With a balanced diet, vegetarians can get the protein they need
by Annette Pinder
One of the first questions vegetarians are asked when discussing their dietary preferences is, “Are you getting enough protein?” Many people assume it’s impossible to consume sufficient protein on a diet that consists largely of fruits and vegetables. But the majority of vegetarians get the protein their bodies need.
Corine Cicchetti, M.D., says, “Many people are overly concerned with protein intake, and eat more than they really need to meet their health requirements. The recommended daily allowance of protein is 8-10% of your daily calories. People often need less protein than they think they do, which accounts for why many nonvegetarians eat roughly one-third more protein than vegetarians.” According to Dr. Cicchetti, there are no distinct health advantages to a diet that is high in protein, and she provides the following information.
How protein works. Our bodies digest protein into amino acids to fuel its activity and aid in tissue repair. While there are 20 different amino acids in food, our bodies can only make 11 of them. Because the body cannot synthesize essential amino acids, they must come from our diet. Thus, the nine essential amino acids not produced by the body, must come from food. Foods that contain all of the necessary amino acids are called “complete protein sources.” Many animal products are great sources of complete protein, but complete protein can also be found in plant-based foods, such as soybeans, which are a complete protein source.
Other plant-based foods may not be complete proteins by themselves, but when eaten together, can complement one another to provide all the necessary amino acids. For example, combining beans and legumes with certain grains, seeds and nuts is a way to get the protein one needs. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that intentionally combining foods at strict ratios is not necessary. As long as your diet contains a variety of foods, protein needs are easily met.
Less protein healthier? Many fad diets point to high protein sources for weight loss and improved athletic performance. But reports published in journals like Nutrition and Cancer and the American Journal of Epidemiology indicate high protein intake, particularly animal protein, may be linked to osteoporosis, cancer and impaired kidney function. High animal protein diets are also linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. Eating a healthy, moderate amount of protein, such as that in vegetarian or vegan diets, can be beneficial.
Many vegetarians need not worry about their protein intake. As long as their diets include plenty of grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, vegetarians can meet their bodies’ protein needs.
Corine Cicchetti, M.D. is an award-winng physician at Buffalo Spine and Sports Medicine. She is a huge proponent of plant-based nutrition, and incorporating nutrition and exercise into preventing chronic illness and pain. Buffalo Spine and Sports offices are in Williamsville and Orchard Park. To make an appointment with Dr. Cicchetti, call 626-0093.