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Where can a vegetarian get good protein?

Asked by Mary, Royal Palm Beach, Florida

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As a vegetarian, what is a good source of protein? Do I use protein drinks or protein bars and if so, could you recommend a good one? I do not eat fish or chicken or any seafood, etc. Basically, if it was alive at one time, I will not eat it.

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer:

Hi Mary. Your choice to be a vegetarian is a very good one. In fact, the newest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages moving toward a more plant-based diet for optimal health. Getting adequate amounts of protein can be challenging for some vegetarians, especially vegans.

The recommended daily intake for most adults is 0.8 grams of good quality protein per kilogram of body weight each day. If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning you eat dairy and eggs (they were not alive at one time so I'm assuming that you do), these are both very good sources of high-quality protein. I would encourage you to limit yourself to seven whole eggs a week to keep cholesterol intake down, but you can consume as many egg whites as you like, as they are one of the highest-quality proteins you can find.

Low-fat or fat-free dairy is also a very good source of protein and provides bone-building calcium and, in the case of fortified milk, vitamin D. If you do not eat eggs or dairy, there are still plenty of protein options including beans, peas, nuts, seeds and soy. Just watch your consumption of processed and packaged soy products, which are often loaded with sodium. And make sure to consume a variety of sources of protein to ensure that you get all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that you need daily.

You can certainly choose protein bars or drinks for convenience, just make sure to limit products with a lot of added sugar or fat. (Full disclosure: I have my own line of protein bars.) I recommend finding a protein bar with at least 10 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and no more than about 10 grams of sugar and 2 grams of saturated fat (Note that these suggestions apply to the average 200-calorie bar -- if you choose a lower-calorie bar, the numbers should be lower. Also, if a bar contains dried fruit, sugar may be slightly higher).

When it comes to protein drinks, giving specific recommendations is more challenging, because the range of products varies considerably, but again I would aim for at least 10 grams of protein and try to limit added sugar as much as possible. If a protein drink contains milk, it will contain some milk sugar, which does not count as added sugar. Many of these drinks, however, are made with either loads of sugar, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols, which some people choose to avoid, so the healthiest option may be to make your own smoothie with protein powder and fresh or frozen fruit if you choose to get your protein this way.

As a vegetarian, it is also important to make sure you get adequate amounts of iron, B12, zinc and calcium, so make sure to include foods rich in these nutrients, fortified foods or a supplement if necessary. In addition, because you do not eat any seafood, you might want to consider taking an omega 3 fatty acid supplement containing EPA and DHA (healthy fats found in fatty fish like salmon), especially if you are at risk of heart disease (risk factors include family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking).

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