There is often great debate over whether or not vegetarians and vegans get enough protein. As long as a vegan or vegetarian is eating a variety of different foods, they are getting plenty. The average diet gets about 14-18% of their overall calories from proteins, while the vegan diet contains about 10-12% protein (Source: Mangels). Many of the foods and protein supplements that are eaten by the vegan and the vegetarian have enough nutrients to make them a great part of the healthy diet. Vegetarians may have reduced risk of a number of diseases, but may put themselves at risk for other health conditions because they are not getting all of the micronutrients that they need.
The Types of Protein
There are two types of protein: complete and incomplete. All proteins are made up of around twenty amino acids. Of these, there are eight that are called “essential amino acids” because the body cannot make them on its own. In children, there is an additional amino acid, histidine, which is considered to be essential, but in most adults, there is the ability to synthesize it in the body. A protein is considered to be complete when it has all eight amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and lysine.
An incomplete protein is one that is lacking one or more of the essential amino acids. All plant proteins are incomplete with the exception of soy and soy-based products such as tofu. Grains, nuts and seeds, for instance, are typically low in the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine, while legumes tend to be low in tryptophan and methionine. (Source: Ben Best)
Amino acids are all composed of simple compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen and link together to form chains, which are called peptides. The typical protein has more than 500 amino acids. During digestion, the proteins are broken down into their base amino acids, which are absorbed and then used by the body to make new amino acids and to perform a number of other tasks and functions in the body. Protein plays a vital role in neurotransmission, digestion, sleep, and even in the forming of RNA and DNA, the building blocks of life.
For those who are concerned that there is not enough intake of any nutrient, including protein, there is always the chance to use supplements, which can be a beneficial and easy way to make sure that the body is getting everything that it needs to maintain proper health and activity levels.
Protein supplements include liquid protein shots, protein shakes, powders, and snacks like protein puddings and protein bars. For those who are following a strict vegan diet, the choice in these supplements might be limited, while the ovo-lacto vegetarian can use products made from whey or soy. If the ingredient label includes collagen, it is not fitting for a vegetarian diet because it is derived from the connective tissue of animals. Caseniate is an ingredient derived from milk or cheese, as is whey.
How Much Protein is Enough?
One of the many advantages of a vegetarian diet is getting adequate but not excessive protein intake. While protein is one of the vital nutrients and is necessary for the function of every cell in the body, it is also one that can be problematic if there is too much. To find out how much protein you need, you simply need to do a little math using this simple formula:
Calculate your weight in kilograms by taking your weight in pounds and dividing by 2.2.
Multiply that number by .8 to get your daily protein requirements.
There are certain factors that may influence the amount of protein that you need. If you are very sedentary, your need will drop by half, so you will only need around .4 grams of protein per kg of body weight. If you are active and do light exercises one to three times per week, your need can vary from .5-.8 grams. If you are very active and you do moderate to intense exercises four or more times per week (between 30-60 minutes), your need may increase to 1 gram per kg of body weight. Bodybuilders typically need between 1.2-1.5 grams themselves. Your daily intake of protein should not exceed 35% of your total daily calories.
Those who are suffering from certain kinds of illnesses, have had a trauma, burns, or recent surgery might benefit from some additional protein until they have healed adequately. The doctor will explain how much protein is needed to meet the serious needs for these conditions. During illness or injury, a vegetarian or vegan is most likely to need some supplementation of their protein to make sure that they are getting enough. A burn victim’s caloric needs may be 118-210% over the Harris Benedict equation when the burn is covering around 25% of their total body surface area. The total calorie need may be as high as 5000 calories per day for the burn victim.
Women who are pregnant or nursing do have an increased need for protein, not only to support the development of their baby but for a number of functions in their bodies as well. For instance, blood volume increases by about 50% and the extra protein is key to creating new blood cells. For most pregnant women, the requirement may be at least 60 grams or more. Lactating women need about 20 grams more than they normally do until the baby has been fully weaned. (Source: Medio-Consult)
Children who are younger than 18 years old might have an increased need for protein as well, with the level tapering off slowly to the adult level by the time that they reach 19. The need for protein is never higher than in the first six months of life, when a baby needs 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight. (Source: US Guideline on Protein and Diet)
It is important to note that while there is concern that there is not enough protein in the diet for vegetarians or vegans, there is also concern that there is too much protein in the diets of everyone else. Too much protein can be a problem for those who have diabetes, kidney disease, or Parkinson’s disease. In addition, too much protein can lead to osteoporosis in those who are prone to it, kidney stones and gall stones.
Even vegetarians who have kidney disease may find their protein intake reduced, at least in the early stages. However, in end-stage kidney disease, the need for protein becomes increased to make up for the loss of amino acids that are removed by dialysis, to prevent muscle loss and to fight infection. Stage four of chronic kidney disease typically sees a restricted protein amount of around 10% of the daily calories.
In stage five of chronic kidney disease when the protein need increases, the concern becomes phosphorous, which is a mineral that is found in great supply in a number of vegetarian foods, including dried beans, peas, nuts, and seeds. Other food sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, salmon, and halibut.