Vegetarians and Protein: Creating a Healthy Diet

Vegetarians and Protein: Creating a Healthy Diet

There are a lot of compelling reasons to adopt a vegetarian diet these days. Studies show people who eat more plant-based foods and less animal protein have lower rates of many chronic illnesses. And eating lower on the food chain and selecting local vegetarian items can help produce a smaller carbon footprint too.

Animal foods provide complete proteins, which makes it easy for those eating omnivorously. For vegetarians, though, getting the right amount of protein and essential amino acids requires a bit more thought.

Know What Proteins Do

We tend to think of proteins as body builders, and they are; they form the structure of things like muscle, hair and connective tissue. They also make up hormones that regulate our system, enzymes that trigger chemical reactions, antibodies to protect our bodies and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout our blood stream.

Amino acids, of which there are 20, are the building blocks of protein. Various combinations and formations of these amino acids make up different proteins, and each one serves a different function. The body can produce about half of these amino acids on its own. The rest, however, must come from food. These are called "essential amino acids" and foods that contain all nine are called "complete proteins."

Get Smart with Your Proteins

Aim to get about 1 gram of protein for every 3 pounds of body weight daily depending on your needs and activity level. Follow these tips to be sure you're getting enough:

  • Mix it up: Because vegetarian proteins often don't provide all essential amino acids for the body to form new protein, it's a good idea to eat a variety of foods. Certain nuts, for instance, contain amino acids that grains don't have and vice versa. By eating them together, your body gets all it needs.
  • Have proteins on hand: Boost protein in any vegetarian dish with a handful of legumes (including beans), nuts, seeds or whole grains. Sprinkle toasted nuts over a stir-fry. Stir lentils into a salad and beans into pasta. Toss roasted vegetables with cooked whole grains. Have a variety on hand and get creative.
  • Be smart about alternative proteins: Alternative meat products—made mainly of soy—are a good way to add both protein and textural variety to vegetarian diets. But many contain fillers and artificial ingredients, so look at labels and choose wisely.
  • Grow sprouts: Sprouted grains, seeds and legumes are easy to do at home and they cook fast too.

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