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If vegans had to pick the one most often-asked question they get from non-vegans, it would have to be “Where do vegans get their protein?”
Although usually asked out of genuine concern, it can be frustrating to answer. Not because it’s hard for vegans to get protein (it’s not) but because it requires a bit of teaching about nutrition.
The average person doesn’t really want to hear how protein abounds in the plant-based world. But when you mother asks – and really wants to know – it pays to have the answers.
What IS Protein?
Let’s start with a simple explanation.
Protein is one of the three basic nutrients – the others are carbohydrates and fats – needed by our bodies to function. Protein’s biggest job is growth – of muscles, cells, organs, and bones – but it’s not the only thing it does. The enzymes that cause chemical reactions in our metabolism are protein. Protein also aids the functioning of our immune system and preserves lean muscle mass.
Proteins are made of amino acids. Nine of them are essential because our bodies can’t produce them on its own. And our bodies are very efficient at breaking proteins we eat down into the types of protein needed.
There are two types of protein. Complete proteins, which contain all the essential amino acids, and Incomplete proteins.
Meats are complete proteins, but so are many plant-based foods, such as quinoa, soy products, carrots, brussels sprouts, kale, peas, tomatoes, and bananas.
Our bodies can store incomplete proteins from one meal and combine them with amino acids from other meals to produce complete proteins. So it’s not necessary to aim for complete proteins at every meal. Your body is a smart engine that knows how to do its job.
How MUCH protein do you need?
First, it’s important to know that most Americans who are on the Standard American Diet (SAD) are usually eating more protein than they need on a daily basis (too much is more than 35% of your total daily calories). While that might sound ok – more protein, more muscle, and other healthy growth, right? – it’s really not.
Excessive protein in a diet can result in:
- Weight gain (since most proteins in the SAD diet are high in fat and calories).
- Excess of amino acids. As unneeded protein breaks down, it turns into ammonia and then is converted into urea. This is excreted from your body through urine. If you don’t drink enough water to flush the urea from your kidneys, it can cause back pain from kidneys being strained, and can lead to dangerous conditions.
- It may also promote the growth of cancer cells, cause digestive problems, and harmful mineral imbalances.
So what is the right amount of protein?
As you might expect, that’s an answer that needs to be based on your own body’s needs. Are you a man or a woman? Do you exercise vigorously? Are you pregnant or nursing? These and other factors need to be factored into finding the right amount of any nutrient in your diet.
Using the Protein Calculator on Calculator.net, my result was between 39 and 137 grams of protein per day. Which is a ridiculous range, but there you are. After looking at a number of other articles and calculators, I aim for 50-60 gms a day, but I don’t go out of my way to do it because I know that many of my meals have plenty of protein to balance out the days when they don’t.
If you are an athlete, pregnant or lactating, your protein needs are greater. There are athlete protein calculators available online, and if you are pregnant or nursing, you should be consulting a dietician for a recommendation.
All right, now that you know HOW MUCH protein you need, you only need to know WHERE to find it.
Where DO Vegans get their Protein?
There is a surprising amount of protein in green vegetables, as well as beans, nuts & seeds, and soy. By getting your protein from a variety of plant-based foods, you also avoid the saturated fats that non-vegans consume in meats. As a result, you are not only getting clean, healthy protein through your vegan diet, you are also avoiding the risk of diseases associated with the consumption of saturated fats.
I’ve added the calorie count of each of these foods so that you can see how easily I can get 60 grams of protein in during my day while still keeping calories to a reasonable count. On days when I will be away from home and have somewhat less control over my meal choices, I usually start with a fruit and vegetable smoothie and add a scoop of Garden of Life Raw Organic Fit protein powder. 28 grams of protein and 170 calories. Nearly half of my protein needs right there, which makes the rest of the day easy.
On a typical day, this might be my menu (plus fruit, etc.):
Breakfast: Avocado & tofu mash on toast
Snack: edamame beans
Lunch: Bulgur & Quinoa salad with green peas, tofu, and cherry tomatoes;
Snack: Chia seed pudding made with blended fresh strawberries & soy milk
Dinner: Stir fry made with soy curls, steamed broccoli, carrots & peas, over brown rice and cashew sprinkle
I’m easily over my 60 grams of protein, lots of healthy carbs in there too.
If you look at the MyFitnessPal chart, you’ll see that I get 18 grams of protein in snacks alone. 10 of those grams are from the 2 tablespoons of Chia seeds!
The quinoa/bulgur salad for lunch is one of my favorites so I usually make a big batch on the weekend and eat it through the week.
Take a look at the table below and all the plant-based foods you can combine to make some delicious dishes that will provide you with all the protein you need.
|Lentils||9 gm||1/2 cup||115||15 gms fiber|
|Tofu||10 gm||1 cup||123||Can be used in every type of food - savory & sweet|
|Black beans||8 gm||1/2 cup||120||High in antioxidants & one of the healthiest beans|
|Quinoa||8 gm||1 cup (cooked)||222||High in magnesium, antioxidants & fiber|
|Amaranth||7 gm||1 cup (cooked)||63||High in iron and B vitamins. Use in mixtures such as veggie burgers and meatless balls|
|Soy Milk||8 gm||1 cup||110||Use Organic, unsweetened|
|Green Peas||8 gm||1 cup||108||Great snack food uncooked and fresh|
|Artichokes||4 gm||1/2 cup or 1 small||60||Low in calories and high in fiber|
|Pumpkin Seeds||5 gm||1 oz, shelled||126||High in magnesium. Sprinkle these on salads|
|Chia Seeds||5 gm||2 Tablespoons||120||Easy to add to lots of things. Thickens liquids so great for puddings|
|Tempeh||6 gm||1/2 cup||160||Easy to digest. Rich in probiotics|
|Edamame||6 gm||1/2 cup||100||Perfect high protein snack|
|Spinach||6 gm||1 cup||65||Steam to retain nutrients and add to dishes, or eat raw in a salad|
|Black Eyed Peas||5.5 gm||1/2 cup||148||High in thiamine, folate, niacin, phosphorous and zinc|
|Broccoli||4 gm||1 cup||52||30% of daily calcium, so it's doing nutrition double duty|
|Green Beans||8 gm||1 cup||34||High in Fiber|
|Nut Butters||8 gm||2 Tablespoons||190||Almond is heart healthy and best for you. Calories vary slightly|
|Nutritional Yeast||8 gm||2 Tablespoons||40||Also a great sourcw of B-12 and adds cheesy flavor to your dishes|
|Chickpeas||7 gm||1/2 cup||100||High in fiber and delicious as the base for hummus and falafel|
|Ezekiel Bread||4 gm||Per slice||80||Contains all 9 essential amino acids|
|Vegan Protein Powder||15-30 gms, depending on brand||1 scoop||Varies - mine (as above) has 170 calories/scoop and 28 gm protein||Add to your breakfast or post-workout smoothie|
|Seitan||21 gm||4 oz, homemade||160||Making it at home lets you control sodium. Store bought seitan tends to be high in salt.|
|Black Walnuts||7 gm||1/4 cup||190||High in potassium and polyunsaturated fat|
|Wild Rice||6.5 gm||1 cup||571||Add into salads and soups to boost the protein|
The plant-based world is full of healthy, easy to digest protein sources that will boost your health instead of clogging your arteries.
The next time someone asks you “But where do vegans get their protein?” you’ll have the answer.