Be a Vegeterian

Beyond meat and cheese
Vegetable proteins make for winning combinations
By Pam Smith O'Hars
"Chicago Tribune," Wednesday, May 27, 1998

I remember sitting in Mr. Tondrick's 6th grade classroom starting at the Basic Four Food Groups Chart, and listening to the teacher go on about protein, illustrated by huge hunks of hum and chunks of cheese.

Later that day at lunch, my friends and I finished our bologna and cheese sandwiches out of our brown paper sacks and knew we were doing the right thing.


"We were all brainwashed to believe that the only source of protein was in meat and cheese," says Suzanne Havala, dietitian and the American Dietetic Association's vegetarian nutrition specialist. Between what our moms dishing up and what our teachers were spouting out, grains and vegetables never had a chance. "It was emblazoned on our brains and now it's a mind-set ," Havala says.

True, meat does provide protein-too much in fact. Most Americans, including vegetarians, easily get twice the RDA for protein, and evidence is mooting that too much protein may be linked to health problems such as cancer, kidney disease and osteoporosis.

Women over 18 should eat about 50 grams of protein a day, men about 63 grams. Pregnant or breatfeeding women need 15 to 30 grams more, easily obtained through an extra 8-ounce glass of milk and a cup of yogurt.

What does protein do for us anyway?It makes up and repairs muscle and bone tissue, fights infections, helps heal wonds and regulates enzymes and hormones.

As long as you eat enough calories and your diet is based on real food, not junk food, don't worry you are getting enough protein. Vegetables proteins also give you something that animal proteins can't, a great source fob slow burning carbohydrates with very little fat.

All plants have some protein, though fruits have very little. To meet the RDA, you need 10 percent of your daily calories from protein. Because very few plants contains less than 10 percent of calories as protein(some, like kale and broccoli, have 45 percent). It would be difficult not to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet.

And the notion that animal protein is superior is untrue.

"Animal protein is just a protein polymer of amino acids which the animal derived from the plant they eat," says Dr. Williams Harris, in his "Guide to Healthy Eating". "So cut out the middle man and get what you really need directly from the plants that made it."

If you have heard that vegetarians must combine food in all sorts of complicated ways to get "complete" proteins, forget it.

Foods contain different amounts of the 22 amino acids that are the building blocks of protein. The body can manufacture 14 of these. The other eight must come from the foods we eat. Some foods are strong in certain amino acids and weak in others.

I was a college student who had been vegetarian for nearly a year, eating cheese as my main protein source, when author Frances Moore Lappe published "Diet for a Small Planet." She wrote that when you combine certain foods, like beans and rice, the amino acid strengths of one make up for the weaknesses of the other, adding up to a very good protein source that she called "protein complimentarily."

I was desperate for some help and rushed to the bookstore. My eyes glazed over as I looked at complicated graphs and charts of protein tables and amino acid ratings. She listed foods like brever's yeast and millet. What was this stuff?

I made a trip to the only health food store in town and peered in to huge barrels of grains. What would I do with this stuff to make it edible once I got it back to my dorm? Determined to learn, I signed up for a nutrition course and added lots of brown rice, vegetables and fruits to my diet. At each meal, I tried to make sure I was combining proteins. Now it turns out all that wasn' treally necessary.

In her 10th anniversary edition of "Diet for a Small Planet," Lappe admitted that in her efforts to show meat was not the only source of high -quality protein, she had inadvertently created a myth of her own-that extreme care was needed in choosing and combining certain foods.

Nutrition experts now agree that as long as you eat a varied diet, over the course of a day the amino acids will find each other and naturally create complete proteins. Many familiar dishes like beans and rice, cereal and milk, and even pizza contain complimentary proteins anyway.

"The deliberate combining of foods is completely unnecessary," says Havala, who adds there are hundreds of nutrient interactions that occur on a regular basis of our bodies. "We don't have to orchestrate any of those. Why should we have to do it for amino acids?"

Of all the foods rich in protein, legumes - dried beans, peas and lentils are the most wholesome choices. They are also excellent sources of fiber and complex carbohydrates. Many vegetarians also include eggs and dairy in their diets. With these sorts of protein choices, a fringe benefit of eating low on the food chain is a lower food bill.