One of my son’s eighth-grade friends recently became a vegetarian. He joins the approximately 4 percent of youths in this country (up from 2 percent 10 years ago) who eat meatless. As much as my boys respect his choice and recognize his passion for the environment that spurred the decision, neither of them truly understands it.
The boys asked how their friend could put on enough muscle, possess enough energy or be such a good athlete without meat. I told them that meat can be very good for growing boys and athletes, as its protein helps to build muscle, repair tissue, provide energy and balance mood — but it is by no means necessary. If he’s eating enough vegetarian sources of protein, iron and B vitamins, their friend will perform just as well. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position on vegetarian diets is that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including … infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
There is no doubt that meat provides protein, but so do beans, eggs, nuts, yogurt and even broccoli. The following non-meat foods contain plenty of protein:
Nuts and seeds
(4–10 grams per 1-ounce serving)
Walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, almond butter, hemp, chia and flax seeds.
Beans and legumes
(7–10 grams per half-cup):
Black beans, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus and green peas.
(5–8 grams per cup)
Quinoa, brown rice, oats, millet and barley.
(9–16 grams per half-cup)
Tofu, edamame and tempeh.
Fruits and veggies
such as avocado (4 grams per cup), dark leafy greens (about 5 grams per cup) and broccoli (4 grams per cup).
(milk, yogurt, cheese) and eggs provide 6–9 grams of protein per serving.
Here’s a surprise: raw cacao nibs provide 4 grams of protein (plus antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) per 1-ounce serving.
According to the Institute of Medicine, we should all consume between 10 percent and 35 percent of our daily calories from protein. This really is not that much and can be easily achieved with the non-meat foods listed above.
Babies: 10 grams a day.
School-age kids: 19–34 grams a day.
Teenage boys: 52 grams a day.
Teenage girls: 46 grams a day.
Adult men: 56 grams a day.
Adult women: 46 grams a day (more if expecting or nursing).
There are many benefits to eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet including cost savings, loads of fiber (which aids in digestion), less saturated fat (good for the heart), and a wider variety of vitamins and minerals proven to reduce diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
I don’t eat a lot of meat myself; in fact, my 13-year-old son loves to tease me for eating so many vegetables. If I say I’m hungry, he encourages me to roast the potted plant in our hallway!
Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of a collection of healthful recipes and advice.