Going vegetarian can help you reap some health benefits, like shedding extra pounds and reducing disease risk. According to a review published in a 2010 edition of “Nutrition in Clinical Practice,” vegetarians often have a lower body mass index, blood cholesterol, blood pressure and rate of death from chronic diseases compared with non-vegetarians. Fortunately, you don't have to eat animal-based foods to get your daily dose of essential amino acids.
Amino acids are often called "building blocks" for protein. Your body needs them daily and uses them to make proteins, which build and maintain things like your blood, skin, organs and muscles. You can obtain amino acids by eating them in foods, but your body can also make certain amino acids. However, “essential” amino aids are labeled as such because you have to get those from your diet.
Complete vs. Incomplete Protein
Eliminating meat doesn't mean you have to sacrifice protein quality. Animal-based proteins and soy proteins are classified as complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids you need on a daily basis. Examples of vegetarian complete protein foods include tofu, soy milk, soy yogurt, quinoa, eggs and low-fat dairy foods. Incomplete proteins contain some – but not all – of the essential amino acids, but when combined with other amino acids can form complete proteins. Examples of incomplete protein foods include legumes, wheat protein, nuts, seeds and peanut butter.
Considerations for Vegans
Even if you go vegan – no meat, eggs or dairy foods -- you can still pack your diet with essential amino acids. Pick soy-based proteins or choose a variety of other plant-based proteins, such as brown rice with legumes or peanut butter with whole-grain bread. In fact, you don’t even have to eat all of the essential amino acids at each meal as long as you eat a variety of proteins throughout the day, according to MedlinePlus.
If you eat a variety of protein-rich foods throughout the day and meet your daily protein requirements, you’ll likely get all the essential amino acids you need. The Institute of Medicine recommends women eat at least 46 grams of protein each day. If you exercise regularly, you will likely need more, but your body can only use up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day, according to Brown University.
Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in dietetics and has extensive experience working as a health writer and health educator. Her articles are published on various health, nutrition and fitness websites.