Anna Fountain, physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare

Vegetarian protein diet

10 October 2019

The popularity of vegetarian food is on the rise; 33.5% of people are either cutting down or completely cutting out meat and 21% of us are adopting a largely vegetarian diet with the occasional consumption of meat, otherwise known as being a flexitarian.1  AXA PPP healthcare physiologist Anna Fountain explains how a vegetarian diet can go hand in hand with meeting your necessary protein needs.

What is protein?

Protein is an essential macronutrient for growth and repair of the body and muscles. We get protein in our diets from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 8 amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, so we must consume these through food.

A movement away from meat brings with it the concern that we will lose out on the essential levels of protein that we need to meet our daily requirement. However, meat is by no means the only way we can consume protein! Meals don’t have to contain meat in order to be tasty and nutritionally beneficial; it is a case of being mindful to make sure that your meals and snacks contain enough sources of protein to help you meet the levels you need.

With the rise in people either adopting fully meat-free lifestyles or simply reducing their intake, the options available are vast and ever growing. Take dairy-free milk alternatives – there are many various substitutes for cow’s milk, from almond to soya and a whole range in between. But, with more choice can come more confusion and it is the same with other nutrients like protein.

Keeping it simple always helps you ensure you meet your levels, especially when you start looking to replace meat in your diet. Many people have adopted ‘meat-free Mondays’ into their diets as a fun and easy way to make the transition to a more vegetarian led lifestyle, and with good reason. If your diet is well constructed, meat free or not, you can be well on your way to consuming the levels of protein you need.

Research has shown that a properly constructed vegetarian diet can lead to reductions in body mass and LDL cholesterol levels. Furthermore, improvements in blood sugar and blood pressure have also been shown, which may contribute towards a reduction in heart disease, diabetes and cancer, showing that a vegetarian diet need not lack the levels of nutrients you need.

If a vegetarian diet is not properly constructed, there can be some adverse effects on the body such as protein deficiency, anaemia (lack of iron) and other nutrient deficiencies. The key to a vegetarian diet is to replace meat with other ingredients that provide these important nutrients.

How much do you need?

Vegetarian foods that are from animals (cheese, milk and eggs) contain a good balance of essential amino acids but we cannot rely solely on these to replace meat and fish, as it may lead to excess consumption of saturated fats and an iron deficiency. However, some other vegetarian food groups have imbalances of amino acids, so it is important to eat a range of vegetarian sources of protein throughout the day.

Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g per kg of body weight for adults, though this will vary depending on individual circumstances. Exercise levels can also play a key part in determining how much protein you need; “for strength training higher protein requirements are often recommended at 1.2-2g per kg per day and endurance training at 1.2-1.4g/kg/day.” 2

How do I know how much I am getting?

In order to meet your protein requirements each day, it is important to include foods in your diet that have good levels of protein. Putting meat’s quantities of protein alongside meat-free foods can help when determining where to get the protein intake in your diet. 100g of chicken breast has around 30g of protein and tofu has around 12g of protein per 100g, whilst 2 medium size boiled eggs has around 14g of protein. These are approximate amounts, so the best thing you can do to check the amounts of protein you are getting is by checking the nutritional labels of the foods you buy, that way you can be sure you are getting enough in your diet based on your needs.

There are many alternatives to meat that still provide good amounts of protein. In particular, pulses are an inexpensive protein choice and they are high in fibre as well as being a source of iron. They are part of the legume family and include all beans, peas and lentils. Be cautious when picking which to buy though, as they can often contain added salt and sugar. Eggs are a quick and easy way to add protein to your diet whilst being a relatively affordable food source. Likewise, cereals and grains (such as oats, barley, rice and quinoa) can add protein to many different recipes, with quinoa being classed as a complete protein as it has all the essential amino acids that the body needs. 

Tofu, which is made from the curds of soya milk, meaning it contains soya protein, and is a common substitute for meat due to its high protein content and how versatile it can be as an ingredient. Likewise, foods labelled as direct meat substitutes often contain mycoprotein and so they also have higher protein content, but do be cautious when choosing which ones to buy, as the salt content in these products can be high.

Nuts and seeds are a handy, snackable form of protein. Although they are high in fat and therefore high in calories, it is a healthy unsaturated fat that’s essential in our diets. Dairy products are also packed full of calcium and protein, however, they can contain high amounts of saturated fats and calories, so you could choose reduced fat options, but again be cautious for a high sugar content that can come with low-fat dairy products. Wholegrain breads, rice and pasta do have more protein, fibre and iron than their white counterpart.

Ultimately, if you choose to follow a vegetarian diet or have a low meat intake, it’s worth making sure that you are consuming the right foods to give you enough protein to meet your required amounts. Remember though, it’s not just protein we get when we eat meat, there are a whole host of nutrients a vegetarian diet must be constructed of, like getting enough iron to prevent anaemia. 

With the right swaps for meat products or finding protein in other ways, there’s certainly room for a vegetarian diet to happily meet the necessary protein needs. And, if you’re looking for some recipe inspiration, why not try out a veggie chilli to get you started.

Sources: 

1 Waitrose Food and Drink report 2018-19

2 Wallace, Hazel. Protein Supplements. The Food Medic.

Taylor, Victoria. Keeping a vegetarian diet balanced. Heart Matters magazine.

How to get protein without the meat. Heart Matters magazine.

Becoming a vegetarian. Harvard Health Publishing.

Protein. Vegetarian Society.

Appleby, P., & Key, T. (2016). The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287-293.