Cashews, chickpeas, beans, and oats

Is Your Vegetarian Teen Getting Enough Protein?

By: Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Clarity about protein is one of the most common concerns I see as a Kroger Dietitian, and particularly as a vegetarian and vegan nutrition expert. Parents, whether for themselves or their growing teens, want to know how much protein is enough.

Let’s break it down. Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is a set of values to plan and assess the nutrient intakes of healthy people. DRIs were developed jointly for the United States and Canada by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. DRIs provide guidance on a safe and adequate range of intakes for healthy individuals, and they also consider chronic disease states. Reasons that protein requirements could be higher than normal include stress, injury, kidney complications or illness.

The daily DRIs for protein are: adults 19 and older require 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight (BW); young adults 14-18 years of age need 0.85 g protein per kgBW; and children 9 to 13 years of age should be getting 0.95 g protein per kgBW. Ready for some math? This means that your 150-pound teenager needs to aim for 58 g protein daily, whereas your 100-pound preadolescent should get 43 g protein.

Most nutrition experts agree that rounding up protein to 1.0-1.1 g per kgBW for vegans or vegetarians can compensate for lack of amino acids in plant foods other than quinoa, soy and most legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts). This means 68-82 g or 45-50 g protein daily for your plant-based teen or preteen, respectively, will do the trick! Considering that a relatively simple breakfast of ½ cup oatmeal + ½ cup strawberries + 1 slice whole-grain toast with 1 tbsp. peanut butter + 1 cup soy milk already contributes 18 g of protein, you can start to gather how simple it is for your growing kids to get the protein they need.

Here are 10 plant-powered proteins to help fill in any suspected gaps:

  1. Lentils: Perfect as a taco meat stand-in or toward a “lentil loaf” (mock meatloaf).
  2. Hemp: Hemp seeds are a welcome addition to breakfast faves like avocado toast, cereal or yogurt.
  3. Peas: We recommend using split peas in soups or mixed with veggies for a homemade burger patty. Ground yellow peas are a popular protein powder alternative.
  4. Soy: From tofu to tempeh to “milk,” soy really delivers on high-quality protein.
  5. Cashews: Eat raw as-is or soak overnight, drain and blend in a high-speed blender for a dip or spread.
  6. Chickpeas: This mild bean can be pureed into hummus, baked with spices for a crunchy snack, or tossed into salads. Bonus: aquafaba is the liquid from a can of chickpeas which can be used in place of eggs.
  7. Oats: One of the higher protein grains, oats do just fine on their own in oatmeal, but also work well in muffins, pancakes or breads.
  8. Peanuts: The richness of peanut butter is a crowd-pleaser. Try making your own from Simple Truth Organic Original Peanut Powder (OptUP score: 96) plus water. Peanuts also play a supporting role in trail mixes or homemade snack bars.
  9. Nutritional yeast: AKA “nooch”, this flaked, cheesy product rivals Parmesan cheese in protein and is fat-free. Sprinkle on popcorn or a pasta dish.
  10. Black beans: We find this well-liked bean showing up in Buddha bowls, brownies, dips and even smoothies. We’re here for it!

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