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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Protein easy for vegetarians to get (for 9/21/08)

September 12, 2008

What would be a protein replacement for an individual who does not eat meat or eggs?

People who don't eat meat or eggs but do eat foods from the dairy group are called "lacto vegetarians," and they have plenty of choices for protein foods.

A prime choice is dairy foods. Like other foods that come from animals, dairy foods contain all eight of the amino acids the human body needs to get from food to build the different types of protein the body needs. These essential amino acids are tryptophan, methionine, threonine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, leucine and phenylalanine. (Infants also require a ninth essential amino acid, histidine.) Milk, cheese and yogurt are all good options; choose low-fat or nonfat varieties not only if you're watching your weight but also to keep your overall fat intake to less than 30 percent of calories and your saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories.

When looking at plant-based foods, only soy is a "complete protein," containing all of the essential amino acids. Tofu, soymilk, soy-based meat replacements and other soy-based foods all provide protein for vegetarians.

Other plant-based foods also contain essential amino acids, but they're all deficient in one or more of them. For example, in general, beans and many vegetables tend to be low in methionine, but grains, nuts and seeds contain a good amount of that amino acid. On the other hand, grains, nuts and seeds are low in lysine, but beans and other legumes contain ample amounts.

Years ago, nutritionists believed vegetarians had to combine foods with all of the essential amino acids in one meal to allow your body to get the protein it needs, but now we know that things are just fine as long as you consume foods with all of the essential amino acids over the course of a day. So, you could eat red beans (a legume) and rice (a grain) in one meal to get a complete protein, or you could have beans at lunch and a grain at dinner, and have the same effect.

For more information on nutritious vegetarian diets, go to either or and search for "vegetarian diets." You'll find lots of in-depth information on not only good sources of protein but other nutrients, as well.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Julie Shertzer