Your body needs enough protein to function properly; however, most Americans consume more than is needed. A misconception is that eating meat is necessary to get enough protein. However, even the strictest of vegetarians can meet daily protein requirements with some careful planning. If considering switching to a vegetarian diet, check with your healthcare provider first to make sure the diet is well balanced and meets your personal health requirements.
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Protein Facts and Requirements
Almost every cell in your body uses proteins that are constantly being broken down. This means that the daily diet must provide enough protein to replace what is used. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Proteins are either complete and contain all of the essential amino acids, or they are incomplete, which means the food source is missing some of the essential amino acids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that teenagers and adults get between 46 and 56 g of protein each day, depending on age and gender. Children should get between 13 and 34 g. Meat sources of food consist of complete proteins, while vegetarian sources tend to be incomplete. However, if enough vegetarian sources of incomplete proteins are consumed, then protein needs may easily be met.
As long as enough incomplete sources of protein are consumed throughout the day, your body will get the protein it needs. It is not necessary to combine different sources of protein in the same meal to make a complete protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. A vegetarian diet can be high in protein as long as a wide variety of plant-base sources are consumed. Lacto vegetarians who do not consume animals or eggs but do eat dairy products can meet protein needs by consuming cheese and milk, which contain complete proteins. Vegans consume no animals or products that come from animals; however, they can get protein from beans, nuts, nut butters, peas and soy products such as tofu, tempeh and meat alternatives.
Many vegetarian sources of protein are available. Some vegetables are high in protein, such as artichokes, which contain 6 g of protein per cup; asparagus or broccoli, both having about 5 g per cup; and 1 cup of cooked spinach, which can have 5 to 6 g per cup. All types of beans are high in protein, with most containing between 15 and 20 g per cooked cup. Grains such as buckwheat, bulgur and barley also have close to 20 g per dry cup. For those who do consume dairy products, 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese or low-fat ricotta cheese contains between 20 and 30 g. Vegans may get up to 10 g per cup of soy milk, 8 g per piece of tofu or between 10 and 13 g per serving of soy yogurt.
Eating a high-protein diet in general does not appear to be harmful to health. However, if a high-protein diet that also restricts carbohydrates is followed for more than a couple of months, health problems can occur. A high-protein diet that is low in fiber can contribute to intestinal problems and raise the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer. High-protein diets should not be followed by those with kidney or liver diseases, as these conditions may be worsened. In addition, vegetarian sources of protein such as cheese and milk can be high in fat, which raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. The goal is to eat a well-balanced diet that contains enough protein, carbs and healthy fats to provide the body with the nutrients it needs.