The Sources of Protein in Vegetarian Food
Although the food vegetarians eat normally includes a considerable amount of protein, vegetarians often find that their bodies do not absorb as much protein as they would on a non-vegetarian diet.
The problem is that plant proteins are considerably less digestible than animal proteins because animal proteins contain amino acid chains that are closer to or identical to human amino acid chains.
Anyone consuming animal proteins could expect close to a 1:1 absorption ratio, while plant proteins in foods favored by vegetarians (such as wheat, for instance) might only yield 50% of the amino acids needed to build a “complete protein” or a protein that can readily be assimilated into the human body.
One solution is tofu (see separate article), but the common way to get around this problem and make sure they absorb a healthy amount of protein from vegetarian food, is for vegetarians to consume a variety of plant proteins to form complete amino chains.
Variety is key; by eating vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, and whole grains, vegetarians can increase the number of complete proteins they create by combining a number of varieties of amino acid chains.
A healthy appetite helps; vegetarians must also consume a larger amount of vegetarian food that contains protein because plant proteins are generally harder to digest.
While a nutritional label may suggest that pasta has 5 grams of protein per serving; you may only be able to digest 2-3 grams of that protein at a sitting, which means you must complement the pasta with other sources of protein.
In addition to natural sources of protein, vegetarians should also actively look for vegetarian food that is “protein-fortified”– or artificially-enhanced with protein.
For example, many supermarkets offer a variety of vegetarian food such as “protein-fortified” pasta and bread. Some pasta contains as much as 12 grams of protein per serving.
Soy milk is also a good source of protein for vegetarians. Studies on isolated soy protein show that it can be absorbed nearly as well as animal proteins, and has close to a 1:1 protein absorption ratio.
For non-vegan vegetarians, yogurt, milk, and eggs (which contain complete proteins) are obviously all excellent sources of protein.
As a vegetarian, you have a number of options to boost your protein intake – and you should take advantage of as many of them as you can.
Variety is good in any meal plan, and boredom is the enemy, so to make sure you get the protein you need, diversify your vegetarian food selections, drink more soy products, and eat “protein-fortified” bread and pasta.