by Tessa Finney-Brown
BHSc Naturopathy
Vegetarians and Protein – Busting the Myths.
Just because you’re a vegetarian doesn’t mean you need less protein. As has been pointed out by Matt on How Much Protein?, the average person requires between 0.8g and 1.4g of protein per kg of body weight (depending on how much exercise you do).
For vegetarians this can be a little more difficult to achieve, as plants generally contain less protein than animals. This means that you need to eat a substantially larger serve of, say, beans than chicken breast to get similar amounts of protein.
As a quick comparison, here are the serving sizes of different amounts of food required to get around 20g of protein:

  • 4 medium eggs.
  • 65g cooked chicken breast.
  • 1/3 (78g) standard cooked steak.
  • 1.8 small cans of tuna.
  • 400g kidney beans (1 can).
  • 150 – 250g firm tofu (the average recommended serve is 100 – 125g).
  • 110g raw cashews (7 small handfuls).

There’s a bit more too it. Proteins are made from smaller parts called amino acids. There are about 20 amino acids, and of these, nine are known as essential amino acids because they cannot be made by the body (which means we need to ingest them via food). Whilst all animal foods contain ‘complete’ proteins (i.e. all the essential amino acids), most plant foods are low in one or two. The most common ones that are missing are methionine and lysine.
Generally, grains are low in lysine, whilst legumes and beans are low in methionine. Thus, by combining different groups of vegetarian protein sources, vegetarians and vegans are able to obtain ‘complete’ proteins. It was once thought that this needed to be done at each meal, but most experts now agree that as long as a person gets a range of different protein foods across the day, this is sufficient protein combining.
So what are the general groups of vegetarian proteins?

  • Grains, such as rice, wheat, spelt, oats.
  • Beans and legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans, peanuts, baked (navy) beans, lentils and
  • Nuts, such as almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, pecans, walnuts.
  • Seeds, such as sunflower seeds, pepitas, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth.

Two vegetarian foods contain the complete range of amino acids: soy foods (e.g. edamame, tofu, tempeh) and spirulina.
Phew, so that’s a lot of theoretical information. How would this look in practice? Here is how a vegetarian woman of 75kg could get all of her protein in one day:
2 poached eggs (10 – 12g protein) on 1 slice of pumpernickel bread (2g protein) 1/2 cup wilted spinach (0.5g protein) and 1/2 cup mushrooms (2g protein) = 15.5g
Morning tea
Green smoothie with 1 cup of soy milk (8.2g protein) , 1 tablespoon of spirulina (4g protein), 1/2 cup kale (1g protein) and 1/2 cup blueberries (0.5 g protein) = 13.7 g
Salad with mixed vegetables, 1 cup red quinoa (8g protein) and 1/2 cup kidney beans (6.5g protein) = 14.5g
Afternoon tea
One small handful of raw almonds (20 almonds) (4 g protein) and 1 apple (0.3 g protein) = 4.3g
Stirfry with mixed vegetables, including 1/2 cup broccoli (2 g protein), 100g tempeh (18g protein), 1 tbs sesame seeds (2g protein) and 1 cup brown rice (5g protein) = 27 g
Total protein in the day = 75g. And that came from a nice variety of nuts, seeds, grains and legumes, meaning that she would have gotten all of her essential amino acids throughout the day.
Any questions? Feel free to send any of our Naturopaths an email, or book in for individualised dietary guidance.