“Since becoming vegan, people are forever asking me about where I get my protein from now that I don’t eat meat or eggs. I know it’s not a problem but I would like to shut them up! What are my protein sources?”
This is one of the commonly asked questions vegans have to endure from non vegans. But the truth is, there are also plenty of vegans who worry about getting sufficient protein in their daily diet. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that protein has gained a status of a super nutrient. Everywhere you look there is another high protein bar and powder without which (as the manufacturer makes you believe) you simply would wither and die. Of course, protein is an important macronutrient that is essential to our health, but elevating it above all serves no one.
Protein is the ultimate building material; from hair to muscles or organs, the repair and maintenance of our body depends on protein. Enzymes, antibodies, transport and storage molecules (i.e. haemoglobin and ferritin) are all proteins. In the time of need (lack of carbohydrates and fats) your body can use protein for energy. Even some hormones, such as insulin, are proteins. Protein also helps us feel fuller for longer, and thus helping to balance our blood sugar levels.
What are amino acids?
Proteins are made of amino acids, and upon reaching your stomach, proteins will be broken down into those. Our body needs 20 amino acids, nine of these are called essential amino acids. As our body cannot manufacture them and they need to be supplied through our diet. The individual amino acids, to put it simply, are put into an amino acid pool and will be used to build protein as and when required by our body. When an amino acid is missing, our body will look into procuring it from our muscles, i.e. breaking down muscles. Hence it is important to get all the essential amino acids in our diet every day.
How much do I need?
The truth is most people get over the recommended amount of protein, especially those on meat heavy diets. Protein deficiency in the Western world is rare. As Rip Esselstyn puts in his book My Beef with Meat: ‘There is no such thing as protein deficiency in the United States. How many people do you know who were hospitalised last year for protein deficiency? Zero! Now, how many people do you know who were hospitalised for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or obesity related ailments? Probably lots’.
The British Nutrition Foundation recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.75g per kilo of weight. Children and pregnant women have an increased requirement due to growth. Athletes have a higher protein requirement dependent on the type of exercise. The American and Canadian Dietetic Associations recommends endurance athletes should aim for 1.2-1.4g and resistance athletes for 1.6-1.7g per kilo of weight. Those who have had a serious injury, prolonged illness or surgery also have an increased need for protein to facilitate for the needed repair.
However, as Marion Nestle, PhD, Chair or the Department of Nutrition, New York University states: ‘We never talk about protein anymore, because it’s absolutely not an issue… getting enough is simply a matter of getting enough calories.’ The general consensus is that if your diet is meeting your energetic needs, it is more than likely to meet your protein needs.
Vegan plant-based diet and protein
There is no reason why a well planned vegan diet can’t provide sufficient protein. Whilst it is true that most plant proteins are less complete due to lacking in one or two amino acids (apart from quinoa and soya), a varied diet will ensure the intake of all the required amino acids. For example, grains have less of lysine whilst lentils have less of methionine, so making sure your diet contains both will ensure more adequate intakes. There is however no need to combine particular foods at one meal. As long as you are eating a variety of plant based foods over a 24 period you will be supplying your amino acid pool with all you need. Interestingly, there might be an advantage to having less methionine in our diet. Research has shown that some cancers thrive on methionine; also having less methionine in our diet may be one the reasons why plant based diets lead to longer lifespan.
Note on protein powders
Protein powders are marketed as a necessity for anyone who is more than a weekend gym warrior but also as a weight loss aid. In my opinion (and I believe Dr Greger’s too), there really is no need for such a processed food item in our diet. In particular soya isolated protein has been shown to increase the insulin like growth factor IgF-1 in the body in a similar way as dairy. IgF-1 has been shown to stimulate cancer cell growth and is indicated in premature ageing.
Vegan protein sources
All foods apart from items such a vinegars or oils contain protein, however some plants are richer sources than others. Soya and quinoa are considered complete plant proteins, containing adequate amounts of the essential amino acids. Other rich sources are beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Whilst green leafy vegetables are high in protein per calorie, you would need to eat very large portions to achieve a substantial number of grams (i.e. protein wise 4 cups of raw kale equal 1 cup of cooked quinoa). However every gram counts towards your daily tally.
Examples of protein content of some vegan foods
2 tbs peanut butter – 8g
1 cup cooked lentils -18g
1 cup cooked quinoa – 8g
1 cup raw kale – 2g
100g buckwheat noodles – 11.5g
1 avocado – 4g
100g hummus – 8g
Putting it into practice
The best strategy is to take make sure you are having a good source of protein at each meal. Adding nuts and seeds to porridge or having avocado on toast rather than jam is a great way to improve your breakfast. Lunch and dinner should contain pulses, quinoa, buckwheat, traditional soya products such as tofu or tempeh. Snacks shouldn’t be forgotten, having a handful of nuts with fruit, hummus with vegetable sticks or a raw food bar will all add to the protein tally. If you apply this advice, protein will become something you simply don’t have to worry about.
This fantastic guest blog was written by Linda Sims who is a Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist. You can contact Linda and also find more about the right nutrition for you by going to her website www.lindasimsnutrition.co.uk
Even though Linda offers professional opinion, we always ask that you seek personal medical advice from your doctor on all medical issues.
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