Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

“But How Do You Get Your Protein?”

I can pretty much guarantee you that this is the single question most heard by vegetarians across the country. As a group, that is. I am sure if some individual vegetarian has a tattoo of the London Underground in a conspicuous place or a wonky name like Hoover McFiddlewarts, questions regarding such will probably trump the protein issue. But I digress.

We Americans love protein. It takes a starring role at the dinner table, and most people believe it is the primary source of the American talent of growing so big and strong. We worship protein as the driving force behind Olympic athletes, NFL linebackers, and The Rock’s bulging biceps.

Speaking of which…can you smell what The Rock is cooking for dinner?

Here’s a hint: it’s probably not grilled tofu with a side of spinach. To the best of my knowledge, the Rock’s massive physique is a product of an omnivorous diet. When most people think of famous vegetarians, they think of waify Natalie Portman or whip-thin Tobey MaGuire as a jockey in Seabiscuit.

However, Angela Basset is also the product of a vegetarian diet. Hello, muscles.

And there’s Olympian Carl Lewis, who was also a vegetarian. Did I mention he was voted Olympian of the century in 1999? Yup. Probably ’cause of all those shiny medals he won. He was pretty fast.

Based on the above evidence, it would seem that not all vegetarians are stringy, pale, underfed-looking things running low on energy. The fact is, while meat-eaters might reflexively inquire where vegetarians get their protein, it would be just as practical for vegetarians to inquire of random meat eaters, “Where do you get your omega-3 fatty acids?” or “Where you you get your riboflavin/fiber/manganese?”

Let’s look at dietary recommendations. The Dietary Reference Intake (formerly known as the Recommended Daily Allowance or RDA, put out by the USDA) of protein is about .8 g of protein per kg of body weight, or 10-35% of your total daily caloric intake. For example, if you weigh 175 lbs (79 kg), you would need about 63 grams of protein in a day. Let’s see how the Unicyclist did today on his protein intake! (values approximated–homemade food is tricky like that)

  • breakfast: 1/4 c. granola with flax seed, mesquite, and nuts, 1/2 c. plain yogurt, 1 banana, and 1/2 c. strawberries and raspberries = 11 g
  • lunch: multi-grain pita with muhammara, homemade yogurt cream cheese, and roasted eggplant, mushrooms, onion, and okra, with a side of butternut squash = 11 g
  • dinner: 3 cups mung bean and spinach soup with naan bread = 35 g
  • dessert: homemade coconut frozen yogurt and a Brazilian peanut pacoquinha = 6 g

Grand total: 63 grams. I didn’t even plan that, seriously. I figured the approximate nutrition info from the USDA Nutrient Laboratory and the packaging from the pita and naan bread. Anyway, as you can see, he’s meeting his protein needs without going all tofu-crazy about it.

The key for vegetarians and protein is to make sure to eat a variety of foods in order to get all the essential amino acids for building protein–that is, all the amino acids the body cannot produce–because most vegetable sources of protein do not contain them all. Instead, they are usually complementary to other vegetable foods. However, that’s no different from omnivores needing to eat a varied diet to get all their essential major and trace vitamins and minerals for optimum health. The complementary protein model is where the myth comes from that vegetarians need to eat beans and rice at the same meal in order to make a complete protein. Yes, together they provide all the essential amino acids, but you don’t have to eat vegetable proteins at the same meal to get the benefit. Go to the CDC for more explaination about protein requirements and meal planning.

So, what’s the short answer to the question of how vegetarians get their protein? The same way everyone else does.

They eat.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Nathan October 13th, 2008 4:08 pm

    I’m wondering if maybe The Rock might have had a boost from modern chemistry? If you believe the current Governor of California, that enhanced-for-entertainment physique doesn’t exactly come by eating 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight . . . :-) Well, okay, let’s not lump The Rock into that mess. But seriously – sensible posting above IMHO. Got any nutritional info on some Louisiana Red Beans & Rice? (Veggie, of course!) Thanks!

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