On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Building Complete Proteins From Plant Foods

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have been trying to cut back on my intake of meat and dairy. I have two young boys, and they are less than enthusiastic. I am wondering if my new vegetarian menu will provide them the protein they need. -- S.T., Arizona City, Arizona

DEAR S.T.: A semi-vegetarian menu, or one where there is no animal food whatsoever (vegan), can easily meet your family’s protein needs. It does depend, though, on which foods you include. You cannot simply eat plant foods without a plan and think you have things covered. A little background on protein may be of assistance.

First, there’s no question that proteins are important in the scheme of things; they are used to make hair, skin, nails, muscles, organs, blood cells, bones, brain and nerve tissue, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, chemical messengers and the DNA and RNA used to form the genetic code of life. Quite a lineup.

While there are different types of protein, they are all made up of the same amino acid building blocks. Our bodies can synthesize many amino acids on their own, but there are some we cannot make, and these have to be supplied by our diets. The ones we need are referred to as the “essential amino acids” (EAAs).

Most foods have some amino acids. Animal proteins, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, are called complete proteins because they usually contain all the EAAs. Vegetable proteins, such as grains and legumes, are considered to be incomplete proteins because they’re missing, or are very low in, one or more EAAs. Soy protein is one exception, in that it is a complete vegetable protein. Vegetarianism revolves around the fact that one can easily meet their daily protein requirement by combining plant foods in a way that provides all the EAAs the body needs.

There are three basic types of vegetable protein: whole grains, such as rice, corn, oats and barley; legumes, such as beans and lentils; and nuts and seeds, such as almonds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. By planning the meals for the day to include foods from two or more of these groups, you end up creating a complete protein. For example, by eating rice (grains) and beans (legumes), you supply the body with the EAAs it needs to make its protein. Please note that these complementary foods do not have to be eaten at the same meal.

There is an excellent source page on vegetarianism at the National Library of Medicine, and it includes links to address issues for children and other groups. Find it at tinyurl.com/yd6hzh2a.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.