Protein is probably the most controversial nutrient when it comes to a plant-based diet. And it’s an important one! It is vital for the repair and growth of our muscles and bones, as well as for supporting our immune system.
There’s a common concern that vegan diets might lack sufficient protein, which is why we want to take a closer look at this particular nutrient while answering the most frequently asked questions around it.
There are actually a large number of plant-based protein sources, making it easy to meet our daily protein needs. In fact, many experts agree that a well-planned vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need. But before we get started on the most frequently asked questions around vegan protein, let’s break protein down a little bit.
Why do our bodies need protein?
Protein is vital for building and repairing tissue and alongside carbohydrates and fats, it is one of the three essential macronutrients. They are called ‘macro’-nutrients because they are present in large quantities, as opposed to ‘micro’-nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals).
These macronutrients need to be broken down into building blocks in order to be absorbed by our bodies. In the case of proteins, they are broken down into amino acids. In order for our body to function properly, it requires 20 amino acids.
The human body can produce 11 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, but must get another nine, also called essential amino acids, from food.
Complete vs. incomplete protein
Some foods provide ‘complete’ proteins, meaning they contain a sufficient amount of all 9 essential amino acids. Typically these are animal products, but they also include some plant sources, such as quinoa, buckwheat and soy. Foods that don’t include all nine essential amino acids, like nuts, seeds and vegetables, are called ‘incomplete’ sources of protein.
This does not mean they are inferior however, it simply means they need to be combined to provide the right balance of aminos. An idea, for instance, would be to have peanut butter on a slice of whole-wheat toast, or oatmeal with almonds. So long as you eat a varied plant-based diet, there is no need to worry about getting enough protein.
Where do you get your protein?
As mentioned above, a few plants contain complete proteins, meaning they provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids:
- Hemp seed
- Soybeans (tofu, tempeh, and edamame)
A protein lacking one specific amino acid can be called “limiting protein”. The protein quality in food containing limiting proteins can be improved by eating it along with protein that contains sufficient amounts of the limited amino acids.
For example, rice is low in the essential amino acid lysine but high in methionine, while beans are low in methionine but high in lysine. By combining these two foods, you improve the proteins in both. Other combinations include:
- Nuts or seeds with whole grains (peanut butter on whole wheat toast)
- Whole grains with beans (hummus and pita bread; bean-based chili and crackers; refried beans and tortillas)
- Legumes with nuts or seeds
Which plant foods are high in protein?
Besides the quality of proteins, the amount obviously matters too. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 56 grams per day for a healthy adult man and 46 grams per day for a healthy adult woman.
As mentioned above, it’s important to eat a great variety of plant-based foods which are high in protein. Here are some of the high-protein foods you should include in your diet:
- Grains: Seitan, spelt, quinoa, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal
- Legumes: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, beans, soya milk
- Nuts & Seeds: Chia seeds, almonds
Do I need to count the amounts of protein I consume on a daily basis?
Protein deficiency is almost unheard of in European countries, given the high-protein content of a “normal” diet. And as we discussed above, meeting your protein needs as a vegan is easier than ever. Therefore you don’t need to obsess over counting the grams you take in, just make sure you’re eating plenty of varied, protein-rich foods throughout the day.
Please don’t forget that everybody is different and has different needs. It’s crucial to listen to your body and always consult your doctor if you have any pre-existing conditions or are on medications.