I‘m not the type to go around making a big deal about the fact that I don’t eat meat. But if I’ve hung out with someone for awhile, they will eventually notice. Their first question is usually, “Why are you a vegetarian?” The next one is “But where do you get your protein?”
On some level I think this is kind of a funny question. I’ve been a vegetarian for 27 years and I’m apparently in good health, so it is unlikely that I’ve got a protein deficiency. Heck, for that matter around 40% of the people in India are vegetarian and seem to be managing well enough!
I think on some level this question is symptomatic of the larger issue of nutritionism – the idea that we need to have a scientific understanding of every calorie, every gram of fat, carbohydrate and protein, mineral and vitamin that goes into our body. I’m not saying there is no value in a basic understanding of what science and medicine have learned about food. But hominids have managed to eat just fine for millions of years by paying attention to what their bodies wanted. There probably isn’t a need to make it much more complicated than that, except to avoid eating too much junk food that has been engineered to trick and subvert your body’s basic sense of what is good to eat. You don’t have to have lived many decades to notice that nutritional advice changes constantly anyhow.
Nonetheless, this is the age we live in. Almost everyone I talk to is sold on the idea of eating more meatless meals, and protein is a valid concern that needs to be addressed. So let’s first take a look at some of the best sources of vegetarian protein, then examine a common misunderstanding about protein combinations, and finally, we’ll look at a typical day’s vegetarian meals and see how they stack up.
The standard recommendation is to eat about 0.8 grams of protein per day for every kilogram of body weight (about 0.37 grams per pound). For me, that comes to around 55 grams of protein per day.
Now this table is not meant to be complete, but I just want to give you an idea of the protein levels in a serving of a few common vegetarian foods, using what would be a typical serving for me (not necessarily the package serving size, which is often absurdly small so they can report low calorie totals).
- 1/3rd package extra firm tofu – 13 grams
- 1 cup cooked lentils – 18 grams
- 1 cup cooked pinto beans – 12 grams
- 1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa – 13 grams
- 1 1/2 cups cooked rice – 6 grams
- 1/4 pound dried pasta – 14 grams
- 2 slices bread – 5 grams
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter – 8 grams
- 1/4 cup almonds – 8 grams
- 1 ounce cheese – 7 grams
- 1 egg – 6 grams
- 1 cup broccoli – 4 grams
- 1 cup tomato sauce – 4 grams
- 1 cup soymilk – 9 grams
- 1 cup whole milk – 8 grams
So you can see, there are plenty of rich sources of protein available. I threw broccoli and tomato sauce in there because people don’t often think about the fact that there are small, but usable amounts of protein in foods we don’t even think about.
Speaking of common misunderstandings, if you first thought about vegetarian protein in the 1970s, you probably heard about the importance of combining grains and beans in the same meal to make “complete” proteins. Proteins are made from various amino acids, some of which our body can make and others that we must ingest. Some foods are higher in some amino acids and lower in others relative to the proportion we ultimately need. The thought was that they had to be consumed together to get the full nutritional value. Subsequent research has thoroughly dismissed this idea. It is sufficient to eat a variety of foods over the course of a day without getting bogged down in worrying about amino acid profiles!
Let’s look at a typical day of meals for me and see how I’m doing. Keep in mind I’d never normally give this a moment’s thought:
- Breakfast: 2 slices of bread (5 grams), 2 tablespoons sunflower butter (8 grams)
- Lunch: falafel sandwich with hummus (16 grams)
- Snack: 1/4 cup mixed nuts (6 grams)
- Dinner: 1 1/2 cups rice (6 grams), Chana Mushroom Masala (12 grams), Cucumber and Radish Raita (6 grams)
So that gives me 59 grams, without even taking into account any extra bits of protein from vegetables in the meals, side dishes, plus miscellaneous snacks. (I tend to eat sort of continuously throughout the day. High metabolism I guess. Or I just really like food.)
How about one more day, just to be sure that wasn’t a fluke:
- Breakfast: 1 1/2 cups Flax Plus cereal (8 grams), 1 cup soymilk (9 grams)
- Lunch: 1 1/2 cups rice (6 grams), Thai green curry with 1/3 pound tofu (13 grams)
- Snack: 1 muffin (2 grams)
- Dinner: my Triple Smoky Mac & Cheese (at least 25 grams)
For a total of 63 grams of protein.
So there you have it. Without worrying about protein at all, just eating a variety of food that I love, I’m getting more than enough.
I guess I should end with the obvious caveats. This is what works for me. Every body is different. Your needs may vary depending on your age, gender, build, genetics, activity level and zodiac sign. Talk to your doctor before beginning any program of diet and exercice. Past performance is no guarantee of future investment results. Patients taking persniquaquon (TM) should discontinue use and contact their doctor if purple goo starts draining from their eyeballs.
What about you? Do you worry about protein? Do you think I have this right or am I totally off base?