By 2nd Lt. Dana Robertson, Madigan dietetic intern
MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – According to the Alliance for Science, which is part of a nonprofit research institute affiliated with Cornell University, 1 in 10 Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarians choose not to eat any meat products. Vegans do not eat any products that come from animals including meat, dairy, and eggs.
There are also subcategories of vegetarians, depending on what other animal products they consume. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians are those who don’t eat animal flesh but eat milk and eggs. Either prefix could be dropped as well, depending on what they eat. Lacto-vegetarians do not eat eggs but do consume milk products, for example.
Americans tend to associate these foods with protein. With the holidays coming up, odds are someone at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner will be eating something other than turkey and ham.
Where do non-meat eaters get their protein?
First of all, what is protein? It is an essential nutrient that humans need to build their muscles and maintain normal body functions. There are more than 10,000 different proteins in the body.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Without them, the human body cannot run smoothly, and things will start to break down.
According to 1st Lt Emily Lim, the chief of Outpatient and Community Nutrition at Madigan, the average person should get about 10-35% of their total calories from protein each day.
“That is around a minimum of seven grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight,” said Lim.
The most common form of protein that people consume is animal based. This includes things like chicken, beef, and seafood. Vegetarians can also get their protein from milk, yogurt (Greek yogurt is a great source), and eggs, if they choose to consume those.
These are effective sources of protein, but if someone chooses not to eat meat or dairy where do they get the protein they need?
Luckily, protein can also be found in plants. Soy products, nuts, whole grains, and lentils all are examples of plant-based protein. Consult the graphic for examples of how much protein is in different plant sources.
Plant protein tends to also have carbohydrates in it, whereas animal protein tends to have more fat (good or bad). Plant-based sources also are more likely to have fiber, an essential part of a healthy digestive system. One cup of lentils has around 17 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber. Lentil loaves, much like meat loaf, are a popular alternative to stuffed turkey around the holidays.
Vegetarians and vegans can also buy premade meat alternatives at the local grocery store. These are most likely soy-based and mimic the texture and look of meats like chicken and beef.
Understanding amino acids is important to choosing protein sources.
There are nine essential amino acids, meaning that humans must eat them in their diet as they cannot be made by the body. Plant sources are usually considered “incomplete proteins” because they don’t have all essential amino acids in one type of food. Animal proteins are considered “complete proteins,” as well as quinoa and soy products. However, eating a variety of plant-based foods can supplement all of the essential amino acids needed to make proteins in the body.
So if someone is concerned with their vegetarian or vegan friends missing out on protein during the holidays, offer a variety of plant foods at or around meal time.
“A bowl of mixed nuts, edamame, hummus dip for vegetables, and deviled eggs are all great ways to get protein if they do skip the turkey or ham,” said Lim.
The bottom line is that the human body needs protein, and people can choose a variety of ways to get it. Diverse sources come with a variety of benefits, and there are still lots of ways for vegetarians and vegans to join in on the holiday festivities.
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