October 7, 2016

Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?

Proteins are one of the nutrient food groups essential to the human body.

Peter N. Landless

Q:I worry that a vegetarian diet will not provide adequate protein for the daily needs of my family, especially my teenage children. Is it reasonable and safe for the Adventist Church to require its adherents to be vegetarians?

A:Proteins are one of the nutrient food groups essential to the human body. They are building blocks of human tissue and can also serve as a source of energy. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. During digestion, proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids and absorbed into the bloodstream. They are then used in the body’s growth processes, the repair of body tissues, the production of enzymes, and the breakdown of foods. There are 20 amino acids; nine are termed essential because the body is unable to synthesize these and they must be present in the food we eat.

Although animal proteins are regarded as more complete because they contain all the essential amino acids, vegetarians and total vegetarians (vegans) are readily able to get enough essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant proteins. Plant sources of dietary protein are easily able to supply the nutritional needs of growing children, those who are physically active, and even seniors. The key is to eat a variety of plant proteins each day. If we do that, it is no longer considered necessary to pair proteins (e.g., beans with rice) at a particular meal.

Nonmeat sources of proteins include beans, peas, lentils (legumes), processed soy/grain products (meat alternatives), nuts, seeds, and dairy (eggs and milk). In order to maintain a consistently healthful diet, one should limit high-fat and salty protein dishes such as highly seasoned entrées, meat analogs, and deep-fried foods. Teenage boys (14-18 years) require 6.5-ounce equivalents of protein per day, and girls in the same age group require five-ounce equivalents per day. Generally, an ounce equivalent of protein may be obtained in a quarter cup of cooked beans, a teaspoon of peanut butter, a half ounce of nuts or seeds, or one egg.

The August 1, 2016, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine reported that a high intake of proteins from animal sources, especially processed and unprocessed red meats, was associated with an increased mortality rate. An increased intake of protein from plant sources was associated with a lower death rate. The data was drawn from two large studies representing 3.5 million person-years (very robust numbers). The conclusion of the researchers is that people should eat more plant proteins than animal proteins, and if animal proteins are consumed, red meat should be avoided. We recommend that total vegetarians (vegans) should supplement vitamin B12, vitamin D, and, where needed, calcium. Lacto-ovo vegetarians should also supplement vitamin B12 as they age because absorption becomes less efficient. Additionally, dairy should be used sparingly.

The Adventist Church does not “require” but rather “encourages” a balanced vegetarian diet.

The science, not surprisingly, fits in perfectly with the legacy of the Adventist health message. We are blessed to have this knowledge. But even more blessed if we apply it!

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.