The Vegetarian

Protein for Vegetarians

 Protein is essential for growth, healing and every day bodily function. It is relatively easy to acquire your necessary protein requirements if you think of essential amino acids rather than protein.

Protein is made of amino acids. If you eat protein, the body breaks it down to amino acids first, and then rebuilds from these amino acids the proteins that you require.

What you do need to focus on are Essential Amino Acids. Essential amino acids are the amino acids which your body cannot make, and therefore you need to acquire these through food.

Animal foods - meat, eggs etc have "complete protein" which essentially means that all the amino acids are present. A food with "incomplete protein" is essentially a food which does not contain all the essential amino acids.

The good news for vegetarians is -
  1. some foods such as soy beans, spirulina and quinoa are complete proteins, that is - they do contain all the essential amino acids.
  2. a combination of foods eaten together or during the week can supply all the essential amino acids.
As long as you eat a variety of different foods, there is no reason why you should be lacking in protein! However, if you are trying to build muscle for whatever reason, you may want to focus on foods with a high protein(amino acid) content.

The 8 essential amino acids are:

The aim is to eat foods that have a high proportion of protein, and most of the essential amino acids listed. If a certain food is missing one of the essential amino acids, then make sure you match it up with another food that has a high proportion of that particular amino acid.

Here is a table I've compiled from a couple of different websites comparing different legumes as well as meats:

protein in grams per calories ratio
peanuts 35
lentils 17.9
chickpeas, garbanzo, bengal gram 14.5
lima beans 14.6
kidney beans 15.3
split peas 16.3
mung beans 14.2

egg 6.3
milk 8
chicken 35.1
pork 31
turkey 34
tuna 14

This table shows that legumes can have quite a high ratio of protein to calories. In fact the legumes are comparable to milk, eggs and pork!!
"Unhealthy" meats with more fat content are not included in the table.

A half cup of cooked brown rice with a 30g serve of cooked lentils gives 5.2g of protein. A salad sandwich on wholegrain bread will provide 7.5g of protein. 30g of mixed nuts 5g of protein. A small serve of breakfast cereal from 3 to 6 g of protein. Half a cup of baked beans gives 7.5 g of protein. Some vegetarian meat alternatives such as soy sausages can have up to 19g of protein in a serve. A glass of soy milk is pretty comparable to regular milk - 6 to 8g of protein. 200g of yoghurt gives 8g of protein.

Now that you know how much protein you can get from legumes, you need to fill in the missing amino acids. Most legumes are missing methionine, the good news is that most cereals contain methionine but are low in lysine. Therefore if you consume both cereals and legumes in your diet then you have made a complete protein from your combination meal - with methionine from the cereals, and lysine from the legumes.

Meal combinations to consider include - rice with lentils, rice with beans, tortillas with beans. Remember you can consume different amino acids on different days and consume your complete protein over a whole week, you do not have to consume all the amino acids in one sitting!

The easiest way to calculate how much protein you require is to aim for 1gram per kg of ideal body weight (you only need 75% of this, but the 1g is easier to calculate than 0.75g). If you want to be heavier or lighter use the ideal weight you are aiming for. For example if you want to weigh 50kg then aim for 50g of protein intake, if you want to weigh 80kg, then aim for 80g of protein intake... but keeping in mind that if you are just under the requirement that is actually closer to the real requirement. If you are not an athlete, not trying to grow or build muscle and want to be more accurate you can use the 0.75g per kg.

Remember that eating excess protein does not lead to more muscle... it is converted to energy by the body, and the waste nitrogen can cause injury to the kidneys.

Try these websites for some quite thorough lists of protein contents of foods:

Interesting reading... Good Luck :-)


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