“Where Do You Get Your Protein?”

As a vegetarian, I have been asked this countless times. As a vegetarian pregnant woman, I have been scolded for endangering my baby by not eating meat.

This is the thing: most of the people who are quick and loud in telling me that I’m not getting enough protein have no idea how much protein I should be eating or where protein can be obtained.

The amount of protein the average person needs is debatable, but that’s not my goal here today. For sake of discussion, we’ll use the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The following chart comes from the CDC’s website:

So as a non-pregnant woman in my 30s, I need roughly 46 grams of protein. Let’s look at the protein content of some simple meals and snacks. I will use what I eat as examples.

(Just to clarify — any food that has a label on it has the protein per serving marked.)

For breakfast, I’ll either have a bowl of cereal (5 g) with rice milk (no protein, but if you drink animal milk or almond milk there is some) or a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal (4 g). Or maybe scrambled eggs (6 g each) with toast (4 g per slice).

Lunch? Maybe a sandwich (bread: 4 g per slice): peanut putter (9 g) or tomato (1 g) with mozzarella (8 g). Or a salad: spinach (0.8 g), tomato (1 g), avocado (4 g), carrots (0.5 g).

There are so many dinners … Last night, we had whole wheat spaghetti (8 g) with sauce (2 g) and Tofurkey sausages (29 g). Most of our dinners include black beans (15 g per cup) or chickpeas (14 g per cup). WebMD has a great article about the goodness of beans. Firm tofu has 11 g in 1/2 cup.

For snacks, I’ll eat a serving of almonds (6 g) or have a banana (1.25 g) with peanut butter (9 g).

The only meals I have trouble estimating protein content for are stews and soups, where everything is mixed together and I don’t really know how much of each component is in my bowl. Otherwise, just measure what you’re eating, compare that to the serving size, and add up the grams.

Also, the amount of protein listed above is per serving. A serving is not “whatever is on your plate.” I had at least two servings of spaghetti but probably less than one serving of sauce.

“But meat is a complete protein!”

The adult human body requires 20 different amino acids in order to use protein. Nine of them are not produced by the body and are thus considered “essential amino acids.” They aren’t more important than the others — it’s simply important for us to consume them.

Food sources that have all nine in abundance are considered “complete” proteins. Food sources that are imbalanced (one or more in low quantity) are considered “incomplete.” (Some sources I’ve looked at said that no food source that contains protein is actually missing any of the essential amino acids — they’re just not abundant. Other sources said that some amino acids are missing entirely. New science vs. old science? Easier-to-explain vs. slightly more complex? Not sure. Regardless, they need to complement each other.)

Nutritionists will often refer to complete proteins as “superior” which I take issue with. Really, they’re just simpler. Eating a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains will give you all of the essential amino acids. The classic example is rice and beans: both are incomplete, but what one lacks the other makes up for.

For a long time, it was believed that vegetarians and vegans needed to combine incomplete proteins at each meal to ensure the correct balance. That belief turned out to be false. The body doesn’t care if you eat your essential amino acids all together or not. All proteins are broken down and stored as individual amino acids, and the body “mix and matches” as needed. As long as all nine are eaten each day, the timing on when exactly they are consumed is irrelevant.

Quinoa, which is a grain, is a complete protein. I have read that soy beans are complete and also that they are incomplete. I can’t tell you which is correct.

Do you know how much protein you eat in an average day? I challenge you to track it for a week and see what you come up with…

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2 responses to this post.

  1. What a GREAT article!!! I would love to track our protein intake. Rick and I have had arguments over what the correct amount of protein for him is, and how much he is getting or not getting when not consuming meat as often. It is funny because beans and rice are his favorite thing to eat!

    You are doing a great job. Not letting the uneducated tell you different is tough, but possible. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks! I’m more annoyed by people than beaten down by them. And honestly, if they would listen to explanation of why whatever I’m choosing to do isn’t dangerous, it’d be an educational experience 😉 But alas, it’s not to be. I’m sure as the kid gets closer to being here (and then IS here) it will only get worse…

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