Getting All Essential Amino Acids As A Vegetarian
If you are a vegetarian, you want to ensure you're acquiring enough protein through your diet while avoiding meats. What you really need in your diet, though, is essential amino acids. These building blocks of protein molecules are readily available in most foods, and it's actually difficult to follow a well-balanced vegetarian diet without consuming more than enough essential amino acids to maintain optimal health. The key phrase here is "well-balanced."
To understand how a vegetarian diet can adequately supply sufficient protein, it is important to know how proteins function in the body, and how the body manufactures them.
What Do Proteins Do?
Proteins are essential to nearly every bodily system. Proteins provide buildings blocks for:
- Enzymes, which help with digestion
- Hormones, which regulate growth and many bodily systems
- Muscle, skin and other support tissue
- The immune system
Protein, then, is essential to a healthy diet. However, a diet centered on animal protein sources often provides more protein than the body needs. In fact, a heavy protein diet can be toxic. What the body truly needs to maintain optimum nutrition is a reliable supply of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Amino Acids - a Primer
Proteins are built from building blocks called amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids, referred to as essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body. A ninth amino acid is often included, as well, though this ninth amino acid is more necessary for children than for adults.
Most foods contain amino acids. Not all foods contain whole proteins. Animal-based foods such as meat, eggs or dairy, do contain whole proteins--one reason why we tend to assume they are the best forms of protein. However, plant-based foods contain high-quality amino acids that the body can use to create proteins. If one kind of food, such as beans or vegetables, does not contain a certain amino acid, that gap is likely to be filled in with amino acids available in grains, nuts or seeds.
Protein is important for maintaining muscle and bone mass, for keeping the immune system strong, and to prevent fatigue.
People not familiar with vegan nutrition often assume it is terribly hard to get enough protein on a vegan diet, and that's if they even think there is any protein in plant foods at all (how they think vegans survive is an interesting question, though many of them probably don't think we do). On the other hand, once "educated", most vegans have the diametrically opposite view, considering it impossible for someone not to get enough protein on a vegan diet.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is easy to get enough protein on a vegan diet if you eat multiple servings of high-lysine foods (legumes, seitan, amaranth, quinoa, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds) each day. But there are many vegans who are probably not eating enough high-lysine foods.
Legumes include beans (garbanzo, kidney, pinto, etc.) and their products (falafel, hummus, refried, etc.), peas (green, split, black-eyed, etc.), lentils, and peanuts.
Vegans who do not eat enough calories to maintain their weight also need to pay special attention to making sure they are getting enough protein.
To read more on protein - follow this link.
Whilst the subject of protein and amino acids are intertwined, we have separated these topics in order for everyone to gain more clarity.
The reader needs to understand the importance of eating a wide variety of foods and NOT just stick to a few simple meals. By eating a healthy whole food plant based diet, one can easily provide the body with the necessary amino acids it requires.
Information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.