Someone’s just found out you’re a vegan (or plant-based). Here it comes, the questions about how you possibly manage to ingest enough protein without consuming animal products.
Currently, protein seems to be the big one people ask about, at least anecdotally that seems to be the case. I can only assume that it must be due to the popularity of so many high protein or protein focused diets, like Atkins or Dukan. I’ve been vegan for over 20 years, and was vegetarian for about 14 years or so before that, and protein was never raised as an issue.
What is protein?
Proteins are chains of amino acids. There are twenty different types of amino acids, nine of which are classed as essential (meaning we need to eat them) while others are non-essential (meaning we don’t need to eat them as our body can manufacture them). These amino acids are linked together in a huge number of variations making an almost infinite number of different proteins.
Why do we need it?
The main functions of protein in the body are to build tissue for muscles and other organs, and to produce hormones, enzymes and haemoglobin. Without sufficient protein in the diet, which is rare outside third world countries, the body can’t replace tissue properly so you will lose weight and muscle, feel weak and ‘foggy’, lose your hair and get sick a lot.
How much do we need?
Most people who eat an omnivorous diet eat much more than the required amount of protein. So while vegetarians and vegans do tend to consume less protein, they have no trouble meeting the recommended amount, which is 10% – 25% of your daily energy intake.
Plant and animal protein sources are different, and few plant proteins are what is known as ‘complete’, meaning that although most of them contain all nine essential amino acids, the levels of one or two of them are low. This has led to the myth that vegetarians and vegans need to combine different proteins in a single meal to form a ‘complete’ protein. You just need to eat a variety of plant proteins each day. The body maintains a pool of essential amino acids which can be used to complement dietary proteins, meaning there is no need to combine.
What are the best sources of plant protein?
The best sources of plant-based protein come from soy, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, green peas, beans etc), nuts, wheat, oats, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, amaranth, rice, leafy greens, seeds (pumpkin, hemp, chia, sesame etc) and seitan. Lots of other vegetables also contain smaller but significant amounts of protein – asparagus, Brussels sprouts, corn, baked potato – to name a few. In fact, pretty much all fruits and vegetables contain some protein, so as long as you eat a varied diet with lots of whole foods, you’re going to get enough protein without having to think about it.
If you want to read more about protein, some good sources of information are: