Protein and Vegetarian Diets - Meeting Requirements

What is protein?

Proteins are made up of chemical building blocks called amino acids and are found in varying amounts in animal and plant-based foods. There are approximately 20 different amino acids, some which the body can make, and nine amino acids that are ‘essential,’ meaning they must be supplied by the diet as they cannot be made by the body. Eating a variety of plant foods including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, soy products and vegetables will help the body obtain enough of all the essential amino acids.

Why do we need protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient that has many vital roles in the body. It’s main roles include:

  • Growth and repair of all body cells
  • Formation of enzymes and hormones
  • Normal functioning of muscles
  • Transmission of nerve impulses
  • Immune protection

Animal vs. Plant-based proteins

The quality of a protein is measured by the amount of essential amino acids it contains. Animal products including beef, chicken, fish and dairy are known as complete, or high-quality proteins as they contain all the essential amino acids.

Plant-based proteins including beans, lentils, nuts and wholegrain are considered incomplete proteins as they usually lack one of the essential amino acids. However, soy products, quinoa and amaranth seed contain all nine essential amino-acids.

Vegetarians and vegans who eat a wide variety of plant-based foods can usually get an adequate mix of essential amino acids, and therefore meet their protein requirements. For example, baked beans on toast includes both wholegrains and legumes and provides all nine essential amino acids that a typical meat-based meal contains.

Daily protein requirements

* protein requirements are based on the value of 0.75g/kg body weight/day

Protein and Vegetarian Diet

Plant-Based Protein Powders

Plant-based protein powders (eg. soy, rice, pea and other grains/legumes) are suitable for both vegetarians and vegans. The majority of people following a vegetarian or vegan diet can easily meet their protein needs from whole foods including legumes, soy foods, wholegrains and nuts, which also contain other important nutrients such as iron, zinc and calcium.

In some situations, a protein powder can be a useful and convenient source of high-quality protein. For example:

  • Older adults who many be unable to eat enough dietary protein to maintain muscle mass.
  • Athletes recovering from an injury may require increased protein to help heal.
  • Surgical procedures usually require increased intake of protein to assist with wound healing.
  • When lifestyle or activity levels require a higher protein intake - for example athletes, a high activity job, or for weight gain.
  • For convenience - under time constraints it may be more practical to have a ‘protein shake.’ 

The average Australian eats significantly more protein than is required. Even though the protein content of vegetarian diets is usually lower than that of omnivorous diets, a well-planned vegetarian diet including a range of plant foods will easily meet daily protein needs.

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