Being a healthy vegetarian is about more than simply eliminating meat from your diet. Whenever you restrict what you eat, especially with regard to a whole group of foods, you will need to educate yourself about the potential nutritional deficiencies and the foods that will address them. You can be healthy eating a vegetarian diet, but you need to do it in an informed and purposeful way.
The major nutritional concern for those pursuing a vegetarian diet is getting enough good quality protein. Scientifically speaking, proteins are organic compounds made up of building blocks called “amino acids.” There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of them are considered "essential" because the body cannot make them, and therefore, they must be supplied by the food you eat. This information is important to vegetarians because, if your diet does not contain enough of these essential amino acids, you may suffer the effects of protein deficiency.
Complete and complementary
Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called “complete proteins.” These complete protein foods are generally animal foods. Plant foods do not, as a rule, have complete proteins, but by eating combinations of plant foods, called “complementary proteins,” you can obtain a complete protein.
For example, when you eat beans with rice, such as is often found in Mexican cuisine, you are obtaining a complete protein. The beans and rice complement each other, in that each has some of the essential amino acids and when eaten together, they provide all of the essential amino acids.
It is now generally accepted by scientists that it is not necessary to eat these complementary proteins at the same meal. However, vegetarians do need to eat a varied diet of high quality plant foods in order to get enough of the amino acids your body needs to have a good supply of complete proteins.
Here is a list of complementary proteins, that is, proteins that when eaten together become complete.
-Beans/Peas/ Lentils ... with Nuts
-Beans/Peas and/Lentils ... with Grains
-Beans/Peas/Lentils ... with Seeds
-Beans/Peas/Lentils ... with Dairy
-Nuts/Seeds... with Dairy
-Nuts/Seeds... with Legumes
-Dairy... with Nuts/Seeds and Beans/Peas/Lentils
-Grains... with Dairy
Of course, the issue of complete proteins is not as critical for lacto- and lacto-ovo-vegetarians, since they include high quality and complete proteins in their diet in the form of dairy products and, in the latter case, eggs.
How much vegetarian protein do I need?
The answer to this question is not an easy one. The amount of vegetarian protein needed can vary based on age, gender, genetics, health status and the quality of the protein. It is generally thought that we need about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight every day. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need about 52.5 grams of protein each day.
150 ÷ 20 = 7.5 7.5 grams x 7 = 52.5 grams
Many health experts put it a different way by saying that we should get about 30% of our calories each day from protein sources. Protein has about 4 calories per gram, so if you consume 2400 calories a day, about 720 of them should be from protein.
2400 calories x 30% = 720 calories
Whichever method you use, it is safe to say that if you get all of your protein from plant foods, you should probably aim for moderately higher amounts, in order to assure that you are getting enough complete proteins to maintain healthy tissues.
Which plant foods have vegetarian protein?
Although most of the foods you eat have some protein in them, there are some plant foods that are significant sources of good quality protein. These are the legumes, grains, some vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Lentils… Split peas… Kidney beans… Pinto beans… Black beans… Soybeans… Tofu… Tempeh…Garbanzo beans… Navy beans… Peanuts… Peanut Butter… Rice… Wheat…. Barley… Oats… Peas… Kale… Okra… Walnuts… Brazil Nuts… Almonds… Pumpkin Seeds… Sesame Seeds… Tahini…
How many servings do I need?
When nutritionists talk about how many servings we need of a particular nutrient, it is usually in reference to the “Food Pyramid,” which is their way to visualize the relationship of the five food groups, and how much of each group you should consume each day. By this standard, depending on your weight, you need two to three 3-ounce servings of meat, fish, poultry or meat analog each day. (A meat analog is a soy or grain based product that is manufactured to look and taste like certain meat products.)
What is a serving of plant-based vegetarian protein?
For non-meat protein sources, a serving of protein, which is 2 cups cooked legumes or rice, or 2 Tablespoons of seeds, nuts, peanut butter, or other nut butters, is equivalent to only about 1/3 of the protein in a serving of meat. Tempeh and tofu can also be included in this group with a serving size of about 4 oz. Based on this information, vegetarians—particularly vegans—should include six to nine servings of a variety of plant-based protein foods in their diet each day.
Thus, if you include two servings of a variety of plant-based protein with each meal—breakfast, lunch and dinner—and a serving with a snack or two each day, you will easily provide enough protein for your body’s needs. When you consider all of the varieties of nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, whole grains and even meat analogs available, it should not be difficult to find your six to nine servings of plant-based protein each day.