Find out how much protein you really need and the best ways to get protein if you’re not eating meat.
Not a problem, say doctors. “Protein is not a major concern for a vegetarian who’s eating a wide diversity of food, particularly one who’s using milk and eggs,” says Winston Craig, Ph.D., M.P.H., of Andrews University in Michigan.
In general, the recommended daily intake for protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 gram per pound. To account for differences in the way the body processes plant proteins, nutrition experts sometimes up this a bit—to 1 g/kg or 0.45 g/lb—for vegans. (One can easily meet these needs by including some source of protein—beans and other legumes, whole grains, nuts, fortified “milks”—at every meal and snack.)
Proteins are chains of amino acids, some of which the body can’t make and must get from food, called “essential” amino acids. Protein is found in almost every food we eat, including plant foods like beans, grains, seeds and nuts (as well as vegetables, to a lesser degree), but most plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins, meaning that they contain some, but not all, of these essential amino acids in adequate amounts; eating a variety of plant foods usually ensures all essential proteins are consumed.
Soybeans, on the other hand, contain all the essential amino acids at high levels. Doctors used to think that you needed to eat adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids together in the same meal to get a complete protein. But research has shown that as long as you get all the amino acids at some point during the day, you’ll undoubtedly get all the protein your body needs.
“Unless a vegan is eating cucumber and white rice and that’s about all he’s eating, protein is typically not a concern,” says Craig.