Vegetarian and vegan diets have gained considerable popularity in recent years due to a variety of factors including beliefs about animal rights and environmental issues and/or perceived health benefits of moving to a plant-based diet, but let's not forget celebrity endorsement either.
There is no question that aspects of a vegetarian diet have benefits, mainly because of greater intakes of vegetables and fruits – compared with the standard western diet – which are rich sources of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
However, because vegetarians and vegans avoid animal products, which are the richest source of protein in an omnivorous diet, they must make a conscious effort to eat protein-rich, plant-based foods to meet their daily protein requirements.
This is especially so for people undertaking intense exercise because it is known to increase the body's daily protein needs. Rather than discussing the pros and cons of a vegetarian or vegan diet, I want to provide some practical suggestions on how vegetarians, or anyone for that matter, can meet their daily requirement for protein from suitable plant sources.
WHAT IS A VEGETARIAN?
The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as: "Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, or by-products of slaughter." Sub-categories of vegetarians include:
* Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat both dairy products and eggs;
* Lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy products but avoid eggs;
* Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.
Protein is an essential nutrient that supports growth, repair, hormone production, immune function and many other biological processes. Protein requirements vary considerably depending on individual goals, but the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.75 or 0.8g per kg body mass, or 65g per day for the average man.
For athletes looking to gain lean mass or for people looking to improve body composition by reducing fat mass, the requirement for protein can be much higher. The range is broad – about 1.2 to 2g of protein per kg body mass is the suggested intake.
Below is a list of plant-based foods that are good sources of protein.
However, if avoiding dairy, pea protein is a powdered form of protein that is derived from peas. Pea protein is a versatile protein alternative to dairy proteins that can also be used in homemade snack recipes or post-training recovery smoothies.
Most grains contain a small amount of protein, but quinoa (technically a seed) is unique in that it contains more than 9g per 200g serving. Quinoa contains all nine of the essential amino acids that are necessary to be taken in the diet rather than synthesised in the body.