With many consumers opting to ditch meat and dairy products for the sake of the environment, their health, or for the animals, “where do vegans get their protein from?” is one of the most asked questions of the moment. This often is closely followed by “can they get enough of it?” and “is it the same quality as animal-based protein?”
The short answers to the above questions are: from a variety of sources, yes they can, and yes it is. For longer, more detailed explanations on why protein isn’t an issue for vegans, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide, starting with what protein does for the body.
What Is Protein?
According to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), protein is a macronutrient made up of amino acids. It is essential for the growth and repair of the body, allowing for the maintenance of good health. Protein helps to keep us feeling fit, strong, and full, providing us with energy to get us through the day.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
According to the dietician and nutritional advisor Reed Mangels, American consumers are “obsessed” with protein – somewhat unnecessarily. In actual fact, only around one calorie out of every 10 we consume needs to come from protein in order to meet the body’s needs. The nutritional expert notes that for a male vegan, roughly 63 grams of protein should be consumed daily, and for a female, it’s roughly 52. The exact amount can also vary by weight, muscle mass, and other factors.
“This concern about protein is misplaced,” she notes. “Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it.”
Food addiction counseller Erin Wathen agrees. “The average American eats more protein than they truly need and the sources they tend to get it from, being animal products, are terribly inefficient and expensive ounce for ounce compared to plant-based protein,” she told LIVEKINDLY in an email.
The story is much the same in the UK, where the average daily intake of protein in the UK is 88 grams for men and 64 grams for women. This is “more than sufficient,” notes the BNF.
In fact, eating too much protein can actually have negative consequences, Mangels states.
“With protein, more (than the Recommended Dietary Allowance) is not necessarily better,” she explains. “There do not appear to be health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease.”
Is Vegan Protein of the Same Quality As Animal Protein?
Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which there are nine that human adults need in their diet. These are leucine, isoleucine, histidine, valine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and lysine.
However, there are 20 amino acids found in protein. The remaining 11 are deemed as non-essential.
BNF notes, “[non-essential] amino acids do not have to be provided by the diet. This is because the amino group of these amino acids can be transferred to another amino acid with a different amino group by a process called transamination. In this way, the body is able to make some amino acids itself.”
The quality of protein we consume is important, as experts note that we need to consume the essential amino acids. The pattern of amino acids in an animal-based protein is similar to that of human cells, meaning they have a higher biological value than those from plant sources.
This doesn’t mean that plants are a “second class” source of protein, as was commonly assumed in the past. As long as a varied, balanced diet is consumed, we can get all the amino acids we need from a vegan diet. You don’t even need to combine plant protein sources in one meal, as was once believed, as your body keeps a sort of “pool” of amino acids from each of the foods you eat.
“Our bodies are smart and we don’t need to consume all the essential amino acids at once, so combining plant protein sources is not necessary,” the head of health research at RunRepeat.com told LIVEKINDLY. “We just need to have enough variety in our diet.”
Can Athletes Get Enough Protein on a Vegan Diet?
Protein is essential for building muscle mass, so naturally, an athlete will need to consume more protein than the average person who exercises a moderate amount. Some believe for an athlete to truly get enough protein, they need to consume vast quantities of meat, like steak. However, this is not the case.
In fact, many athletes are choosing to go vegan and staying on top of their game, some are even improving. Take Hulda B Waage for example, nicknamed the “Vegan Viking.” Powerlifter Waage beat three of her own national records at her second European competition back in May – as her nickname suggests, she eats nothing but a plant-based diet.
Racing car driver Lewis Hamilton, premier league footballer Héctor Bellerín, and rugby player Timana Tahu are just some other well-known athletes who are excelling in their fields, without the need to consume any animal products.
According to Mangels, vegan athletes can easily get enough protein without taking supplements. They just need to be eating a large variety of the right foods (we’ll come on to this shortly).
“Vegan athletes’ protein needs can range from 0.36 to 0.86 grams of protein per pound,” she explains. “Protein supplements are not needed to achieve even the highest level of protein intake.”
Where Do Vegans Get Their Protein From?
There is plenty of choice regarding vegan protein, with new, fun, tasty products emerging in the market all the time.
Here are seven sources of plant-based protein you can easily pack into your meals, drinks, smoothies, and snacks throughout the day.
1. Nuts, Seeds, and Nut Butters
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are some of the best sources of protein to have on hand. This is because they’re easy to snack on on their own, spread on toast, or slip into a smoothie or shake.
According to personal trainer and health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, Caleb Backe, almonds are particularly good to keep around, with over 30 grams of protein in one cup. Flaxseed is also an excellent source of protein, notes Backe. “Flaxseed is one of the oldest superfoods known to man,” he told LIVEKINDLY. “Besides their high omega-3 fatty acid content, flaxseed is also loaded with protein and antioxidants.”
Hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, cashews, and pistachios are also good sources of protein.
Containing nine essential amino acids, tofu – made from soybeans – is an excellent source of protein to get into your diet. It packs in 18 grams of protein – depending on the variety – per 100 grams. It’s also a classic vegan staple and there is so many fun, creative dishes you can make with it too. If you scramble it, it even tastes like egg, but unlike the latter, it doesn’t increase cholesterol.
However, according to sports nutritionist Matt Lovell, eating it with vegetable soup is one of the best combinations for your health. He told fitness magazine Men’s Health, “This will provide flavor and extra nutrients without any salty preservative filled seasonings that often cancel out the goodness found in the tofu.”
3. Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are great, versatile sources of protein that can be snuck into a number of recipes, they are also high in fiber, as well as B vitamins. Kidney beans are a particularly good source, with one cup containing 13.4 grams of protein. Peas – a type of legume – are also a good source of protein, with one cup containing 8.2 grams.
Healthline notes, “Peas are a great source of fiber and protein, which may help reduce blood sugar and insulin resistance. Pea fiber and protein support a healthy gut, as well.”
Black beans, pinto beans, soybeans, navy beans, and peanuts (yes, these are a legume!) are also effective sources of protein, as well as chickpeas and lentils (see below).
4. Chickpeas and Lentils
Like other legumes, chickpeas and lentils are great sources of protein. In fact, in 100 grams of chickpeas, there are 19 grams of protein. Lentils offer even more, at 26 grams of protein per 100 grams; they are also a good source of fiber, potassium, iron, and manganese.
According to Healthline, a number of studies have also suggested that chickpeas, in particular, are good for the bowels, improving their function and reducing bad bacteria in the intestine.
Chickpeas and lentils are also incredibly versatile, meaning you can make a number of creative recipes out of them, including lentil stew, lentil soup, chickpea tuna, and chickpea curry.
5. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast, also known as nooch, is a firm favorite of many plant-based cooks out there. You can sprinkle it over anything – like popcorn or mac and cheese – or use it to make vegan cheese sauces. It’s not just high in protein, but it’s also high in B12 and fiber too.
It’s also a complete protein, with all nine of the essential amino acids our body needs. One typical serving of nooch – around two tablespoons – contains about nine grams of protein, but many choose to use even more than this because it’s so tasty.
A traditional Indonesian ingredient, soy-based tempeh is a delicious source of calcium, iron, manganese, and of course, protein – boasting 15 grams per 84 gram serving. It also contains probiotics and could reduce cholesterol levels.
It can be marinated and seasoned to create flavor and then crumbled, baked, or fried to fit into a number of recipes. Often, tempeh is used as a bacon substitute in sandwiches or even in a traditional English breakfast.
According to holistic nutrition counselor Katie Ziskind, tempeh tacos are a good dish for packing in the protein. She told LIVEKINDLY, “Use tempeh just like you would use ground beef, and cook on the stove. Then add your taco seasoning. Tempeh can be added to burritos with tomatoes, avocado, and corn for the delicious wrap that is packed with protein.”
7. Vegan Meat
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If you want to get all the texture and taste of meat without the animal, then there are plenty of vegan meat options on the market. They’re often made from soybeans, nuts, or legumes, meaning they’re an excellent source of protein too.
In fact, some vegan meat brands like Beyond Meat – an American company that produces patties and sausages made from peas and other plant-based ingredients – have dubbed themselves “the future of protein.” One Beyond Burger by Beyond Meat actually contains even more protein than a traditional beef burger.
According to Beyond Meat, its burgers have all “the juicy, meat deliciousness of a traditional burger, but comes with the upsides of a plant-based meal. The Beyond Burger packs 20g of plant-based protein and has no GMOs, soy, or gluten.”
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