Plant-Based Diet Guide Part I – Protein

The health benefits of going plant-based, for example, reducing the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hyperlipidemia, and preventing overweight and obesity problems, are well supported by scientific evidence. These benefits, however, are not guaranteed unless the right amount and proportion of nutrients are consumed. Some non-vegetarians have limited nutrition knowledge about vegetarianism and food choices, creating misunderstandings and concerns which hinder them to initiate a change in eating habit. Even existing vegetarians and vegans can be unsure about what a balanced vegetarian/vegan diet is, making them suffer from adverse health issues due to deficiencies of certain nutrients.


It is a wrong concept to avoid just meat and meat products when going green, without paying attention to the importance of replacing them by sufficient plant proteins! Many vegetarian beginners do not feel satiated when having meatless meals, so they unconsciously fill their stomachs with more carbohydrate-rich foods (e.g. rice, noodles, bread, etc), potentially resulting in weight gain. And because of the sudden surge in blood sugar level, they become tired and sleepy soon after the starchy meals. Apart from being involved in body cell production and repair, proteins in food actually provide you with more long-lasting satiety than carbohydrates and fats do. Therefore, if you are able to consume enough proteins during main meals, you are less likely to feel hungry and have snacks between meals, that is important for weight control.  

Complete Protein VS Incomplete Protein

  There are nine types of amino acids which we must obtain from foods. Proteins with all these essential amino acids are known as “complete proteins”. Majority of the plant-based foods lack one or more essential amino acids and therefore, plant proteins are usually “incomplete proteins”. In the past, it was recommended to get all the essential amino acids by including complementary proteins – having different types of plant-based foods to compensate the essential amino acid(s) that each food lacks. One example is to have rice and beans together in one meal. However, the updated recommendation is to consume different plant foods (e.g. legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and vegetables) throughout a day to obtain all essential amino acids, provided that the caloric requirements are met. In other words,  diversity is the key.  

Protein Requirement

Age Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein
0 – 6 months 9.1g
6 – 12 months 11g
1-3yr 13g
4-8yr 19g
9-13yr 34g
14-18yr (Male)52g (Female)46g
18yr above (Male)56g (Female)46g
Pregnant and lactating women 71g

(Source: Institute of Medicine, US)

  The above recommended values are rather rough estimations. For a more accurate calculation, one’s body weight will be taken into account:

  Protein Requirement per Body Weight (kg)
Adult 0.8-1g
Elderly 1-1.2g

  For example, the estimated protein requirement for a 50-kg healthy adult will be 40-50g. As the amount of body protein loss increases while the ability to digest and absorb food substances decreases with age, elderly people have increased protein needs. Moreover, one’s protein requirement should be adjusted based on different conditions, such as physical activity level, underweight/overweight and medical conditions.  

Sources of Plant Proteins

  Legumes (e.g. lentils and red kidney beans), soy products, nuts and seeds are natural protein-rich foods. Eat Smart Tips:

  1. We normally count 7g of protein as one serving. For adult, it is ideal to have 2 servings of protein for each meal.
  2. Although nuts and seeds are protein-rich, their fat and energy contents are relatively high. Keep an eye on the amount consumed!

Apart from natural foods, many vegetarians incorporate “plant-based meats” into their diets as the major source of protein. “Plant-based meats” actually refer to meat substitutes purely made from plant ingredients. The latest food technology allows extraction of proteins from natural plant foods (e.g. soybean and pea) for “meat” production, with taste, texture and appearance of the “meat” closely resembles real meat. In general, plant-based meats are lower in calories and saturated fat content, but contain more dietary fiber. The absence of antibiotics and hormones also makes this kind of “meat” superior and is named  “Food 2.0”. Unlike traditional Chinese meat substitutes, plant-based meats have less seasoning which allow them to be widely adopted in a variety of cuisines. Plant-based meats are processed foods after all. So, it is hard to guarantee absolute zero food additives in these products. They are brilliant transitional food choices for meat lovers and beginners following vegetarian/vegan dietbecause they can imitate the mouthfeel of real meat, and are relatively easier to cook and store than natural foods. Most importantly, they are nutrient-dense and therefore especially ideal for protein supplementation.

On the other hand, it is worth-noticing that the protein content of grains and vegetables can vary greatly, so they should not be regarded as the only and reliable sources of protein. Nevertheless, you are encouraged to choose grains and vegetables that are relatively higher in protein for your meals to boost the overall protein intake.



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