If you are a vegetarian, you want to ensure you're acquiring enough protein through your diet while avoiding meats. What you really need in your diet, though, is essential amino acids. These building blocks of protein molecules are readily available in most foods, and it's actually difficult to follow a well-balanced vegetarian diet without consuming more than enough essential amino acids to maintain optimal health. The key phrase here is "well-balanced."
To understand how a vegetarian diet can adequately supply sufficient protein, it is important to know how proteins function in the body, and how the body manufactures them.
What Do Proteins Do?
Proteins are essential to nearly every bodily system. Proteins provide buildings blocks for:
- Enzymes, which help with digestion
- Hormones, which regulate growth and many bodily systems
- Muscle, skin and other support tissue
- The immune system
Protein, then, is essential to a healthy diet. However, a diet centered on animal protein sources often provides more protein than the body needs. In fact, a heavy protein diet can be toxic.
What the body truly needs to maintain optimum nutrition is a reliable supply of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Amino Acids--a Primer
Proteins are built from building blocks called amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids, referred to as essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body. A ninth amino acid is often included, as well, though this ninth amino acid is more necessary for children than for adults.
Most foods contain amino acids. Not all foods contain whole proteins. Animal-based foods such as meat, eggs or dairy, do contain whole proteins--one reason why we tend to assume they are the best forms of protein. However, plant-based foods contain high-quality amino acids that the body can use to create proteins. If one kind of food, such as beans or vegetables, does not contain a certain amino acid, that gap is likely to be filled in with amino acids available in grains, nuts or seeds.
How to Get Essential Amino Acids While Eating Vegetarian
A bad habit many people fall into is eating the same foods over and over. In any diet, it is important to vary your food intake to ensure a wide variety of nutrients. With a vegetarian diet, this becomes even more important. Varying the diet ensures that you consume all the necessary amino acids, giving the body much-needed amino fuel to synthesize the proteins it needs to function.
Every day, be sure you eat from each of the following categories:
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
These are all excellent sources of protein. Some, such as egg whites and soy, provide proteins of equal quality to those provided by meats. Proteins synthesized by the body from essential amino acids available in this variety of foods are also of high quality--perhaps even better than meat proteins.
It's not necessary to combine plant proteins in each individual meal, but be sure to get a good variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day, and you'll be assured of sufficient protein to keep your body happy.