DEAR DOCTOR K: My teenage daughter has become a vegetarian. How can I make sure she gets enough protein?
DEAR READER: You have less to worry about than you might think. When it comes to getting protein in your diet, there are many meat-free options.
Our bodies need protein (made of amino acids) for the health of every cell, and particularly to build strong muscles, bones and skin. Some of these amino acids are called “essential.” Our bodies cannot make essential amino acids, so we must get them from foods.
Meats have plenty of essential amino acids, but they also contain some unhealthy components, such as saturated fat. Vegetables, grains and nuts are lower in essential amino acids than meat-based proteins. But combining plant-based proteins will ensure that your daughter gets enough amino acids. If your daughter eats a variety of plant-based foods, she’ll be fine.
There are many ways to get protein from plants. Whole grains are a good source, and they’re complex carbohydrates as well. Try quinoa, barley, bulgur wheat, amaranth, millet, and brown and wild rice.
Nuts, nut butters and seeds are another protein source, and they are rich in healthy, unsaturated fat. There are many to choose from: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts; almond butter and cashew butter. Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are also good options.
But the richest source of plant-based protein is the legume family: lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas. And beans: black, kidney, garbanzo, lima, navy, pinto, white and kidney. The soybean, another legume, is the source of tofu and tempeh, which are rich in protein. (Try to limit your daughter to two to four servings of soy per week.)
I’ve put a table listing the amount of protein in several vegetarian foods on my website, AskDoctorK.com.