Will I get enough protein from a vegetarian diet? What do I need to eat for protein? These are questions that concern a lot of vegetarians, especially new or prospective vegetarians, as well as parents of vegetarian children or teenagers. The simple answer is that if you are eating a varied vegetarian diet you are highly unlikely to be going short of protein.
If you’d prefer to understand a bit more about the protein in your diet then read on for the science. It’s not too detailed but I like to understand what I can about nutrition because we are responsible for our own health and it can be hard to cut through all the information and constantly changing advice that we are bombarded with.
What is protein?
At a chemical level our food is made up of building blocks: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Most foods contain a mixture of two or three of these building blocks but in different proprortions. So when we classify foods as proteins, carbs or fats we really mean that they have a high proportion of one building block relative to the others. For example, cheese contains high levels of fat and protein with very little carbohydrate, while rice contains mostly carbohydrate but also some protein. You can start to see that you will be getting some protein from a lot of the foods in your diet.
What is a complete protein?
The other concept which is useful to know is that protein is also made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 (or 21 depending on what you read!) amino acids that our bodies use but some can be made up from other ones so only 9 of the amino acids are essential in our diet. Some foods contain all of the essential amino acids and these are what are usually referred to as complete proteins. Vegetarian foods in this category include eggs, dairy products, soy and quinoa.
There are other foods that have significant levels of protein but are not classed as complete proteins because they don’t have the right balance of the essential amino acids. This is why you might have read advice about combining beans and lentils with rice or other grains in a meal to provide complete protein. The amino acids in the rice complement the amino acids in the beans to give you the right combination. It is now thought that you probably don’t need to eat all of the amino acids at the same sitting in order for your body to be able to utilise them but it seems to occur quite naturally in our food anyway. It’s interesting if you think of traditional food combinations like dhal (lentils) and rice; it makes you wonder whether we instinctively knew that this combination held these benefits.
Hopefully that has helped you understand the protein in your diet and allayed any fears you had about not getting enough. In future posts I’m going to be looking in more details at the different vegetarian sources of protein, how much you actually need and how to incorporate protein throughout the day.