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A Protein Primer: Part 4 of 4—Vegetarians

By H.K. Jones

A Protein Primer. Part 4 of 4: Vegetarians By H.K. Jones This is the fourth in a four-part series on protein, an essential building block behind muscle growth and human health. Get started with an introduction to protein and poultry in particular in A Protein Primer: Part 1 of 4-Poultry, and then check out Part 2 of 4—Red Meat for information on four-legged sources of protein. Next, see Part 3 of 4—Fish for information on underwater eats. Now on to some delicious plant-based protein!

Vegetarianism Defined
Sure, we all know that vegetarians are people who don't eat meat, poultry, or fish. But not all vegetarians are created equal. Non-meat-eaters can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat products, but eat dairy foods and eggs.
  2. Lacto-vegetarians avoid meat and eggs, but include dairy foods in their diet.
  3. Vegans abstain from eating all animal products and consume only plant foods.
A Good Reason to Go Vegetarian: You'll Probably Live Longer
People cite many reasons for "eating green," including ecological and religious concerns, a compassion for animals, as well as social and economic motivations. But what many people don't know is that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can also provide many health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and diabetes. Vegetarian diets have also been shown to reduce the risk of some types of cancer. That means if you ditch meat in favor of fruits, veggies, whole gains, and legumes, you're likely to stay healthy and live longer. Oh, and the pigs, chickens, and fish will love you.

The Vegetarian Protein Myth Debunked
Getting enough protein—an important nutrient required for the building and repair of tissues in the body; and the right kinds of protein—unlike meat, almost no plant foods contains all essential amino acids—poses the biggest challenge for vegetarians. But it's a challenge that vegetarians can easily overcome. Although plant foods contains less of the essential amino acids than do similar quantities of animal food, a plant-based diet provides ample amounts of amino acids when a varied diet is consumed on a regular basis.

What are amino acids? They are simply the building blocks of protein. While the human body manufactures 12 of these amino acids, the other nine (called "essential") must be obtained from food. Animal sources of protein (such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy) are called "complete" proteins because they contain all nine of these essential amino acids. Flesh eaters can satisfy their body's amino acid needs with one piece of animal protein, so they generally have no problem getting the gamut of essential amino acids. Vegetarians, on the other hand, must eat a variety of plant sources of protein (such as beans, peas, and grains), because, with the exception of soy, each is an incomplete protein that lacks one or more of the essential amino acids.

Simple Solution: Eat a Varied Vegetarian Diet
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It's not. By simply combining plant foods that have complementary essential amino acid mixtures, incomplete plant proteins form complete proteins that deliver all of the essential amino acids found in animal products. Examples of complementary plant proteins include black beans and rice, pita and hummus, and beans and tortillas. While in the past nutrition science thought that vegetarians needed to combine such complementary plant foods at every meal to ensure they consumed the right mix of complete proteins, current research suggests that if you simply eat a variety of grains, legumes, dried beans or peas, fruits, and vegetables within a 24-hour period, you will meet your protein and essential amino acid requirements. In fact, science has shown that if a man eats a broad selection of plant-based foods and consumes adequate calories—so that if one food is low in a particular essential amino acid, another food will make up this deficit —he is highly unlikely to be protein deficient.

What to Look For
To ensure you meet your body's protein needs and get all nine essential amino acids, be sure to eat a wide variety of whole foods that include beans, whole-grains, soy (the only complete plant protein), fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, along with products made from these natural foods, such as tofu, tempeh, and meat analogs (manufactured vegetarian food products that look and taste like meat).

The key that many inexperienced vegetarians miss is to eat a varied diet. Don't subsist on pasta alone—be sure to eat a variety of these types of proteins regularly to meet your body’s protein needs:

Nuts: Provide protein, fiber, B-vitamins, calcium, and minerals. Almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, chestnuts, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, and macadamias offer the most nutrition with the least saturated fat. But be warned, nuts are also high in carbohydrate and oils (and calories), so don't eat them in excess or you'll pack on unwanted pounds.

Beans: Offer fiber and protein with little or no fat or sodium, along with plenty of vitamins and minerals and a plethora of phytochemicals, compounds found only in plants that help your body fight damaging free radicals. Watch out for canned beans, which can be high in sodium, and refried beans, which can be high in fat.

Soy: The only plant food that is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all the essential amino acids that the body can't produce. Soy is also a rich source of unsaturated fats, fiber, B-vitamins, folic acid, potassium, calcium, zinc, and iron. Eating soy products regularly will ensure you get all the protein you need. Popular varieties include tofu, also known as bean curd, which is made from soybean milk, water, and nigari (a natural coagulant); tempeh, a fermented soybean product; and soy milk, a nutrient-rich soy beverage made by pressing the extract, or milk, out of presoaked soybeans. Want a delicious snack? Grab a handful of edamame—boiled soybeans

When buying these and other plant products, always look for organic varieties, which haven't been showered with pesticides and often contain fewer unnecessary and unhealthy additives. Locally grown produce is also often a good choice, although the term "locally grown" in not regulated like the "organic" label, so ask around and do your homework.

What to Watch Out For
Vegetarians who include protein-rich dairy foods in their diet need to steer clear of artery-clogging, full-fat dairy foods such as whole milk and cheeses. Opt for low-fat dairy options instead. Also watch out for high sodium in products like salted nuts, high sodium soy products, and the like.

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.