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Vegan For Life
by Jack Norris, RD &
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD
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Response to CCF: Protein for Vegan Teens

On January 27 2009, the Center for Consumer Freedom released another article on their website about vegetarian teens. Once again, it has a number of factual errors.

The CCF says, "[T]he AP reports, dieticians recommend consuming soybeans, fortified soy milk, and nuts to replace the protein, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D they are missing out on (and could acquire from a single serving of meat a day)."

There are some problems with that claim:

  • Fatty fish are the only meats that have vitamin D (unless you include liver and kidney meat).
  • Meat has very little calcium.
  • While meat does supply significant amounts of protein, iron, and zinc, it does not provide a daily supply in one serving.
Table 1. Daily Protein for Teenage Vegan
Food Amount Protein (g)
soymilk 8 oz 7
shredded oats 1.25 cup 6
broccoli 1 cup 3.7
Morningtar Farms Grillers Vegan 1 patty 12
bread 2 slices 2.5
peanuts 1/4 cup 9.75
spanish rice 1/2 cup 2.5
bean burrito 1 9
corn chips 1 oz 2
soy ice cream 1/2 cup 2
Total 56.45

Later in the article the CCF says, "The average teenager needs between 46 and 52 grams of protein a day." While it is true that the RDA for protein for teenagers aged 14 to 18 is 46 grams for females and 52 grams for males, the RDA is not a measure of what the average teenager needs. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (1), "The RDA is the intake that meets the nutrient need of almost all (97-98 percent) individuals in a group." In other words, the average teenager needs less than the RDA. The NAS also give estimates of the average requirement, called the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) (1); it is about 85% of the RDA. The average female and male teenager needs about 40 and 43 grams respectively.

To complicate matters a bit, it is thought that if someone relies only on plant protein, they should get more protein. The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets lists the vegan version of the RDA for female and male teenagers as 54 and 61 grams (2). This would give a vegan version of the EAR of 46 and 51 grams for females and males.

Is it hard to get this much protein?

In Table 1, I added up the protein in what seems to be a reasonable diet for a teenage vegan. I only included foods that have significant amounts of protein; a teenager should eat more fruits and vegetables than what is listed here.

That was enough to easily meet the average requirement. Generally, when someone's individual requirement is higher than the Estimated Average Requirement, it's because they are more active or larger than average. Such a person will naturally eat more food and therefore get more protein.

There has been one study measuring the protein intake of teenage vegans in the last 10 years (3). It was from Sweden (2002), and found that female and male vegans, aged 16 to 20, had an average intake of 55 and 72 grams of protein respectively.

The Center for Consumer Freedom says that it's not easy for vegan teens to meet their protein needs. The study from Sweden indicates that it's not too difficult; but it does require knowing which foods are high in protein and making sure to incorporate them into your diet.


References

1. Executive Summary of the Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Table S-7, p. 12.

2. Messina v, Mangels R, Messina M. The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets, 2nd Ed.Executive Summary Salbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc., 2004. p. 352.

3. Larsson CL, Johansson GK. Dietary intake and nutritional status of young vegans and omnivores in Sweden. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Jul;76(1):100-6.