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If you don’t like to eat meat, how can you eat enough protein in your diet?
Nourishing our bodies with the right amount of dietary protein is essential for health. It supports proper immune function, helps to maintain muscle mass, regulates blood sugar and allows for sustained energy throughout the day.
Typically, omnivores eating a whole foods diet don’t have much trouble meeting their protein needs. But for those who don’t like meat or who restrict meat for ethical reasons, eating enough protein can be more of a challenge.
Just because it may be more challenging does not mean that it can’t be done.
In fact, with a little more creativity, planning, and awareness, reaching your protein needs on a meat-free diet is not only possible, but can be relatively easy.
what does it mean to eat enough protein?
Protein needs vary from person to person based on both size, personal goals and health conditions. The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) set by the USDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
For a 130 pound woman, that would equal 47 grams of protein. But, it is important to understand that the RDA is the minimum level of protein needed to prevent overt disease not to optimize health.
A couple months ago on an episode of the Ancestral RD’s podcast, Adele Hite, a researcher that studies the Dietary Guidelines and nutritional epidemiology, discussed how she believes protein recommendations are far too low.
Yet, according to Adele, 40% of American woman fail to meet these low RDA guidelines for protein.
She also pointed out that humans’ protein intake usually falls between a 70-100 gram range (depending on body size) when you look at different populations across time.
So, historically, when protein is available, our bodies naturally crave more protein than the RDA.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD I EAT?
In my practice, I find my clients do best when they include 20 to 30 grams of a rich protein source at each meal.
Depending on what your goals are will also play a role in how much protein you will need on an individual level.
Your carbohydrate intake also needs to be considered when determining how much dietary protein your body needs. While most of our tissues can metabolize fat for fuel, our red blood cells and brains require glucose to function.
If you are eating a lower carb diet, your body must use protein from your diet and/or your muscles to create glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis. To preserve muscle mass, low carb diets require more protein than moderate or higher carb diets.
Don’t Americans EAT Enough Protein?
In America, we tend to be overly concerned with carb and fat intake, but protein tends to get lost in the shuffle. There is an assumption that Americans eat enough protein.
But as Adele pointed out, many women are failing to even reach the minimum level of recommended protein.
Eating a meat-free diet can leave vegetarian woman even more susceptible to not eating enough protein. But with a little bit more creativity and planning, vegetarians can meet their protein goals.
how do you know if you are protein deficient?
Protein is so crucial to the function of our bodies that our brain rewards us for eating it.
If you need more protein, you usually crave protein rich foods. Some individuals even feel an increase in overall hunger or problems maintaining their blood sugar when they aren’t meeting their protein needs.
Higher protein diets are helpful for fat loss, muscle gain, and overall body re-composition. If you’re training regularly for fat loss and not eating enough protein in your diet, you may see a stall in your physique progress or your performance in the gym.
Chronic infections can also be a result of inadequate protein intake since a deficiency can impair immune function. A lack of protein can also weaken the gut barrier. This further increases the risk of infection and immune dysfunction.
Simply put, you most likely won’t feel very well physically or mentally with a protein deficiency.
What to consider when choosing vegetarian sources of protein?
1. GI tolerance
If you are a vegetarian with gut issues, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for you to slam beans all day. Dairy could also pose a problem for someone who has a lactose intolerance, a leaky gut or a sensitivity to dairy products.
If you struggle to digest vegetarian protein options well, you should test for and treat any underlying gut imbalances or infections. But don’t be afraid to add in some beans and dairy into your diet once your gut is fixed up!
2. Biological Value
The biological value of a protein tells us how readily the absorbed amino acids from the protein we eat are used to synthesize vital proteins in our cells. Plant sources of protein have a lower biological value compared to animal sources.
You may need to eat more total protein to accommodate for the lower efficiency of plant protein if you are relying heavily on plant-based protein.
3. ComplEmentary proteins
Most plant sources of protein are considered incomplete sources of protein since they don’t contain all of the 20 amino acids we need to make cellular proteins (with the exception of soy, buckwheat, quinoa, chia and flax seed).
Making sure to eat a wide variety of plant based proteins throughout the day will ensure that you are getting a proper mix of amino acids. Complementing your proteins becomes even more important when you are avoiding animal foods like eggs and dairy.
4. Methionine to glycine ratio
Methionine is an amino acid that is abundant in animal foods like dairy and eggs. Glycine is an amino acid that is abundant in cartilage, bone and fattier cuts of meat.
A high methionine to glycine ratio can lead to a build-up of homocysteine and a depletion of glycine, B-vitamins and choline. High homocysteine is a risk factor for heart disease, strokes and mental illnesses.
Vegetarian diets that are usually naturally lower in glycine rich foods may want to be careful about over consuming methionine rich proteins. Vegetarians may want to consider adding gelatin/collagen to their diets to create a healthful balance between these two amino acids.
Vegetarian Protein Sources
Eggs are an excellent source of vegetarian protein. They provide you with 6 grams of a high biological value, complete protein. Whole eggs are nutrient dense powerhouses, rich in nutrients that are harder to come by in a vegetarian diet. These include choline, B12, riboflavin, fat-soluble vitamins, iodine, cholesterol and omega 3 fatty acids.
While eggs are an excellent source of protein, they are also high in methionine. So don’t rely too heavily on eggs for a protein source (like eating them at every meal). But, 2-4 eggs a day is reasonable amount.
If you have a food sensitivity to eggs, you may want to avoid eggs and treat underlying GI issues before including eggs into your diet. But don’t be afraid of reintroducing eggs once you resolve any gut issues.
Like eggs, dairy is a great source of complete protein that has a high biological value. It’s a great way to eat enough protein without eating meat. Plus, dairy is one of the best sources of calcium, making it a nutrient-dense addition to your diet.
Fermented products like yogurt, hard cheeses and kefir provide probiotics to our guts that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. This makes the dairy easier to digest since the bacteria predigests the lactose found in these foods.
Full-fat dairy products are loaded with anti-inflammatory fatty acids. These fats appear to lower the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So ditch that watery skim milk for some creamy full fat yogurt!
Try to buy yogurt with minimal sugar and processing. You can always add in some fruit or honey to sweeten it up later.
Some people who are more sensitive to dairy products may do fine with dairy products derived from goats. This increased tolerability to goat products is due to the slight difference in the structure of the casein protein in goat’s milk compared to cows milk. Goat milk kefir, yogurt and cheese can often be found at Whole Foods and other health food stores.
Beans and legumes
Beans are great fuel for your gut bugs, and they are packed with protein. Lentils and beans can be easily thrown into salads, soups and dips to boost protein intake. If you tolerate them well, they’re a great way to help you towards your goal to eat enough protein.
It is important to recognize that the protein in beans has a lower biological value than animal protein sources. So beans are not a complete protein. A gram of protein from a legume is not quite equal to a gram of animal protein from dairy or eggs. While beans and legumes can add to your protein intake, consuming other protein sources is still important.
Properly preparing beans and legumes can make their nutrients much easier to digest and absorb. You can learn how to properly prepare beans and grains. You can also find sprouted beans and lentils on Amazon or at Whole Foods.
Protein powders can be a convenient and easy way to increase protein intake on a vegetarian diet. It’s probably the easiest way for most people to eat enough protein, even when they do eat some meat. (Mark Sisson wrote a great article comparing different vegetarian protein powders.)
There are a couple different options when it comes to protein powders. Whey protein, which is a derivative of milk, is a great complete protein that appears to be superior to soy at promoting muscle growth. Whey increases glutathione synthesis, which can reduce cellular inflammation.
Collagen, gelatin and bone broth protein powders are a great addition to a vegetarian diet. They are loaded with glycine, which balances any excess methionine from eggs and diary. In addition to assisting in amino acid balance, these powders also promote healthy skin, hair, joints and guts!
Rice, pea and hemp protein powders are also available to help boost protein intake. These are not complete proteins and they do have a lower biological value than animal based protein powders. However, they can still be valuable sources of protein and help you in your goal to eat enough protein.
What about soy products?
Conventional nutritionists frequently tout soy products like tempeh, tofu, edamame and soy milk as the perfect protein source for vegetarians. Soy is often considered the king of vegetarian protein sources because it is a complete protein, unlike most plant sources.
While soy is a complete protein, there are potential problems with leaning too heavily on soy in a vegetarian diet. The isoflavone compounds in soy are goitrogenic, which means they can inhibit the thyroid from taking up iodine.
Without iodine, our body can’t produce thyroid hormones. If consuming soy daily, thyroid function may decline, leading to hypothyroid symptoms like fatigue, constipation and weight gain.
WHAT ABOUT FERMENTED SOY?
Contrary to popular belief, fermented soy actually increases the goitrogenic effect of the isoflavones. But, fermented soy isn’t all bad! The fermentation of soy produces high levels of vitamin K2 and probiotics in products like natto and miso. Eating these soy foods occasionally as a source of K2 and probiotics can be health-promoting.
Consuming extra iodine from sea vegetables or through supplements may help mediate some of the thyroid suppressing effects of soy. But it’s probably best to not consume soy on a regular basis.
These isoflavones in soy are also estrogenic and may prevent ovulation and reproductive function. If you are trying to have a baby or struggling with hormone imbalance, it may be wise to avoid soy.
My final verdict for soy is that it shouldn’t be a staple in a vegetarian diet. Eating it occasionally is okay if you don’t have any hormonal symptoms when you consume it. I wouldn’t use it as a major part of your effort to eat enough protein, though!
If you do want to consume soy, it is important to try to buy organic. GMO soy is a highly pesticide-ridden crop.
We can’t achieve optimal health unless we eat enough protein to meet our needs. A vegetarian diet can make it tougher to eat enough protein, but with a little extra awareness and creativity you can boost your protein intake and reach your goals.
And if you’re struggling, an experienced dietitian can help you make the changes you need to get your protein intake up!