Many people do not believe that a vegetarian diet can have sufficient protein sources. This distrust increases in the case of athletes and strict vegetarian children, who do not consume any products of animal origin (neither eggs nor dairy products).
But there is no longer any reason to doubt the nutritional values of a vegetarian diet (including ovolactovegetarian or vegan ). Today we know that, when well planned and monitored, it is nutritionally suitable for all stages of life. It is a healthy diet , capable of providing the same quantity and quality of protein as those that include meat or fish.
Proteins: What they are and what function they have in the body
Proteins constitute one of the macronutrients in our diet, as do fats and carbohydrates. They participate in several functions in the body:
- Cell growth and repair;
- Normal functioning of muscles;
- Transmission of nerve impulses;
- Maintenance of immune function .
They are made up of structural units known as amino acids . In total, there are 20 different amino acids that, combined in different ways, give rise to all existing proteins.
In turn, amino acids can be:
- Nutritionally essential , that is, coming from food intake;
- Nutritionally non-essential , when they are produced by the human body.
A healthy diet (whether vegetarian or not) must always include essential amino acids.
The quality of the protein
Protein quality is determined by 2 criteria:
- Amino acid content :
Foods of plant origin that are a source of protein contain all the essential amino acids. However, their quantity may be low. For example, wheat is particularly limited in its content of lysine and threonine (2 essential amino acids). Legumes, on the other hand, have a low amount of sulfur amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine.
Therefore, in a vegetarian diet it is essential to combine different food groups throughout the day (such as cereals and legumes). This is the only way to achieve the recommended energy and protein values. This is one of the most important healthy eating tips , particularly in the case of vegetarian diets .
- Protein digestibility :
Cells in foods of plant origin have a cell wall, whose protein digestibility is lower than in foods of animal origin . For this reason, it is important to soak, peel and germinate legumes and cereals. This increases the protein digestibility of these foods, which are always present in vegetarian diets.
Main sources of protein to include in a vegetarian diet
It remains to be seen which foods you should include in your vegetarian diet to be healthy and ensure adequate protein levels. The main sources of protein are:
- Cereals and derivatives (rice and pasta);
- Pseudo-cereals (quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat);
- Fatty fruits (almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts);
- Seeds (sesame, pumpkin, hemp and chia);
- Seed derivatives (peanut butter);
- Legumes (beans and chickpeas);
- Vegetable alternatives to meat (tempeh, tofu and seitan).
In the case of lacto-ovo vegetarians , eggs, milk and their derivatives are also great protein suppliers.
A healthy diet is fundamental to your health and well-being, which is why it is a topic we cover frequently. Vegetarian or not, the important thing is to have an adequate diet and that's what we like to talk about. To find out more tips and information about nutrition , we invite you to read our blog .
Gomes Silva, SC, Pinho, JP, Borges, C., Teixeira Santos, C., Santos, A., Graça, P. (2015). Guidelines for a Healthy Vegetarian Diet. National Program for the Promotion of Healthy Eating.
Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-1282. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.027