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Do vegetarians get enough protein?

Family cooking together

Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular than ever. But many people have questions about plant-based diets. Kate Glick, registered dietitian at Beacon, provides insights on the popular meatless movement.

What is the vegetarian diet?

Vegetarianism is an eating practice that eliminates the consumption of meat and/or animal byproducts such as cheese, milk and eggs. There are many types of vegetarian diets, including vegan, lactovegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian and more.

Vegans eliminate all animal products and byproducts. Lactovegetarians eliminate all animal products and byproducts except for dairy. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eliminate meat but continue eating eggs, cheese and other dairy products. No matter the type, vegetarian diets all emphasize plant-based foods such as veggies, fruits and grains.

What are the benefits of a vegetarian diet?

“There are many reasons someone chooses a vegetarian diet,” says Glick. “People do it for the health benefits, environmental benefits or animal activism.”

Vegetarian diets can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, promote a healthy weight through an emphasis on fruits and veggies and improve diabetes management. Diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal products have also led to improved brain function and decreased rates of cancer.

Opting for plant-based foods may also be better for the environment. As Glick explains, the production of animal products takes more fuel, contributing to climate change more than non-animal products. Some people also choose vegetarian diets to protect animals and animal welfare.

Is getting enough protein possible without meat?

A common concern about vegetarianism is getting enough protein. Protein needs depend on metabolism, activity level and more. But generally, most people don’t need as much protein as they might think. “Our society is pushing for more protein, but that’s not always best,” says Glick. “I had a patient who was eating 180 grams of protein a day – that’s over triple the amount she actually needed!”

There are many ways to get protein as a vegetarian. While vegetarian protein sources typically have less protein than meat, it adds up throughout the day. These protein sources are also usually better for the heart and cholesterol levels. Vegetarian protein options include:

  • Beans and lentils – chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans
  • Soy products – tofu, edamame, tempeh, seitan
  • Whole grains – quinoa, oatmeal, couscous
  • Nuts and seeds – cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds
  • Eggs and dairy – cheese, yogurt, milk

Talk to a registered dietitian if you’re concerned about getting the right amount of protein.

Who should adopt a vegetarian diet – and who shouldn’t?

“The vegetarian diet is for anyone who wants to be healthier, especially for their heart,” says Glick.

But certain people shouldn’t try a vegetarian diet. “People with restrictive eating habits or unhealthy relationships with food should avoid the vegetarian diet.” Glick explains that cutting out food groups can be harmful for individuals recovering from disordered eating habits.

While full-fledged vegetarianism isn’t for everyone, the benefits of eating more plant-based foods, such as fruits and veggies, are accessible for all people. “Consider what works for you and your lifestyle. Choose to make some small changes, and that will still be beneficial for your health, even if you’re not fully vegetarian.”

Glick encourages people to start small. Add an extra veggie at dinner. Try a meatless meal once a week or an entire meatless Monday. Or opt for the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, which is plant-based but allows fish and chicken in addition to grains, fruits and veggies.

If you’re interested in learning more about vegetarianism or exploring your unique nutritional needs, contact a Beacon dietitian today at Elkhart Outpatient Nutrition or Beacon Health & Fitness.

About Keeley Higley