Perplexed by Protein? By Glen Matten MSc
One of the criticisms directed at vegetarian diets is that it’s difficult to get enough protein to meet the body’s needs without eating meat. After all, meat, poultry and fish provide rich sources of ‘complete’ protein, that is, they provide all the amino acids essential to the body. So how do vegetarians fare, and how can they be sure to satisfy their protein needs?
Let’s just take a moment to consider why we even need protein. Proteins are the building blocks of life. Protein is needed to help build and maintain the structure of the body. It’s important for repairing cells and making new ones. Protein is also required for lots of fundamental processes that take place in the body, like making hormones and enzymes. All-in-all, it’s really important and we can’t do without it.
The good news for vegetarians is that they have little to worry about when it comes to getting all the protein they need from meat-free sources. Eggs, milk products (e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt), soya and Quorn are, just like meat, sources of ‘complete’ protein, thus readily provide the body with all the amino acids it needs. Of course, there are numerous other plant-based foods that offer significant amounts of protein that can also be included in a vegetarian diet, such as beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. If you are vegetarian, and eat a diverse and varied diet that regularly includes a broad range of these foods, then protein needs are comfortably met. A good rule of thumb is to aim to include a protein-rich food as part of each meal, and if you do that, you really can’t go far wrong. That might be eggs at breakfast, beans or pulses with lunch, nuts as a snack, and cheese at dinner.
But what about those following purely vegan plant-based diets? With the exception of soya, the likes of beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and grains are ‘incomplete’ proteins, that is, they don’t contain all the essential amino acids the body needs. This has formed the basis of the idea that vegans should combine complementary proteins (i.e. rice and beans) at the same meal to create a ‘complete’ protein. But we now know that is a myth and simply unnecessary. If you follow a vegan diet, all you need to do is ensure that you eat an assortment of foods that contain plant proteins over the course of a day. That might be wholegrain cereal and almond milk at breakfast, a bean soup or salad at lunch, a handful of nuts or seeds for a snack and a tofu stir-fry with quinoa for dinner. Simply eating a good range of protein-rich plant foods over the course of a day is all that’s needed to ensure an adequate supply of all the essential amino acids the body needs.
When it comes to protein, the bottom line is clear: vegetarians, and indeed vegans, who eat a diverse range of protein-rich food, whether or not that includes eggs and milk, can happily meet their requirements for protein.
Vegetarian protein sources at a glance: