Vegan protein is not a myth. It’s not from animals. Vegans get plenty of protein. Not only that, we also have some of the strongest (Patrick Baboumian), fastest (Morgan Mitchell), and most enduring (Laura Kline) people out there, all thriving on a plant-based, animal-avoiding lifestyle. How do they do it?
The dogma is changing: vegans do get enough protein. Not only can you find plenty all around you, there are very tasty ways to do so. How is this possible though? Five, ten years ago no one had heard of these options. Today, you can get chicken, that isn’t chicken, pulled pork made of mushrooms, and on top of that, even burgers that bleed! Are they all good sources of vegan protein though? Should we even worry about protein to begin with? All good questions. Allow me to elaborate!
What’s this ‘protein deal’ we all hear about?
To clarify: protein importance is a myth too! Every channel from health-focused youtubers, to fitness gurus, you hear about it. Eat. Enough. Protein. Why though? What is it made of to begin with? And why is this important?
Let’s start with the basics! Protein is a type of macronutrient (a component of food you should eat in bulk, every day – thus the word ‘macro’) we need to build our body. Our veins, muscles, any kind of tissue – all are proteins. Everything needs it as a building block. Protein, by itself, is a finished product of something – either plants, or animals. Depending on the type of protein we’re talking about, it can be either very useful, or incredibly ambivalent for our bodies, based on what they are made of (like gelatine). And this is the most important subject that most people don’t know about.
Proteins are built of smaller components (almost like lego blocks). Our bodies dissolve protein into these things called amino acids during our digestion.
How much protein should we get per day?
Let’s take an average man weighing 80kg (12.5 stones, or roughly 176 pounds). Based on the EU Science Hub’s information, and the general, medical consensus, in adults, the recommended daily amount of protein ranges from 0.80 to 0.83 g per kilogram of body weight for both men and women with modest levels of physical activity. This would mean 66.4g of protein intake daily. Excluding physical activity, this value corresponds to 0.66 g per kg body weight per day. With this measure, we’d get 52.8g of protein. Would you have expected this amount? I found it surprising the first time I heard about it!
Now that this is put into better perspective, how about we find out what really would be important to pay attention to? Did you know that even vegan protein itself is useless, unless our body dissolves it to its building blocks? That’s where the real magic happens. So, without further ado, let’s cover amino acids.
What are amino acids?
Our body needs constant maintenance. Throughout our lifetime, we renew every cell in our body quite a lot of times. This needs building blocks to recover the lost cells. These cells are all built up, in a certain way, by amino acids, turning into our own body’s protein.
Every time you hit the gym, or go for a run, for instance, there are micro-frictions exacted on your muscles that need to be repaired. When that recovery is finished, your tissues will be able to endure more, meaning more power, endurance, speed, etc.
Which amino acids are important to me?
You might have heard a lot about these, especially if you ever ate a gummy bear (gelatine), drank an energy drink (taurine), or went down to the gym(BCAA). Not every amino acid is built the same though. Some are unnecessary (meaning either our body doesn’t use it at all, or can produce enough on its own). Also, only about nine, or eleven (depending on which source you’re following) are essential, that you should consume daily. Here’s a list of those you should be focusing on, with all the issues you might experience if you were to not eat enough of it:
Symptoms of cysteine deficiency include: apathy, loss of pigmentation in hair, edema, lethargy, liver damage, muscle loss, skin lesions, weakness, fat loss, and delayed growth in children.
A long-term study demonstrated that adults who consume a diet deficient in histidine over long periods of time may experience negative health effects such as reduced hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen to red blood cells) levels
Isoleucine is frequently deficient in the elderly, and may contribute to muscle wasting, twitching and tremors.
Persistently low leucine levels can result in decreased appetite, poor feeding, lethargy, poor growth, weight loss, skin rashes, hair loss, and peeling.
When people do not get enough lysine, they may experience fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, nausea, red eyes, hair loss, anorexia,inhibited growth. This is a widely voiced concern of those who are against vegan protein as well!
Typical symptoms of methionine deficiency include hair loss, hepatic dysfunction, poor skin tone and toxic elevation of metabolic waste products
Symptoms of phenylalanine deficiency include confusion, lack of energy, depression, decreased alertness, memory problems and lack of appetite.
Common symptoms of threonine deficiency include digestive difficulties, emotional agitation, confusion and a fatty liver.
While most developed countries would not allow for strong symptoms, normally tryptophan deficiency could cause motion sickness, mood impairment, memory decline, worsening signs of depression , Seasonal Affective Disorder, and symptoms of mania.
Signs and symptoms of tyrosine deficiency include: apathy, blood sugar imbalances, depression, edema, fat loss, fatigue, lethargy, liver damage, loss of pigmentation in hair, low serum levels of essential blood proteins, mood disorders, muscle loss, skin lesions, slowed growth in children, and weakness.
The breakdown of valine involves at least seven stages and a deficiency of the appropriate enzyme at any of these stages leads to a disorder of varying severity and rarity.
Is it really this hard…?
As you can see, if any of these are lacking in your diet, you could be at risk of some serious problems. Have you seen many vegans with such issues though? Maybe not. Allow me to explain why.
This certainly must sound like a horror story. And it is! Good news though: protein deficiency in developed countries is extremely rare. Besides, if you follow my advice, you won’t even think about these too much. Why? Because you have a mobile phone, and can find applications like MyFitnessPal, or Cronometer. I have chosen Cronometer because when I tested it, I could immediately filter for vegan protein recommendations. Also, the platform seemed easy enough to use. With that being said, I won’t tell you which one to use, they both have their benefits.
What can you do to cover all angles? Supplement, right? Sure, vegan protein products are around every corner (just check MyProtein, Pulsin, or Sun Warrior). But this is not quite what I’d start with. By minor tweaks, and attention to your food, you can have enough protein for life.
It turns out that another myth is also just that. I’m talking about the one claiming that plant-based protein does not contain a “wide enough range of amino acids essential for us”. I’m going to cover that in the next paragraph as well.
Great foods that cover your daily intake of good, vegan protein (and amino acids)
I’ve gone to the gym as much as I could, ever since I was a kid. For 15 years I’ve tried to follow several routines to get buff, get slim, and feel good about myself. Don’t get me wrong, gyms do work! It was just not my cup of tea essentially. Maybe it is for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that either! Regular exercise, despite it being non-effective to burn fat, is the second healthiest thing you can do for yourself, after getting your diet in check.
Below you can find some of the easiest ways to find protein for yourself, with an included protein chart from Cronometer. I’m including important details too, like calories, and fiber per cup. Fiber is important in our diet for our digestion, and to keep our gut flora healthy and happy.
Besides being super affordable (around 1.50€ for 900g in Polish stores), barley is easy to cook, and tastes amazing. Try to replace your regular side of rice, or potato mash with a cup or two. You won’t be disappointed.
Also, they are packed with the good stuff, when cooked; 193 calories per cup, 8.6g of fiber, and 5.4g of protein with a quite balanced list of essential aminos.
Beans (like kidney, black eyed, navy, etc.)
Another great option for anyone looking for a good protein source. Found in literally any color, beans are a great source for both water-soluble, and water-insoluble fiber, complex carbs (starches), and a big amount of vegan protein. 1 cooked cup of navy beans pack 254 calories, 19.1g of fiber, and 15g of protein. As you can see, this also covers all your essential amino acids quite well so far.
Even though not all breads are the same, generally, they can be a great source of protein. Especially if you use peanut butter on two slices. Pro tip: try adding Marmite, instead of jam. It gives it a surprisingly complimentary tang!
Just to focus on the healthy side of veganism, I’m going to take rye bread as a base here. You can of course find your favorite vegan variety as well. Tesco has at least 6 options you can choose from. 2 slices of rye bread contain 166 calories, 2.9g fiber, and 5.4g protein.
This one, along with its ghostly cousin, the cauliflower, is a cheat meal by itself. Packing only 54 calories per cooked cup, it not only fills you up well, it also has amazing additional benefits! 5.1g of fiber, 3.7g of lush, green, vegan protein.
Pro tip: make sure to try nutritional yeast on them!
The recent grain-phobia has created a general avoidance of such amazing products on store shelves. The scare is a ruse though. For those who do have celiac disease, or celiac-like symptoms, it makes sense to avoid gluten, and other grains. Buckwheat should be an exception to that though! Besides being an ancient grain, buckwheat has a unique taste that makes it amazing for any occasion.
One cup of cooked buckwheat has 154 calories, 4.5g of fiber, and 5.7g of protein. Make sure to try it! Simple to cook, and has a great shelf and fridge life.
Even though it’s technically a (garbanzo) bean, Chickpeas are your plain vegan’s bread and butter. Almost literally. Hummus is found everywhere, and I could swear I’ve seen garam bread somewhere.
With that being said, cooking chickpeas is just like cooking normal beans. I usually make a massive batch once and put away 2-3 portions in the freezer, so I can just pop them in anything on the go. Alternatively I usually buy falafel, and hummus every week.
1 cooked cup contains 269 calories, 12.5g of fiber, and 14.5g of protein.
Lentils (any type)
The tiny cousins of beans, lentils have been around for quite some time as well. Depending on what you’d like to make, they have all kinds of variations that could make any dish more nutritious. I personally prefer the split red lentils, since I can just pour 1 cupful in anything boiling, and in 15-20 minutes they are soft and pretty!
1 cup of lentils contain 230 calories, 11.6g of fiber, and 17.9g of tasty vegan protein.
I admit, I wanted to add peanuts first, but they can be tricky. Firstly, most of the peanuts you can buy today are dry roasted, coated, salted, and are quite far from their original values and state. Something you can definitely get that is somewhat less processed is peanut butter though. Even the smallest grocer in Ireland sells 100% peanut butter you can immediately buy and use. My advice is to find a good place to buy it from, where you can get a type that doesn’t layer down to the bottom, like concrete. It will save, not only time, but sorrow in the future.
Also, pay attention to the portions! 1 tablespoon of peanut butter is much less than you would think! If you really want to treat your body well, make sure to get natural, 100% peanut butter for your home. Even Aldi sells such products now.
2 tablespoons of peanut butter contain 188 calories, 2.7g of fiber, and 7.8g of protein.
Another great option from the cheating section. Basically, the greener the stuff you put in your food, the more you can get away with. Peas are just amazing. You can make macho peas as a side dish, or a base mash for your chowder. They can be added them to soup. Straight from the can, or sprinkle them with nutritional yeast (like me sometimes. Don’t judge). All options are there, the outcome is always amazing.
1 cup of cooked, green peas contain 125 calories, 7.2g of fiber, and 8.2g of protein.
I know what you’re thinking. Chips. Fries. Sure, they are potatoes in a sense. My advice is though: try to bake / boil some yourself at home, and experiment with flavors. Honestly, 2 big, boiled potatoes in their skin, with a little mustard and balsamic vinegar is not only healthy, it keeps you satiated, and happy!
1 cup of boiled potatoes contain 201 calories, 6.4g of fiber, and 4.2g of protein.
No, they won’t give you manboobs. Yes, they can taste amazing – check out one of my favorite youtubers’, The Easy Vegan’s video here to learn everything about it. Or, buy five spice, fried, dried, or marinated tofu pieces. There are many options today, and most of them are pretty affordable.
100g of cooked tofu has 104 calories, 1.2g of fiber, and 12g of protein. Not only is it an amazing product, vegan protein-wise, but I’d also like to point out that its mineral content is very appealing too. So if you can, do give it a try.
Check a recipe, and see if you can find a consistency you would go for. After all, it’s just beans!
Vegan jedi knowledge. Tempeh is an Indonesian fermented soybean product. When cut into thin slices and roasted, it will remind you of a strong cheese a bit. Tempeh is a bit hard to keep, even in a fridge, unless you get the space-packed versions from Tesco.
1 cup of baked tempeh contains 192 calories, 3.7g of fiber, and 20.3g of protein.
Edamame is salted, boiled green soybeans, basically. It tastes amazing, and usually you can get it in sushi bars.
1 cup of edamame contains 188 calories, 8.1g of fiber, and 18.5g of protein.
You can get sweet potatoes at almost every big store. But, if you know your way, you’ll go to the Chinese markets too. That’s where you can find white, purple, and other variations of this wonderful “fake potato”. Besides having an amazing shelf life, sweet potatoes can be a versatile friend of a vegan. Depending on the color, I use them for different things. I usually cook the orange ones in stews, such as an Ethiopian stew with tomato sauce and red lentils. I like to bake the purple ones, and the white ones.
But, while the purple ones are great as a side dish for a curry, the white ones usually get chocolate syrup, or agave nectar on them. When baked in their skin, I swear they taste like cookies!
1 cup of baked sweet potato contains 158 calories, 5.8g of fiber, and 3.5g of colorful, vegan protein.
You can see from this list that from simple vegan staples you can build up a pretty decent diet, protein-wise. These items are cheap as well, and I’ve not even covered the rest of the budget foods, which you could be stocking up on at home. For more information on that, I’ve written another post here.
When you start out on a journey to move towards veganism, it’s always good to keep an open mind and try things that you never had before. That way you can figure out if you could adapt, or even enjoy something more in the future. You can also understand that just by buying the right stuff and mixing them together, not only could you get healthier foods on your plate, you can even meet your daily requirements in nearly everything.
As a little farewell, here’s a snapshot from Cronometer of a normal lunch (one out of three meals in a day) I have frequently; chickpea and tofu curry with a side of barley, and two apples (some numbers are estimates, but with time you’ll get better at it too). I’m in no way affiliated with them, but personally I found their tool a healthy reality check. I hope you will too!
The targets you see are my personal ones, but the evidence is clear. All plant-based protein I’ve described above have a balanced amino acid palette for any needs, or targets you might be having.
Did I miss some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below!
Wanna stock up good foods in troubling times, and you’re not sure where to start? Click here!
If you’re interested in how to start being a healthy vegan: Click here!
Would you like to be a SMART vegan? Click here!
Here are some of my guides on what you can eat for lunch, or a night out as a vegan in Dublin:
Click here for Part 1!
Click here for Part 2!