As more and more people limit animal-based protein sources, a common question arises: Can reduced meat and dairy diets still provide enough protein? In this article, we explore the importance of protein, the various plant-based protein sources available, strategies for ensuring adequate protein intake, and address common misconceptions.
It is possible to meet protein requirements on a reduced meat and dairy diet with individualized nutrition planning.
Plant-based protein sources like legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds are excellent protein sources.
A healthcare provider can help create a plant-based meal plan to ensure that meals are nutritionally balanced—including proper protein intake.
Protein and dietary requirements
The body needs protein to function. Protein is necessary for many vital functions, including hormone synthesis, tissue development, growth and repair, and a healthy immune system.
A healthy and balanced diet requires proper daily protein intake. Our daily protein needs change based on individual characteristics, including but not limited to gender, age, and physical activity levels.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams/per kilogram of body weight. For example, someone weighing 60 kg needs to consume at least 46 grams of protein daily to support their body.
Plant-based protein sources
There are plenty of natural plant-based foods which supply the body with protein, including:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Green leafy vegetables
These foods also provide other essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidant compounds, and fiber.
In addition to natural plant-based protein sources, there is a growing availability of protein-fortified plant-based products such as:
- Soy products. Soybeans are a complete protein source, containing the body's essential amino acids. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan are a few of the many available soy products.
- Plant-based protein powders. Protein powders can be used to close the gap between dietary protein intake and requirement. Protein powders from soy, pea, hemp, and spirulina are widely available.
- Dairy alternatives. Alternative milk is made from many ingredients, including oat, rice, soy, coconut, and nuts which provide a milky texture and a nutty taste.
Is following a plant-based diet difficult?
While a transition to a plant-based diet is challenging for some people, others may embrace it more easily. Here are a few factors to consider:
The level of commitment and motivation plays a significant role in adopting and maintaining a plant-based diet. Understanding the health, environmental, or ethical reasons behind the decision helps overcome challenges.
Adapting dietary preferences
Adapting to a plant-based diet requires exploring and incorporating a variety of plant-based foods. This may involve trying new recipes, exploring different cooking techniques, and finding plant-based alternatives to animal-based ingredients.
Meal planning and preparation
Planning and preparing meals in advance makes it easier to follow a plant-based diet. Though not difficult, it does involve some changes, such as researching plant-based recipes, creating grocery lists, and dedicating time to cooking and meal prepping.
Social and cultural factors
Social situations, dining out, and cultural traditions can present challenges for individuals following a plant-based diet. Communicating dietary preferences to family, friends, and restaurants in advance helps navigate such situations.
Ensuring adequate intake of essential nutrients is less of an issue with plant-based foods than animal-based foods. However, being more aware of iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acid intake is vital.
Ultimately, the perceived difficulty of following a plant-based diet varies from person to person. With proper planning, education, and a positive mindset, many individuals find it rewarding and sustainable.
Ensuring adequate protein intake
Protein intake may decrease when animal-based sources are limited or extracted from a diet.
A study analyzed more than 30,000 participants' protein intake. Results revealed that protein intake was higher in meat eaters (total 90 g; 1.28 g/kg of body weight) followed by fish eaters (79 g; 1.17 g/kg of body weight), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (70 g; 1.04 g/kg of body weight), and vegans (64 g; 0.99 g/kg of body weight).
As seen from the results, even vegan participants' protein intake was higher than recommended minimum protein intake of 0.8 g/ per body weight protein. However, these figures represent average values. Approximately 17% of male and 8% of female participants had low protein intake of below 0.66 g protein/per kg body weight.
A meta-analysis investigated how reduced meat and/or dairy intake affect protein intake and body composition. The analysis of 19 randomized controlled studies showed that participants who had reduced meat and/or dairy intake had significantly lower protein intake. However, there was no significant difference in body weight, waist circumference, body fat, or lean body mass.
Meeting protein needs on a reduced animal-based protein source, which would include limiting the protein found in meat, eggs, and dairy, requires careful planning and diversifying food choices. Nonetheless, meeting or surpassing protein requirements with a well-planned plant-based nutritional program is possible.
Being informed about plant-based foods and high-quality protein is helpful. However, remember that healthy and balanced nutrition should provide sufficient levels of other necessary nutrients as well.
For nutrition guidance, consult a healthcare provider for personalized eating plans to meet unique nutritional needs and preferences.
- Nutrition Reviews. Reducing meat and/or dairy consumption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of effects on protein intake, anthropometric values, and body composition.
- Nutrition Research. High compliance with dietary recommendations in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition–Oxford study.
- Harvard Health Publishing. How much protein do you need every day?
- Nutrients. Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets—A Review.