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December 17th, 2010
08:44 AM ET

Where can a vegetarian get good protein?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Mary from Royal Palm Beach, Florida

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.
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).


soundoff (302 Responses)
  1. ANTHONY M FERNANDO, CA, USA

    HOW SHE IS GOING TO EAT IS NOT MY BUSINESS, BUT WHEN YOU SAY "I WILL NOT EAT ANYTHING THAT WAS ONCE ALIVE, YOU HAVE TO REFRAIN FROM PLANTS BASED FOOD.

    December 19, 2010 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. tbi_guy

    Meat protein is OK if it comes from animals that are herbivores, and is pasture raised, raised like life matters, and you eat the stuff in moderation.
    Yeah yeah I know..... but, have you ever killed anything, let alone something that you raised? It's just like everything else that matters, garbage in, garbage out.... And if one truly is what one eats......
    Eating grass fed and pastured animals, as opposed to meats from grain fed feed-lot animals makes a big difference. Everything matters.... The more "natural" an animals feed and life are maintained the better for you it's going to be.... Just not as fast or centralized or profitable nor >>>cheap<<< as industrial "methods". Sorta the same as with milk, and those fruits and vegetables you eat too... Gives the kids something to do everyday too

    December 19, 2010 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cole

      Here's the question I love asking your crowd: What do you all those lovely cows, cared for by generations by the Vermont farmer, eat during winter? See a lot of pasturing grounds during the frozen months up there? You think the farmers there don't care about their cows?

      December 19, 2010 at 16:46 | Report abuse |
  3. Eddie

    "if it was alive at one time, I will not eat it"
    .... what??

    December 19, 2010 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Catherine Thompson

    I cannot recommend more, 'The Vegetarian Myth' by Lierre Keith. A brilliant book that blows out of the water the moral, political and nutritional myths that surround our food especially in the context of modern industrial societies.

    December 19, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LEB

      Have you considered the possibility that some people just don't really like meat?

      December 20, 2010 at 03:56 | Report abuse |
    • abluesky

      Actually, there is incredibly significant evidence suggesting that vegan diet is superior to an ovo-lacto diet: The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell.

      "most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease." The New York Times

      The research project culminated in a 20-year partnership of Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, a survey of diseases and lifestyle factors in rural China and Taiwan. More commonly known as the China Study, "this project eventually produced more than 8000 statistically significant associations between various dietary factors and disease."

      The findings? "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease ... People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored," said Dr. Campbell.

      Here is my summation of the key finding: direct link between casein (milk protein) intake and cancer. Direct link between animal protein consumption and disease. No link between plant protein consumption and disease.

      Link: http://www.thechinastudy.com/

      December 21, 2010 at 19:55 | Report abuse |
  5. Shootie hoops

    As a vegetarian, I am a little bit ahead of the curve. I also have an eating disorder, but that is okay because I can hide it behind my vegetarain lifestyle or say that is for ethical reasons. I also can not relate to normal people, shower less than normal people and always bring up my vegetarain lifestyle and how healthy and better it is than eating normal diet, even though there is really no evidence to base it on.

    December 19, 2010 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DsylexicHippo

      Sorry – you are quite behind the curve and you are NO vegetarian, for sure. There is ample evidence but you have to pull your head out of the sand first.

      And what do you mean by "normal diet" anyway? Normal by whose standards? People like you have "normalized" killing defenseless animals for food. I am glad that a few of us have chosen not to feast on carcass.

      December 19, 2010 at 17:31 | Report abuse |
    • Shootie hoops

      @DsylexicHippo
      you must be a meat eater and are clearly behind the curve like the other meat eaters. And no, I am a vegetarian because I have an obvious eating disorder and enjoy using my vegan lifestyle to make it acceptable to all. As a vegetarian and an obvious genius I know that there is no evidence to back up my vegetarian lifestyle. It is very much common sense that without meat proteins and other essential vitamins and minerals I would become anemic, develop osteoporosis, and have vit B12 deficiency. But as long as I am grossly thin, it is worth it! Poor stupid meat eaters, just pathetic.

      December 19, 2010 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
    • DsylexicHippo

      @Shootie hoops:

      Ok, I take your word for it. But like you, I too am a vegetarian.

      Along with your B12 supplement, you should take a pill for humor.

      December 19, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse |
  6. tbi_guy

    Re: "What do you all those lovely cows, cared for by generations by the Vermont farmer, eat during winter?"
    Hey Cole! Those well cared for cows they eat grass. Which, for those folks who have never lived around farming folks and areas, is called "hay".
    Re: "You think the farmers there don't care about their cows?" Yes I think that even the industrial type farmers cannot help but care for, in more ways than one, their animals. That's where the real changes will be coming from....
    Bad news for all folks who think that factory farming is the wave of the future..... When your friendly local farmers decide they have had enough of getting virtually nothing for that which nothing else can ever replace, you are still going to need to eat, and lets all guess just who it will be that your getting that food from, and for a whole lot more, though possibly still less than it is worth, than you are paying today.
    Now just try to imagine what happens to the east coast food supply if say, one fine January day, an 8.7 earthquake were to wreak havoc on California's agricultural, water, and transportation infrastructures.
    I imagine it less than a week and you'd think yourself very blessed to be a locally fed vegetarian, meat and dairy being then the rarest of luxuries and only memories for those who don't "grow yer own".

    December 19, 2010 at 17:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cole

      Here I go with the barrel fish shooting!

      Virtually all cows in the U.S. are fed things other than grass, even the so-called "grass-fed" cows. This is thanks to science and corn subsidies. In all seasons, animals are fed a balanced diet, which includes tons of fiber, corn, grains, stover and alfalfa, all treated with chemicals to help preserve and increase nutrition. So, at the loss of the "romance" factor of an "all grass" diet, the animals are fed something that's good for them and cheaper to boot.

      Congrats on strike one. Shall we move on?

      Farmers don't care about their animals? Little problem with that assumption. It's called MONEY.
      See, cows are different from something like chickens in that they're a greater investment. It can be raised for milk, beef, leather, whatever. The thing is, how it's treated shows in the end product. And, at some point in their lives, they'll be inspected to be rated and sold. How much do you think a sickly, abused cow is going to be sold for?

      Strike two.

      What's the one thing that's never mentioned in "food inc" and all the other scary propaganda pieces about big companies? They're incredibly efficient, and it's in their best interest to be. Mass production, practically by default, ensures that. Make more of something and it's cheaper to make each one. An advance in science means a bigger impact for the big farm. But, that's rather obvious since all that is reflected in the prices.

      Strike three.

      Oh, bonus time! The whole "local, organic" food thing doesn't work. It's called Africa, where pesticides and fertilizers aren't really available and people are starving. Yay, organic!

      December 19, 2010 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
    • LEB

      @Cole – The whole "local organic" thing works just fine, and the hunger problems in Africa are the result of causes other than people wanting organic, locally produced food. For one, extreme poverty, which affects every aspect of their lives. For two, lack of infracture for irrigation and soil renewal. For three, lack of resources to research and develop sub-species of food staples that grow in the native environment. DNA patenting is part of the problem, because since someone else "owns" the patent, farmers have to buy new seed every year rather than cultivating their own.

      So as I was saying, the "local organic" thing works fine. I buy most of my meat, fish, and produce from sources that are either local or within my state. It's much costlier than buying good produced by the big growers (example, last week I paid $18 for a 4.5lb whole chicken from my local butcher rather than a $8 chicken grown by Tyson), but if sustainable farming is something you support, you'll vote with your greenbacks.

      December 20, 2010 at 03:55 | Report abuse |
  7. Ted

    I always respect a vegetarian who says, "I am a vegetarian because..." I dismiss a vegetarian who says, "Everyone should be a vegetarian because..."

    December 19, 2010 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cole

      But why bring it up at all? Isn't it enough to just say you are and then move on?

      December 19, 2010 at 19:28 | Report abuse |
    • NA

      Cole, of course that's enough. But vegetarians/vegans, even the non-militant ones, are often asked why or somehow insulted by certain people. So it depends on the situation. The way I see it, don't ask me to explain, don't ridicule/judge my lifestyle, and I won't bring it up. My choices are my choices, I refuse to tell anyone how to live their life (unless they ask for advice/professional opinion), and I too don't want to be ordered around unless I ask for an opinion. 🙂

      December 20, 2010 at 20:34 | Report abuse |
  8. gkaplanMD

    It is about time we change from carnivorous to plant diet ( VEGAN)
    The # 1, 2 and 3 causes of death in wealthy nations are cardiovascular and cancer due to meat, fish, cheikcen, eggs, milk or any animal products.
    Also 50% of global warming is due to agribusiness Save your health and save the planet

    December 19, 2010 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • abbyful

      Humans are OMNIVORES. Not carnivores, not herbivores.

      Perhaps you should read "The Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith. Crops are far more harmful to the earth than pastured livestock.

      December 22, 2010 at 09:56 | Report abuse |
  9. Tard

    While you can get sufficient protein from a combination of beans and grains, apparently there needs to be a class or some other valid instruction because 80% of the vegans I know have the muscle tone of a canned ham and appear to lack vibrancy. And I don't mean a little, either. When I bring it up (gently), they start ranting about eating things 'with a face'.

    OK.

    December 19, 2010 at 19:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Daniel

    Anyone who eats over 2000 calories a day has ZERO problems getting adequate protein. Only anorexics and people who live on less than 1000 calories a day are "protein" deficient.

    December 19, 2010 at 19:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Frrrrrrrrunkis guy

    The less red meat you folks eat, the more left for me. Yummy, yummy red meat. Keep up the good work vegans.

    December 19, 2010 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DsylexicHippo

      Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

      December 19, 2010 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
  12. ling-ling

    Best source of veg protean can be observed from Indian diets. Indian people consume lots of legume varieties(yellow, red lentils(aka. pigeon peas), and chick peas.Soy products are good in protean as well. If you are lacto-ovo then obvious choices are egg and milk protean sources.

    Good Luck!

    December 19, 2010 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jim

    .8 milligrams per kilo? I'm 200 pounds, that comes to 160 milligrams, Is that a misstype?

    December 20, 2010 at 02:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. LEB

    The human body doesn't need nearly as much protein as the dairy and meat industries have led us to believe. Our bodies are actually very good at recycling protein. So unless you're a serious athlete, protein that comes from plant sources are sufficient.

    And no, I'm not a vegetarian.

    December 20, 2010 at 03:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. JS

    Try meat.

    December 20, 2010 at 07:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Rob

    Concentrated dairy products like cottage cheese and even low or non-fat hard cheeses are excellent sources of protein. Whey, casein, soy, or even egg protein powders and protein bars can be fantastic. Traditional soy products, both fermented and non-fermented, are also another way to go. Do not rely on classic vegetarian staples like rice and beans for your protein. Do the math on the protein per calorie and they are extremely low. Protein is a multi-purpose nutritional tool that is good for more than just the basic muscular repair and maintenance, which is what the government's recommendations are based upon, for the most part. Protein is especially valuable for the vegetarian, who often has a higher overall dietary glycemic index than some other individuals. Protein can help buffer blood sugar and insulin spikes and can also increase satiety, especially in combination with dietary fibers. Make the most of the uses protein has to offer!

    Rational, effective nutrition for fat loss and long-term health: http://www.NutritionPerfected.com/np-blog.html

    December 20, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Kim

    Just had a lamb shank and two huge baked sweet potatoes for dinner. Delicious!

    Enjoy your tempeh burgers *gags*

    December 20, 2010 at 21:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. build one way links

    [...] Where can a vegetarian get good protein? – The Chart – CNN.com Blogs [...]

    January 1, 2011 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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