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How do vegans get protein, you ask? Surprisingly, a balanced vegan diet contains more than enough protein to meet one’s nutritional needs.
Words by Matthew Chalmers
How do vegans get protein, you ask? Surprisingly, a balanced vegan diet contains more than enough protein to meet one’s nutritional needs. With so many options to choose from, a vegan diet can expand one’s culinary horizons and invite experimentation with multiple exciting dishes from an array of international cuisines. Alternatively, many high-protein meat dishes can simply be recreated with vegan substitutes, and there are many protein supplements that one can use for muscle gain, in the same way that non-vegans do.
Protein is a macronutrient, one of the substances that humans need to consume in bulk to create energy for their body and sustain life. The other two macronutrients are fats and carbohydrates.
Protein makes up about 15 percent of a person’s body weight and is composed of amino acids. Proteins are the building blocks of life, and essential to a healthy diet—protein is found in the cells of all living creatures. Proteins compound to make muscle mass, and dietary protein helps to build muscle and to repair muscle and tissue damage. It is essential for healthy development and growth in children, teenagers, and pregnant women. Proteins also bolster your immune system, creating antibodies that ward off disease. Protein is a vital nutrient that nobody can go without, so it is important that a healthy amount is incorporated into your diet.
The differences between animal and vegan protein are not so much about the protein itself, but the package that the protein comes in. Meat, particularly processed meat, may be rich in protein but also causes many potentially severe health problems. For example, red meat is correlated with higher incidences of stroke, cancer, various cardiovascular diseases including heart disease, and early death in general. White meats like chicken also contain high amounts of cholesterol, which is associated with heart disease.
Fish tends to be healthier than meat, but this is less and less true as trace amounts of heavy metals that are potentially harmful to human health, like mercury, continue to show up in fish stocks. Dairy and eggs contain cholesterol too and have been linked to inflammation in the body and several chronic diseases, as well as various cancers.
Although animal products contain large amounts of protein, the health problems they pose make plant-based proteins a better option. People on vegetarian diets tend to have less body weight, lower cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure than those who eat meat, and also lower rates of stroke, cancer, and heart disease. One study suggests that substituting servings of red meat with legumes helped improve blood sugar and cholesterol ratings amongst a group with Type 2 diabetes. Research has revealed that eating one serving of beans, lentils, chickpeas or peas can lead to a satisfying fullness, useful for managing weight loss. A high-protein vegan diet has the same advantages as a diet containing meat, even when it comes to strength training.
Although animal products are more likely to contain complete proteins—proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids—there are also plants with this property and simple combinations of plants that achieve the same result. Given the health risks of meat and the accessibility of complete proteins in simple vegan meals like beans and rice, plant-based proteins have the overall edge when it comes to reliable healthiness.
Although vegans are often asked about protein consumption, data shows that protein deficiency is not a problem amongst vegans. One meta-analysis of nutrition amongst omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans reports that a vast majority of vegans consume sufficient protein. Many canards about vegetarian and vegan protein intakes, including the suggestion that vegetarians and vegans may get insufficient levels of certain indispensable amino acids, are revealed to be hollow. Even modestly varied plant-based diets meet these requirements.
Numerous studies and statements from dietetic associations have confirmed the general suitability of a balanced vegan diet to all stages of life, from infancy to pregnancy, and sufficient protein intake is a part of such balanced diets. Vegans shouldn’t over-worry about protein, although keeping track of one’s diet and making sure it is varied and nutritious is useful to vegans in the same way as to everybody else. Unlike B12, there are numerous sources of protein readily available to plant-based eaters.
On average human beings require around 50 grams of protein per day—55 for men and 45 for women. This means two portions of protein a day, with a portion being roughly the size of one’s hand. In the developed world, rather than failing to meet the daily requirement of protein, many exceed the necessary daily intake of protein by a substantial amount—the average intake of an American adult is around 90 grams of protein per day. This in itself can have bad outcomes for one’s health. Excessive consumption of protein can lead to painful conditions like kidney stones. High-protein weight-loss diets, like the Keto Diet, have been associated with conditions ranging from insulin resistance to simple bad breath.
The RDA is the recommended daily allowance of protein, a level which you must consume in order not to get sick. You can find this amount by multiplying your weight in kilograms by 0.8 grams of protein. Alternatively, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, which should also give you your RDA of protein in grams.
Breakfast: Common to all diets, including omnivorous ones, is a lack of protein consumed at breakfast. Protein should be consumed at every meal of the day, and therefore needs incorporating into a healthy breakfast, which can help with weight loss. Great vegan protein options at breakfast include oats or oatmeal, toast with peanut butter or hummus, or something more adventurous like a tofu omelet. A good list of exciting, high-protein vegan breakfasts can be found here.
Lunch: All manner of high-protein vegan foods are suitable for lunchtime meals. For brunch, one could make a vegan English breakfast, with plant-based bacon and sausages, tomato, mushrooms, and scrambled tofu instead of egg. Rice and pulses are a cheap and efficient option; lentil ragu, chickpea curry, and bean chili are all great and inexpensive recipes. Of course, a whole host of meat supplements can also be included, from seitan to soy chicken, beef, or tofu.
Snack: High-protein snacks could include vegan jerky, an assortment of nuts and seeds, smoothies, black bean or lentil salad, or a hummus or tofu/tempeh sandwich.
Dinner: Many of the lunch recipes also apply here, but there are far more dishes to choose from. East Asian cuisine provides a huge variety of options, from stir fry to the seitan and fake meat cuisine that has flourished in China for over a thousand years. There are several cuisines to explore which have abundant vegan options, and many dishes which are traditionally made with animal products can be created with vegan substitutes.
Almonds: The most popular nut in the United States. Almond consumption has increased 400 percent in the U.S. since 1980. Almonds have been associated with weight loss and can benefit heart health and diabetes.
Amaranth: A family of grains that is catapulting in popularity due to its nutritious qualities, being rich in fiber and protein. First domesticated 8,000 years ago, it was a staple food for the Aztec, Maya, and Inca peoples. Amaranth varieties include quinoa, beets, and spinach.
Beans: A classic family of staple protein-rich legumes, men who eat beans have a lower risk of prostate cancer. People who eat legumes four or more times a week have a 22 percent lower chance of contracting a coronary disease.
Broccoli: The iconic green vegetable, feared globally by school children, broccoli can be delicious. It is also very healthy, filled with fiber, protein, iron, potassium, calcium, selenium and magnesium, vitamins A, C, E, K, and plentiful B vitamins including folic acid.
Buckwheat: Not actually a member of the wheat family and therefore perfect for those who are gluten intolerant, buckwheat also has a high antioxidant and mineral value.
Cashews: As rich in protein as meat, also low in sugar, and rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Beware the salted variety, as high salt levels can be unhealthy.
Chia Seeds: A well-rounded health food and a valuable plant-source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to brain health. There are numerous other health benefits associated with chia.
Chickpeas: Another vegan staple, they are filling and very cheap. There is evidence that chickpeas improve digestion and provide some protection against chronic diseases.
Edamame: Edamame beans are whole immature soybeans, popular in East Asian cuisines. They have been associated with lowered cholesterol levels and even a reduction in breast cancer.
Ezekiel Bread: Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted whole grains, which makes them more nutritious and decreases anti-nutrient levels, and legumes. Four types of grains—spelt, barley, millet, and wheat—go into Ezekiel bread, alongside soybeans and lentils. It also contains no added sugars.
Green Peas: Peas contain numerous nutrients on top of having a strong protein content, including zinc and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which help with eye health.
Hemp Seed: Hemp seeds are technically nuts and are filled with nutritious omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids More than 25 percent of their calorie content consists of healthy proteins.
Kale: Kale is the cliché superfood but has earned its status by being vitamin-rich and effective against various health problems. It can bolster peoples’ immune systems as it contains four times the vitamin C and double the selenium of spinach and helps the body to create important substances that protect against cancer.
Lentils: A favorite of the ancient Romans and Egyptians, lentils are very cheap and versatile and can be used to bulk up sauces for pasta, curry, soups, and more. They are high in potassium and antioxidants.
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are linked to preventing serious health problems like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Crimini mushrooms are rich in zinc. Mushrooms can be used in a variety of ways—they make good meat substitutes and healthy additions to casseroles and sauces.
Nut Butters: Peanut butter is a good source of copper, a mineral that maintains the health of bones and red blood cells. Cashew butter is rich in iron, and almond butter is rich in monounsaturated fats, healthier than the saturated fats common in peanut butter.
Nutritional Yeast: Easily added to any number of snacks, yeast tends to come fortified with B12. It is a complete protein, with all nine amino acid types contained within it.
Nuts: In 2013 Harvard researchers declared that “people who ate nuts every day lived longer, healthier lives than people who didn’t eat nuts”. A lack of nuts was associated with 8 percent of the 300,000 deaths in 2012 due to strokes, heart diseases, and Type 2 diabetes.
Oats And Oatmeal: Oats are rich in nutrients and contain a powerful soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which reduces blood sugar and insulin levels, helps grow good bacteria in the gut, and increases feelings of fullness.
Pita And Hummus: Made from chickpeas (see above), hummus carries all of its advantages and is a particularly appetizing way of consuming them.
Potatoes: A classic carbohydrate food, potatoes do contain some protein. Although the amount is very small, the protein quality is very high, higher even than soybeans and other legumes.
Quinoa: Quinoa is a complete protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids. It also contains high amounts of lysine, usually lacking in plants, as well as methionine and histidine, making it a very attractive and healthy source of plant-based protein.
Quorn: Quorn is a brand of meat substitutes made from mycoprotein, a fermented fungus derivative. Mycoprotein is also a complete protein and contains high rates of zinc, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and selenium. Be careful, however, that the Quorn you buy is vegan; much of their range contains egg and milk.
Seitan: A popular meat substitute made from wheat gluten, seitan has comparable protein levels to chicken or beef. However, it is deficient in the amino acid lysine—incorporating high lysine foods like beans into a seitan dish can help remedy this issue.
Soy Milk: Soy milk is the most protein-rich of plant milks. It contains many phytoestrogens, which can reduce the risk of cancers and osteoporosis, and is low in saturated fat.
Spelt: A similar grain to wheat but with a higher protein and zinc content. It carries all the health benefits of whole grains in general; those who eat lots of whole grains have a lower risk of strokes, Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, and some cancers.
Spinach: Spinach contains vital nutrients like lutein, which improves eye health; kaempferol, which reduces the risk of chronic disease and cancers; nitrates, which increase heart health; quercetin, which wards off infection and inflammation; and zeaxanthin, also good for eye health. It is one of the richest sources of quercetin in particular.
Spirulina: Spirulina is a popular supplement and is a type of cyanobacteria, a form of algae that was once cultivated by the Aztecs. Its protein quality is comparable to eggs and gram for gram it may be the most nutritious food on the planet.
Sunflower Seeds: Sunflower seeds lower blood pressure and blood sugar and also lower the rates of C-reactive proteins in the blood, which cause inflammation.
Supplements: Supplements can be used to great effect, as long as they are not treated as replacements for a balanced diet and well-planned meals. There are a wide range of protein-intensive powders available to vegans for those who are trying to exercise heavily and put on muscle mass.
Teff: Teff is growing in popularity as a gluten-free alternative to flour. Hailing from Ethiopia, its high protein and iron content, alongside other health benefits, make it an appealing option.
Tempeh: A high-protein soy product, Tempeh has more protein than other soy variants. It is also a good source of calcium and healthy digestive bacteria.
Textured Vegetable Protein: Another soy product, textured vegetable protein is a complete protein and has a meaty texture, making it an excellent replacement for any number of traditional meat dishes.
Tofu: Tofu was supposedly discovered 2000 years ago when a Chinese chef accidentally put soymilk in nigari, which is seawater with the salt extracted from it. Tofu has a huge number of benefits, contributing to brain function, skin elasticity, bone health, reduced menopause symptoms, and weight loss.
Vegan Meat: Vegan meats are numerous and can have high protein contents. They are also much better for the environment than their animal product equivalents. However, the health-conscious consumer might want to keep an eye on their salt contents, which can be very high.
Wild Rice: Cultivated and preserved by the indigenous peoples of North America, notably the Ojibwe of Minnesota, wild rice is not a type of rice at all. It is an aquatic grass. As a low-calorie, high-protein, and high-fiber option, which is also gluten-free, its appeal is wide-ranging and its health benefits are plentiful, especially regarding heart disease, weight loss, and diabetes.
There are a huge number of protein sources for vegans to choose from, and many provide excellent health benefits beyond the presence of protein alone. With options as rich and diverse as these, “How do you get your protein?” should no longer be an intimidating question.
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