“But Claire, where do you get your protein from if you don’t eat meat and eggs?”
This is often the first question that my non-vegan friends and colleagues ask me (usually with concern in their voice). I hear this question so much that I have decided to write up this post as a useful introduction to plant-based protein sources for those of you who are still unsure.
Spoiler alert: The answer, my friends, is quite simple – it’s easy to get enough high-quality protein on a plant-based diet. In fact, there are a great variety of plant sources so, unless you’re only eating chips every day, you’ll have a hard time becoming protein deficient even if you don’t pay special attention to the question “Am I getting enough protein today?”.
Why do we need to consume protein?
Brace yourself, here’s the science-y part: Protein is an essential nutrient that our body needs in order to build new cells, and maintain and regenerate tissue in organs and muscles. Proteins are also responsible for synthesizing new proteins that our body requires to perform a number of essential functions.
Our bones, nails, hair, muscles, and many other body parts are made up of proteins. In fact, around half of the dietary protein we consume is converted into enzymes which are a type of protein whose job is to perform essential functions such as digesting food and making new cells.
Proteins are made up of strings of amino acids (think about protein as a chain with each loop being one type of amino acid). Out of the 20 amino acids that we need, 9 cannot be produced by our bodies. So, these ‘indispensable’ amino acids are the ones that we need to consume in sufficient quantities in our diets.
Why do people think you can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet?
In western societies, we have been taught for decades that our bodies absolutely need animal protein if we want to get strong. This is a myth that has permeated our culture, especially the world of health and fitness, but it’s simply not true. Whilst it is true that animal-derived protein such as meat and eggs are complete protein sources (meaning they provide all the amino acids our bodies need in one serving), animal protein is not the only high-quality source. It was thought for a long time that we needed to eat all 9 amino acids in the same quantities and in the same meal, however, we now know that it’s not necessary to eat them at the same time, as long as we consume enough of each of them in our daily food intake.
Protein deficiency is very rare in the western world. In fact, we have the opposite problem that there is too much animal protein available in our modern lifestyle. Many people in the US, UK, and beyond actually consume much more protein than their bodies need. This means that it either gets stored as fat or passes through the body without being used, which puts excess strain on our kidneys and can contribute to kidney disease or complications with diabetes.
If you still don’t believe me, I recommend you watch the 2018 documentary movie “The Game Changers” which is based on the latest scientific evidence and debunks the myths surrounding strength, protein, and meat once and for all.
What are the best plant-based sources of protein?
Animal protein sources include meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Plant-based protein is found in beans, soya products, whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds. However, it’s important to note that the composition of amino acids and the amount of protein in each plant-based source varies. This is why it’s important to include a variety of plant-based protein sources in your diet to ensure that you are giving your body enough of the good stuff.
Here’s a shortlist of some of the best (almost) complete protein sources:
- Beans: The list is pretty much endless when it comes to types of beans you can add to your diet.
- Buckwheat: Buck what? I’d never heard of it before I turned vegan either.
- Chia seeds: Add these tiny bad boys to your morning porridge, smoothies or salads.
- Hemp seeds: A superfood you can eat as a snack, add to breakfast cereals or consume in milk form. Read more about alternative plant-based milks, many of which are rich protein sources.
- Hummus: Not that I need any excuse to eat this wonderful invention!
- Quinoa: Yes, it’s pronounced in a stupid way but it’s pretty tasty.
- Peanut butter: Avoid commercial brands as they add lots of unnecessary sugar, salt, and even palm oil. Check the label and buy peanut butter made from 100% peanuts which is just as delicious as well as healthier for you and the rainforests.
- Pumpkin seeds: Great plain, toasted or salted. Eat as a snack or sprinkled on salads.
- Rice: Choose wholewheat or brown rice for a nutrient-dense meal instead of white rice.
- Soya: Found in various forms such as tofu, tempeh, or edamame beans. Try out my recipe for scrambled tofu and you’ll never need to scramble an egg again.
Are plant-based protein sources as good for you as animal protein sources?
As I mentioned earlier, the only real difference in the ‘quality’ of animal and plant protein is the composition of amino acids. Whilst many sources of animal protein give you all necessary amino acids (know as complete protein) in one serving, plant-based protein composition varies from source to source. Therefore, it’s necessary to combine different plant sources in your diet to ensure that you get enough of all the indispensable amino acids.
I hope that this post has helped make it clear how to get enough protein when you omit meat, fish, dairy, and eggs from your diet. In conclusion, protein can be found in abundance in a variety of plant-based foods. As a bonus, plant-based sources can be much more efficient delivery systems than meat or eggs, and without the added bad cholesterol or associated risks of heart disease and stroke. After all, many of the animals that humans consume need to eat plants to get enough protein in their diets. So, why not go straight to the source and cut out the “middle hen”? (sorry, sorry, I had to throw that bad joke in there.) As long as you’re eating enough calories and a variety of foods, vegans do not need to worry about getting enough protein.
If you’re already vegan, how do you make sure you get enough protein? Let me know your favourite plant-based protein sources in the comments below.