do vegans get enough plant protein?
One of the first questions many people ask about plant-based diets is “How do you get enough protein?” When we think of protein, we think of foods like meat, fish, milk, cheese and eggs. These are great sources of protein, but if someone’s on a plant based or vegan diet, where do they get their protein from?
Protein is an important component of any balanced diet so it’s definitely important for plant based and vegan diets as well. Protein isn’t just for muscles though, it supports lots of different parts of the body like our skin and hair, our organs and bones and with the production of enzymes and hormones. There are a lot of things we need protein for.
The question is, can vegan and plant based diets get enough protein?
The recommended daily amount of protein in the UK is 0.75g per kg of body weight, and this is reflected by health organisations around the world with some recommending up to 1g of kg of body weight. So, a sufficient level of protein for someone with a body weight of 60kg is 45g to 60g of protein and for someone with a body weight of 80kg they’d need 60g to 80g of protein. Usually this works out to be around 10-15% of total energy intake.
So, how do we know if people on a plant-based diet are getting enough?
An Oxford Study published in 2016 compared the protein intake of 30,000 people comparing meat eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. Their findings showed that even though meat-eaters consumed the highest amount of protein, vegans were consuming more than enough, with 1g of protein per kg of body weight. (1)
A 2017 NutriNet-Santé Study from France shows a very similar result. Vegans comparably consumed less protein compared with meat eaters however still averaged almost 13% of total energy intake from protein, which sits very comfortably within sufficient levels. (2)
One study that’s different to both these studies is the Adventist Health Study from the USA published from 2013. This study of over 70,000 people showed that vegans consumed pretty much the same amount as meat eaters. (3)
On the whole the general population is consuming enough protein, in fact it’s about twice the Estimated Average Requirement in western countries. And so even though people on a plant based diet consume a little bit less than meat eaters, they are definitely getting enough protein.
PROTEIN COMBINING - true or false?
There’s a dietary theory called protein combining that says you have to combine different plant proteins at each meal when you’re on a plant based diet in order to get enough quality protein.
Protein is made of 20 different amino acids and there are 9 essential amino acids which the body can’t synthesise so we have to get it from our food.
The idea of protein combining is based on a long-standing belief that plant proteins are inferior to animal proteins, that they are ‘incomplete’, because they lack these essential amino acids. This led to the idea of having to combine plant proteins at each meal to make up for their relative shortfalls.
For example, rice is low on the amino acid lysine whilst having good amounts of all other essential amino acids whilst chickpeas is low on the amino acid methionine whilst having good amounts of all other essential amino acids. So if you pair them together you make a “complete” protein.
So...is this dietary theory true or false?
It sounds pretty logical but basically, our bodies aren’t stupid. In fact, our bodies are amazingly intelligent machines.
The body has two processes; firstly it stores amino acid pools where all the complementing and combining is done. It’s a pool of amino acids that it uses to create the proteins that it needs.
The second process is that the body has a recycling program, this is where unusable proteins are broken down back into amino acids and reassembled to create new proteins it does need.
There’s no need to over complicate things by feeling like you have to combine different plant foods with each other to get sufficient quality protein.
As long as you're eating enough calories from a variety of whole plant foods it doesn’t matter that they’re not together in the same meal.
Best Sources of Plant Protein
Let’s talk about the best sources of plant protein. These are in my opinion the best not just because they’re rich in protein, but also because of their overall nutritional value, their versatility in terms of adding to your everyday meals and accessibility so you can find them in your everyday supermarkets. I’ve created a free downloadable PDF with all of this summarised for you so you can just click the link in the description below.
Beans & Pulses
Beans and pulses are the main category of plant foods that I would say directly replace meats, fish and seafood. A cup of cooked lentils has 18g of protein and is one of the most protein rich pulses. Other beans and pulses include chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, butter beans, pinto beans and soybeans and soy products like tofu, tempeh and edamame. Soy is actually one of the only plant proteins that have sufficient levels of all essential amino acids. These foods are also packed with micronutrients, fibre and are low in fat so I’d highly recommend integrating them into your every day plant based diet. You can make curries, stews, baked beans, falafels and hummus, salads and stir fries. They are really versatile, accessible and inexpensive.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts, seeds and butters made from nuts and seeds are another great source of protein. A 30g serving of almonds provide between 8-10g of protein. Nuts and seeds also benefit from healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as omega 3 and 6. Some of my favourite nuts and nut butters are almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and brazil nuts. My favourite seeds are chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. I love adding nut butter to my porridge, you can also add it to smoothies, spread it on toast or have it with an apple or pear. Nuts go well in baked goods like banana breads and muffins, nut or granola bars, or have them on their own as a snack. When it comes to seeds I love sprinkling them on everything, my porridge, salads, adding to smoothies or smoothie bowls, making chia yoghurt pots.
Whole grains and whole wheat are the unrefined varieties of grains, breads and pasta. 100g of dry wholewheat pasta provides 13g of protein. You have brown bread and sourdough, whole wheat wraps/pita, brown and wild rice and quinoa. Quinoa is the other plant protein that provides optimal levels of essential amino acids. The benefit of whole grains and whole wheat is they are a great source of starchy carbohydrates, fibre and micronutrients and are very accessible and inexpensive. These are your staple foods that you can have throughout the day from breakfast, main meals and snacks.
Non-dairy substitutes like plant based yoghurts, milks, cheese and creams are also a great source of protein. I particularly like Alpro yoghurts, 100g provides almost 4g of protein and I also like using soya milk which has the highest amount of protein compared with other plant milks, 100ml provides more than 3g of protein. Plus, dairy-substitutes are usually fortified with nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium so these foods support not just protein but other key nutrients in a plant-based diet.
Specialised foods are foods like plant-based protein powders, spirulina, nutritional yeast and seitan. Nutritional yeast flakes have a naturally mild nutty, cheesy flavour and is great for adding into pasta dishes and stews, a 5g serving provides almost 3g of protein. Supplements like protein powders and spirulina can be a convenient option from time to time, it really depends on what works best for your lifestyle.
Yes vegetables have protein too! Although levels of protein may be lower than other whole foods, vegetables make up a large portion of plant-based diets and so overall will help to contribute to the overall protein intake. A cup of cooked green peas has over 8g of protein and a medium potato with skin on has over 4g of protein. Other vegetables that have good levels of protein by vegetable standards are broccoli, spinach, mushroom, artichoke, avocado, asparagus, and brussels sprouts.
There’s an abundance of protein in plant foods, eat a variety throughout the day and enjoy them in a way that best suits you and your lifestyle. If you want a full list of these plant proteins don’t forget you can get my downloadable PDF, I hope it gives you some inspiration to add to your next grocery shopping list.
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD PDF - PLANT PROTEINS
PROTEIN rich plant based RECIPES
If you're looking to transition to a plant based diet and want some advice on how to ensure you are eating a balance of nutrients for optimal health - Book a free discovery call with Elly for expert guidance!
Learn more about Elly and nutrition coaching