Ask any vegetarian or vegan if they’ve ever been questioned “where do you get your protein”? and we can almost guarantee they will nod in agreement! A common misconception is that protein only comes from animal foods, but this is simply not the case! In fact, plants are filled with protein. Let’s dive into what protein is and how to get protein as a vegan.August 03, 2022 3:07 pm March 07, 2022 4:39 pm
What is protein?
Protein, like carbohydrates and fat, is an essential macronutrient. Moreover, it is abundant throughout our body. In fact, every body part and tissue contains protein!
Protein is essential for growth and repair in the body, especially for muscles and bones. In addition, it is also an essential part of enzymes involved in bodily processes and makes up haemoglobin which carries oxygen around the blood. Furthermore, it is an important energy source for our body, providing 4kcal per gram.
The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. In fact, our body needs 20 different amino acids to grow and function. Additionally, some amino acids are called “essential” because our body cannot produce them, therefore we must obtain them through our diet. There are nine amino acids which we must get from food: histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
How much protein do I need?
Protein requirements vary between individuals and are dependent on several factors including age, gender, bodyweight and other variables. However, in the UK, the general Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein for healthy adults is 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. For average body weights of 75kg (males) and 60kg (females), this equates to 56g/day and 45g/day respectively for men and women.
It’s important to note that these are average values only based on a reference weight. Therefore it does not apply to all individuals and should be used as an example only.
Although these reference values are relevant for the healthy population, other population groups may have different needs. For example, highly active people or athletes may have higher protein requirements due to increased muscle mass or specific training goals.
Moreover, protein energy malnutrition (PEM) is a condition which affects millions of people globally, mainly in developing countries. Food insecurity is often the leading cause of PEM which is a major risk factor for severe illness and death.
In addition, malnutrition can also affect developed countries in specific contexts. For example, hospital patients are at high risk of malnutrition and often have inadequate protein and energy intakes. It is estimated that about 20% of patients in general hospitals are malnourished, these figures can be even higher amongst older patients. Moreover, despite its frequency, malnutrition is undiagnosed in up to 70% of cases.(1)
Overall, unless you are malnourished or have unusually high protein requirements due to a specific condition, a varied balanced diet should ensure you are meeting all of your requirements.
Do I need to consume more protein?
Popular media appears to laude the effects of protein, from the promotion of keto diets to protein powders. It seems like no one can get enough of it! But is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? The answer is yes.
Although we are bombarded with messages about consuming more protein, the truth is that most of us are getting more than enough. In fact, the average protein intake in many Western countries is between 150-200% of recommended values. Moreover, in Europe, the total per capita protein consumption is 70% higher than recommended levels.(2)
Clearly there is a mismatch between what popular media outlets are telling us and what the reality is. So the bottom line is that for most of us, if we are following an overall healthy balanced diet, there is no need for extra protein shakes or supplements.
In fact, unless you are very active or an athlete, excess protein can lead to weight gain. If our body doesn’t use the extra energy from additional protein consumption, it simply converts it to fat which we store in our body.
Plant vs animal protein
Both plant and animal products contain protein, however it’s important to distinguish between the two. The term “complete” protein refers to proteins that contain all of the amino acids required to make new protein in the body. Animal-based foods are typically good sources of “complete protein”.
On the other hand, plant-based foods are often missing one or more amino acids. This means they contain “incomplete” proteins. However this is not a cause for concern and it is definitely possible to obtain all the amino acids with a plant-based diet.
In fact, the key for vegans to ensure they are meeting their amino acid requirements is to eat a variety of protein rich plant foods. Eating a variety of different plants ensures that all the essential amino acids are covered. Moreover, plant proteins like quinoa and chia seeds are excellent sources of complete plant proteins.
There are many vegan protein powders currently available on the market, however governing bodies do not regulate these and they may often contain non-protein ingredients. Oftentimes they contain added sugars, artificial flavours and fillers. Ideally, we should be getting our protein from whole, natural foods, not questionable supplements.
For instance, our Organic Chia Seed Powder is the perfect protein source for a vegan diet, made from 100% cold-pressed chia seeds. Organic Hemp Protein Powder can also be a valuable addition to a vegan diet, providing 36g of plant protein per 100g.
“High plant protein intake was inversely associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.”
Better health outcomes
In addition, there is substantial evidence to suggest that consuming plant protein over animal protein comes with numerous health benefits. For instance, evidence suggests that a dietary pattern including more plant-based protein compared to the typical western diet can reduce cardiovascular disease risk.(3)
Moreover, a prospective cohort study of over 130 000 participants investigated the link between animal and plant protein intake and mortality risk. The researchers found that high animal protein intake was positively associated with cardiovascular mortality.
Conversely, high plant protein intake was inversely associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. In addition, substituting animal protein with plant protein was also associated with lower mortality.(4)
Not only is plant based protein correlated with better health outcomes, some elite athletes favour it as their main protein source. The idea that athletes and sports people need steak and animal protein to build muscle is simply outdated. This is not to say that vegan protein is better for athletes, it remains a personal preference. Just like the rest of the population, some athletes are carnivores, some are omnivores and others are plant-based!
However it serves to dispel the myth that the only way to build muscle and excel in sports is to eat meat! Examples of highly successful vegan athletes include tennis player Venus Williams, NFL player Tony Gonzalez, boxer David Haye and olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris, to name a few!
However it must be noted that vegan protein alone is not enough to ensure an adequate vegan diet. In fact, if you follow a vegan diet it’s important to ensure correct micronutrient intakes. In particular, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium and iodine are important nutrients which may be lacking in a poorly constructed vegan diet.
Best sources of plant-based protein
Let’s take a look at which plant foods provide protein. The plant kingdom offers several protein options, from legumes to nuts, seeds and whole grains. Legumes include lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, edamame/soybeans and products made from soy including tofu and tempeh. Moreover, a study showed that eating one daily serving of beans, chickpeas, lentils or peas can boost feelings of satiety. Consequently this can assist with better weight management and weight loss.(5)
Nuts and seeds are also excellent sources of plant-based protein. These include almonds, cashews, walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds. Finally, whole grains such as quinoa, brown and wild rice, oats and buckwheat are all great sources of plant protein.
Our baked falafel recipe with hemp seed protein powder , vegan granola bars with sea buckthorn berries and vegan bean chilli are all great options if you’re looking for some protein-rich vegan recipe inspiration.
Overall, there are an abundance of naturally occurring plant-based sources of protein available for vegans. From legumes to nuts and seeds, the main key takeaway is to ensure you are including a variety of different protein sources in your diet. In doing so, not only will you benefit from all the essential amino acids, but you will also get different vitamins, minerals and fibre which are also found in plant-based foods.