If you’ve chosen to give up meat and/or animal byproducts and follow a vegetarian diet, it’s important to honor how your body responds to that choice and make sure you’re providing it with the essential nutrients it needs to thrive. It can be difficult, but not impossible, for vegetarians to get the high-quality proteins they need each and every day. That’s because animal products are the best sources of protein because they contain all the essential amino acids that our bodies need. It can be hard for vegetarians, particularly those who have given up dairy products and eggs, to get complete proteins.
Vegetarian Protein Sources
Protein-rich food for vegetarians includes eggs and dairy, both of which are complete proteins containing all 9 essential amino acids. Just one egg has about 6 grams of protein and one cup of milk delivers 8 grams of protein. As the variety of food vegetarians eat is reduced without meat, it’s important to make sure the body gets the vegetarian amino acids it needs through myriad vegetarian protein sources. Quinoa and soy products provide all the essential amino acids, so they should be incorporated in the vegetarian diet. Vegetables with protein include cucumbers, onions, radishes, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, turnips, and spinach.
Food Combinations for Complementary Proteins
Food combinations are a good way to get vegetarian amino acids. It is theoretically possible to make up for the poor quality of plant-based protein food sources by eating complementary proteins (two incomplete proteins form a complementary protein). The idea is to match protein food sources that are deficient in different amino acids, and the combination of the two or more will meet all essential amino acid requirements. In the southern part of the United States, the combination of red beans and rice is popular and is often cited as a good example of complementary proteins. The idea is that while neither is a high-quality, protein-rich food for vegetarians, together they provide a more balanced mixture of essential amino acids.
There are many examples of complementary proteins working synergistically in a diet to provide a good balance of essential amino acids. However, there are a few things about complementary proteins that you should keep in mind. First, they have to be eaten at the same time. All the essential amino acids must be increased simultaneously and in the appropriate profile to fully stimulate protein synthesis. Second, and most importantly, they must have truly complementary profiles of essential amino acids. Unfortunately, the quality of most plant-based proteins is limited by the availability of lysine. This is, in fact, the case with red beans and rice. The combination of red beans and rice go together nicely in a meal, but the concept that they are complementary proteins is more legend than fact. Also, if the two food sources are both low-quality proteins, the total amount of calories that will need to be consumed to meet essential amino acid requirements will be quite significant.
Vegetarian diets that don’t allow for dairy can make it challenging to find the right food combination to get a complete protein—it is unlikely that two plant-based proteins will be complementary. In contrast, a typical omnivore diet that combines animal protein and plant-based protein foods can be effective because animal-based proteins are high in lysine. The abundant lysine in the animal protein can improve the quality of the plant-based protein.
An alternative to combining animal and plant-based proteins to enhance protein quality is to incorporate essential amino acid supplements into the diet—they can address any imbalance in the essential amino acid profiles of dietary protein. It’s important to note that many vegetarian protein powders on the market are loaded with carbs and added sugars, so choosing a naturally low-calorie amino acid complex is crucial.
Adding an essential amino acid supplement to a vegetarian diet will significantly improve the ratio of essential amino acids to non-essential amino acids in the diet without contributing much to the total caloric intake. It can be daunting to think about new food combinations on a daily basis—that’s when amino acid supplements come to the rescue to make your life easier.
How to Supplement with Amino Acids
As a supportive measure, an essential amino acid supplement should be taken twice a day, between meals or before going to bed. However, If you are taking essential amino acid supplements because your regular diet falls short in meeting the recommended intake of high-quality protein, then, in addition to the between-meal doses, you should take supplements with your meals to enhance the physiological effectiveness of the dietary protein intake. The dosage with meals to make up for dietary deficiencies depends on how far short your diet falls of the goal intake of high-quality protein. In the case of a vegetarian diet, this could be up to 15 grams of essential amino acids with each meal to obtain optimal results.