein sources. An incomplete protein, or complementary protein, is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. Rice, beans, corn, tofu, seeds are examples of plant-based complementary proteins. (CDC) Please note that it is not necessary to combine complementary proteins in one sitting to benefit from them.

How much protein do I need? (United States Department of Agriculture MyPlate)

What is considered as an ounce? (United States Department of Agriculture MyPlate)

So Where do Vegetarians & Vegans get protein?

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, Almost any reasonable diet will give you enough protein each day. Eating a variety of foods will ensure that you get all of the amino acids you need. Some protein comes packaged with healthful fiber and micronutrients, such as beans, nuts, and whole grains. Some protein comes packaged with lots of unhealthy fat, like when you eat marbled beef or drink whole milk. Click here to visit the MyPlate ‘Protein Food Gallery’ and take a close look at the Seeds & Nuts, as well as the Dry Beans & Peas.

Nuts & Seeds: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds.

Beans & Peas: bean burgers, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, falafel, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, soy beans, split beans & white beans.

Vegetables: Artichokes, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, green peas, green pepper, kale, lettuce, mushroom, mustard green, onions, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, turnip greens, watercress, yams, zucchini

Fruit: Apple, banana, cantaloupe, grape, grapefruit, honeydew melon, orange, papaya, peach, pear, pineapple, strawberry, tangerine, watermelon

Soy Products: tofu, veggie burgers, tempeh, texturized vegetable protein

Protein Checklist (Adopted from PCRM)

Although all protein needs are individual, the following guidelines can help you to meet, but not exceed, your needs.

  • Aim for 5 or more servings of grains each day. This may include 1/2 cup of hot cereal, 1 oz. of dry cereal, or 1 slice of bread. Each serving contains roughly 3 grams of protein.
  • Aim for 3 or more servings of vegetables each day. This may include 1 cup of raw vegetables, 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables, or 1/2 cup of vegetable juice. Each serving contains about 2 grams of protein.
  • Aim for 2 to 3 servings of legumes each day. This may include 1/2 cup of cooked beans, 4 oz. of tofu or tempeh, 8 oz. of soymilk, and 1 oz. of nuts. Protein content can vary significantly, particularly with soy and rice milks, so be sure to check labels. Each serving may contain about 4 grams to 10 grams of protein. Meat analogues and substitutes are also great sources of protein that can be added to your daily diet.

For more information, read the list of protein myths here.

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