As someone who eats a mostly vegetarian diet, I’ve realized that people are very curious about how I get enough protein. While this is a valid concern, it does get frustrating to explain that going meatless doesn't always mean protein deficiency. In fact, many plant based foods are rich in protein. 

After doing a lot of my own research and taking a nutrition class during my first year of college, I've learned a lot about how to maximize my nutrition on a vegetarian diet. Rather than worrying about my protein intake, I just keep a few simple guidelines in mind when planning my meals.

How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?

Sarah Fung

In general, healthy adults should multiply their weight in pounds by 0.36 to determine how many grams of protein to eat per day. This value is based on the amount and quality of the protein they consume. Protein quality refers to how well a food satisfies a person’s specific amino acid needs.

Essential Amino Acids

Sarah Fung

Simply put, amino acids are materials that our body uses to make protein. There are 20 amino acids total but our body only makes 11 of them. The other nine are called essential amino acids because humans must consume them on a daily basis in order for our bodies to continue making protein.

Complete vs. Incomplete Protein

tea, coffee
Sarah Fung

There are two different forms of protein to consider: complete and incomplete. Complete protein has all nine of the essential amino acids in ratios that fit human needs. Most animal based foods like meat and dairy and some plant foods like soy and quinoa fall into this category. 

Omnivores, who mostly rely on complete proteins, typically have little to no trouble getting enough of the essential amino acids. Because of this, they generally do not have to worry about consuming too little protein.

popcorn, meat, straw, cereal, hazelnut, vegetable, corn, pasture
Sarah Fung

However, most plant based foods usually either do not contain all, or enough, of the nine essential amino acids. When this occurs, it is called incomplete protein. These types of foods are often lower in one or more of the essential amino acids.

Be wary of relying on only ONE type of incomplete protein to meet your daily needs. Eating only beans for example, can potentially cause an amino acid imbalance and harm your body's ability to make protein. 

Protein Complementation

milk, sweet, cake, chocolate
Sarah Fung

So how do vegans and vegetarians get all of the necessary amino acids? By eating a varied diet, something that everyone should be doing in the first place. More specifically, this is called protein complementation.

Protein complementation involves eating a wide variety of foods that have different, and often complementary types and amounts of amino acids.

 By including different types of protein sources into your daily meals, you are better able to get enough of each essential amino acid.

For example, protein rich legumes have high levels of the amino acid lysine but lower levels of methionine. Rice has a lot of methionine but less lysine. By eating both rice and legumes during the day, you are using protein complementation and getting a good balance of amino acids.

sweet, cereal, wheat, bread
Sarah Fung

Despite how complicated protein may seem, it is often unnecessary to be aware of each amino acid you eat. Instead, keep in mind that the key to getting a variety of nutrients is to eat a variety of whole, minimally processed foods.

If you’re solely relying on plant based proteins, consider adding nuts, legumes, and whole grains to your daily meals. By eating a varied diet filled with protein from multiple sources, you will very likely be getting enough of each amino acid and should have no trouble meeting your daily protein requirements.