How do I get enough protein if I am a vegetarian?

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Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon
Vegetarians generally have a lower protein intake since plant protein is less easily digested than animal protein. Athletes should make sure they are getting 1.3-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight of plant protein per day.

Vegetarian athletes can easily take in sufficient protein providing their diet is adequate in energy sources and contains a variety of plant-protein foods, such as legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, according to D. Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, a registered dietitian and member of the ADA's Dietetic Practice Group. For example, a male athlete weighing 80 kilograms and consuming 3600 calories would receive 1.41 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein from the average vegetarian diet and 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein from the average vegan diet. (A vegan diet contains no animal-derived protein sources. For example, vegans do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or dairy foods.) A 50-kilogram female athlete consuming 2200 calories per day would receive 1.38 grams per kilogram of body weight from a vegetarian diet and 1.21 grams per kilogram of body weight from a vegan diet. Therefore, most vegetarian athletes meet the requirements for endurance training without special meal planning. Strength-trained athletes (weight lifters, wrestlers, football players, or field throwers) or those with high training levels or low energy intakes may need to include more protein-rich foods. This is easily accomplished, Larson-Meyer says, by encouraging the athlete to add one to three servings of protein-rich foods to her current diet (e.g., a soy milk shake, lentils with spaghetti sauce, tofu added to a stir-fry, or garbanzo beans added to a salad).

If you are a vegetarian, be aware that vegetarians are at risk for low levels of certain vitamins and minerals.
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Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Dietitian Julieanna Hever explains how you can get protein in your diet if you are a vegetarian. Watch Julieanna Hever's video for tips and information on healthy eating.

For vegetarians, it's important to include protein in each meal, and plan ahead so that it's available to you throughout the day. In this video, nutrition specialist Melina Jampolis, MD, discusses why protein is so important for the vegetarian diet.
Michaela Ballmann
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist
It is a common misperception that vegetarians have difficulty getting enough protein. Most people only need .8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight, which translates into 47 grams for a 130 pound person or 62 grams for a 170 pound person. To calculate your body weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. If you do a minimal amount of exercise a day, you will only need to multiply your weight in kilos by .8. However, if you do regular cardiovascular/aerobic exercise, your needs may go up to 1.2 grams/kg. If you are a serious weight lifter, your needs may go up to 1.7 grams/kg. 

It’s important to note how easy it is to get the recommended amount of protein from vegetarian (or vegan sources). By eating tofu, soymilk, beans/legumes, tempeh, seitan, quinoa, and nuts/seeds or nut butters, you can easily meet and exceed your daily protein need. Even vegetables and whole grains provide some protein.

Make sure you balance your nutrients and meet all your body’s needs by focusing on choices that include plenty of whole, minimally processed plant foods at each meal and snack. Always avoid highly processed, low-nutrient foods such as chips, cookies and sweets, and refined grain crackers.

Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Include protein at most meals and snacks. Vegetarian sources of protein include tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. Try a parfait with plain yogurt, fresh fruit and cereal. Boil eggs to have on hand in the refrigerator, or packets of tuna or salmon, cheese slices with whole grain Ezekiel brand bread. Drink cow's milk or soy milk between meals. Make a trail mix with dried fruit, granola and nuts.

An average amount of protein to eat per day is about as many grams as your weight is in kilograms. To convert your weight from pounds to kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. One cup of milk can be estimated to be about 8 grams of protein.

A registered dietitian can help you plan vegetarian meals to ensure that you get optimal protein in your diet.

Did you know that 1/2 cup of beans/lentils provides us with 7g protein? A vegetarian diet can provide adequate protein as long as you enjoy a wide variety of foods including beans, lentils, soy products, nuts, seeds. If you do eat eggs or dairy products, they would be additional protein-rich sources. A registered dietitian (RD) can help better address your individualized needs and ensure that you are meeting your needs on a vegetarian diet. To find an RD in your area visit www.eatright.org.

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

It is a myth that vegetarians and vegans can't get sufficient protein from a plant-based diet. Yes, some plants have components that can block absorption of some proteins, but that doesn't mean one cannot achieve adequate protein intake. It merely means that it requires knowledge and planning.

When it comes to vegetarian sources of protein, try hemp protein (e.g., powder, seeds) for its nutrition profile and ease of digestibility; and several of the pea/quinoa/rice blends are satisfying, healthy options. Quinoa and hemp are naturally complete proteins whereas the others may need to be blended with other food sources or have amino acids blended in to create a complete profile. A note on hemp: it's made from the seeds of the hemp plant and thus it does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of the marijuana plant. If you feel really good from eating hemp, it's coming from true energy and nutrition and not a drug (this includes the healthy fat source gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), present only in hemp).

Another item to note is that some products will contain sprouted quinoa, grains, nuts, or seeds. Sprouting is an excellent way to improve the availability of the protein; these are great for those with digestive issues where absorption may already be challenged.

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When you look at vegetarian diets, it's hard to do so without understanding that many of the practitioners believe that it is not only healthful, but more to practice vegetarianism. This is true even if the diet may include occasi...

onal meats or fish as in the Macrobiotic diet with it's Zen beliefs, or the Indian Ayurvedic diet, which finds milk and dairy central to good health along with plants. Anyone considering a vegetarian diet should learn about the food values of different vegetables, and consider getting advice on whether or not to supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals, particularly if you have special nutritional needs like growing children or pregnant or lactating women.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.