Vegetarianism 101, Part 1: How Much Protein?

From Meatless Monday campaigns to veggie burgers at fast food joints, the popularity of vegetarianism is increasing in this country. Today there are more than 19 different varieties of vegetarianism in existence, and more than 7 million people follow some form of vegetarian eating in this country alone. Whether your motivations are inspired by ethical, religious, or health concerns, you can “do a body good” by restricting your intake of meat and meat products. Read on for some compelling reasons why this is so.

Why delete the meat? Chew on these reasons

According to a recent position paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), not only is a vegetarian diet nutritionally adequate, but it is also associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases and cancers, and with an increase in longevity. Specifically, says the AND, a well-balanced vegetarian diet is healthier than the standard American diet (SAD). Features of a vegetarian diet that heighten health benefits include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol, coupled with higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.

Building a better (vegetarian) plate!

How can you be assured that your style of vegetarian eating is healthy? Actually, it’s quite simple. I offer the same advice to you that I give to my vegetarian and carnivorous clients: It’s all about balance.

In general, build your plate around low-fat, high-fiber, nutrient-rich choices such as beans, lentils, quinoa, barley, and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) soybeans. At least half the plate should be filled with an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Pick a “rainbow” of fruit and vegetable colors. We call this “cooking by color.” Specifically, the deep red, orange, green, and purple fruits and vegetables are rich in anthocyanins and carotenoids, which boost immunity and prevent a range of illnesses. One popular adaptation is the USDA’s Chose My Plate campaign, parts of which have been modified with vegetarians in mind.

How to get enough protein

One question I often encounter in my practice is, How can I get enough protein when following a vegetarian diet? Protein is an important nutrient that is used by the body for growth and maintenance.

Luckily for those of us who don’t eat animal products, nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some protein. Sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans include beans, nuts, nut butters, peas, and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, and soymilk).

How much is enough?

The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. This means that

  • a typical 180-pound vegetarian man needs about 72 grams (g) of protein a day, whereas
  • a 140-pound, vegetarian woman must consume about 56 g a day.

Use this sample list of foods that contain plant-based proteins to help you assemble a multiplicity of protein-packed vegetarian meals.

FOOD PROTEIN (grams)
1 cup lentils (cooked) 18
1 cup split peas (cooked) 16
1 cup kidney beans (cooked) 15
1 cup chickpeas (cooked) 15
1 cup Triticale (cooked) 25
4 oz. tofu (cooked) 8
1 cup barley (cooked) 5
1 cup oats (cooked) 6
1 cup quinoa (cooked) 5
1 cup brown rice (cooked) 5
1/4 cup nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios) 5-7
1/4 cup chia seeds 14

For lacto-ovo vegetarians: the milks and the eggs

Soy- and dairy-milk products, as well as eggs, are good protein sources too. A cup of low-fat soy or dairy milk provides 7 to 8 g of protein and a large egg provides 7 g of protein.

FOOD PROTEIN (grams)
1 cup of low-fat soy milk 7-8
1 cup of low-fat dairy milk 7-8
1 large egg 7

Must we combine the “incomplete” amino acids found in plant proteins?

At one time it was thought that the vegetable proteins found in seeds, beans, and grains, in order to be efficiently used by the body, had to be artfully combined and eaten together during the same meal so their protein patterns would more closely match those of animal proteins. We now know that we don’t need to make vegetable proteins mimic the composition of animal proteins and that individual plant foods contain all the amino acids required by humans. We’ve further learned, as well, that the liver keeps a reserve of these amino acids and combines them as our bodies need them, thus saving us from the nuisance of combining different vegetable protein sources in the same meal. 

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