The most commonly asked question people on a vegan diet get is:
‘’Where do you get your protein from?’’. Clever marketing and outdated studies have led us to believe that eating meat and animal products is the only way to get a sufficient amount of this nutrient. But did you know that the majority of animals get their protein from plants? And that plants are, in fact, the source of all protein?
In order to clear up some of the misconceptions around this topic, we will take a closer look at how to get your protein on a vegan diet below:
What is 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 correctly, it requires 20 amino acids: it can produce 11 of these on its own (also referred to as ‘non-essential’), but the remaining nine (‘essential’ amino acids) will have to be sourced from foods.
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.
Plant-based protein or animal protein?
We are often taught that animals are the best, or even only source of protein, so they seem to be the obvious choice. What a lot of people aren’t aware of, however, is that most animals are only the middlemen and that they, too, get their protein from plants. They either get it directly from plants (like cows, giraffes and gorillas by eating grass, leaves or bamboo respectively) or indirectly (such as lions by eating other mammals such as gazelles).
To get a better understanding of both, it is worth looking at some factors that differentiate the two. For instance, when we consume a piece of sirloin steak, we will get around 30 grams of protein, but also a fair amount of sodium and saturated fats.
When we eat a cup of cooked lentils, however, we get around 18 grams of protein, but also a healthy dose of fibre, hardly any sodium and no saturated fats. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘the protein package’. Although in this example the meat contains more protein, it is important to look at the overall nutritional value and the health risks associated with eating meat, which are increasingly becoming apparent. (This recent study by JAHA explores the link between specific protein sources and their impact on our bodies in more detail)
Another significant and well-known factor now is the impact of animal farming on our planet. The greenhouse gas emissions for animal products, especially beef, are much higher than its plant alternatives.
For land use, it is not much different. Meat takes up a lot more space to cultivate, despite the fact that factory farms are often overfilled with cattle.
Good plant protein sources
Luckily there are plenty of easily available and good plant-based protein sources. Let’s take a look at 15 of the highest protein sources below:
- Lentils (18 grams of protein per cup)
- Chickpeas (14 grams of protein per cup)
- Hemp seeds (10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons)
- Firm tofu (14 grams of protein per cup)
- Nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts: 5 to 6 grams of protein per 1/4 cup)
- Quinoa (8 grams of protein per cup)
- Nutritional yeast (8 grams of protein per 1/4 cup)
- Tempeh (36 grams of protein per cup)
- Black beans (10 grams of protein per cup)
- Peanut butter (7 grams per 2 tablespoons)
- Edamame beans (18 grams of protein per cup)
- Seitan (76 grams of protein per 100 grams)
- Spirulina (12 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons)
- Black-eyed peas (26 grams of protein per cup)
- Oatmeal (7 grams of protein per cup)
Most of the above foods can be bought in your local supermarket or health food store and of course, they can all be ordered online (also easier to bulk buy this way). These are just some examples, but even vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms and kale and flour such as buckwheat all contain protein.
The average DRI (‘Dietary Reference Intake’, i.e. the recommended daily intake) is 56 grams per day for the average man and 46 grams per day for the average woman. If you’re an athlete your protein intake will probably have to be a bit higher, depending on your body weight and the type of sport you practice.
To sum it up
It is very rare for people on a Western diet to lack protein, including those who choose to eat plant-based. Replacing animal protein with plant protein is not nearly as hard as it is often made out to be; even meat-eaters get roughly half their protein from plants. Eating plant protein is a better choice for our planet and because it is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, it turns out to be a healthier alternative as well.
As long as you know where to get your protein from and you eat a balanced diet, there is no need to worry about not getting enough!
Keen to learn more?
To learn more about protein and the benefits of eating plants in general, a useful documentary to watch is ‘The Game Changers’ on Netflix or to read the book ‘How Not To Die’ by Dr Michael Greger. Also, check out our other guides below:
- 5 Vegan Meat Alternatives You Need to Know About When Starting a Vegan Diet
- The Most Important Nutrients When Following a Vegan Diet
- 6 Mistakes to Avoid on a Vegan Diet
Or join me on July 18 for my 5-day vegan summer challenge:
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Co-Founder of Veano