Moving on, it’s finally time to address what is without a doubt the number one question vegans get asked on a regular basis: “where do you get your protein?”
A friend recently contacted me for advice; she’d started lifting weights and was interested in seeking out vegan sources of protein to supplement her omni diet. Needless to say I was thrilled she’d asked – while I don’t expect any of my friends or family to convert to veganism any time soon, It always makes me happy to see them take any kind of interest.
Now, I’m no R.D., but like any discerning, health conscious vegan, I’ve done my fair share of research to make sure my diet was up to par on the nutrition front. As an active person who runs and strength trains regularly, I’ve also been particularly mindful about my protein intake in the past. That said, I am by no means an expert and would advise anyone looking to radically change their diet or exercise routine in any way to seek out an appropriately certified nutritionist, doctor or dietician.
Disclaimers aside, here are my two cents when it comes to plant-based protein:
Personally, I strongly believe there is an unwarranted obsession with protein in most societies. Yes, protein is essential for growth and development, often referred to as the “building blocks” of the body, but the idea that humans need an obscene amount is a myth. In fact excessive consumption (of animal proteins in particular) can even be extremely harmful. So my first tip would be to work out how much protein you actually need. Individual needs will vary based on factors like body weight, age, and physical activity, but as a general guideline the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight ( source ).
Contrary to popular belief, regular exercisers don’t need very much more than the RDA, which already includes a generous safety factor. A statement published by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that endurance and strength-trained athletes consume between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram. As for high performance athletes or bodybuilders, while there’s evidence that they do require more protein, one study found that any more than double the RDA doesn’t necessarily help build more muscle. Experts studied three groups of weight lifters. a low protein group (0.86 g/kg), a moderate group (1.40 g/kg) and a high protein group (2.40 g/kg) and found that there were no effects of varying protein intake.
The bottom line is, unless you’re pregnant, lactating or an elite bodybuilder – there really is no need to go overboard.
Vegan Sources of Protein
I aim to include a wide range of protein sources in my diet for both nutrients and variety. Typically, I eat lots of pulses and legumes, pseudo grains* and whole grains, nuts and seeds and more recently I’ve also been incorporating more high quality (organic and non GM) soy products.
Some examples that make a regular appearance in my diet:
- Pulses/legumes – chickpeas, lentils, fava beans
- Nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashews
- Seeds – pumpkin, sunflower, and shelled hempseeds
- Grains – rolled oats, quinoa, buckwheat
- Soy products – soy milk, tofu, tempeh
*It’s worth mentioning that pseudo grains like quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are excellent sources of protein and are also complete proteins – meaning the right proportions of all 9 essential amino acids.
Some of my go-to high protein meals and snacks:
- Oatmeal or overnight oats made with 1/2 a cup of rolled oats, soy milk, ground flax, peanut butter and a banana (16 grams of protein)
- Meal-sized lentil salad with leafy greens, avocado, hummus and hemp seeds(22 grams)
- Mixed veggie stew/curry/stir fry with chickpeas, quinoa and nutritional yeast (24 grams)
- A small handful of almonds and an apple or trail mix with raw nuts and seeds ( 3.2 grams)
Plant vs. Animal Protein
Another common misconception is that plant protein is somehow inferior or of lower quality than animal derived protein.To put it very simply, protein is made up of amino acids (9 of which are essential). When animal protein is ingested, the human body must break it down into the individual amino acids in order to re-assimilate it. Plant foods on the other hand contain the amino acids in their original form. While most plant proteins aren’t “complete” proteins, the idea that we need to eat only complete proteins or combine certain proteins with one another in order to fulfill needs has absolutely no scientific basis. If you eat a reasonable variety of protein sources your body (much like that of the animals you would otherwise be consuming) will assimilate it normally.
Anyways, enough not-so-fun facts. On to the stuff that really matters, the food. I give you an easy, high-protein vegan burger (or slider) that will surprise even the most committed carnivore.
Makes 4 large patties or 12 sliders
- 1/2 + 1/4 cup quick cooking oats or breadcrumbs (or a combination of both)
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseed
- 1 1/4 cup mixed beans, drained (I used a can of kidney, cannelini and borlotti beans)
- 1/2 cup cooked brown rice
- 1 medium red onion
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 a tbsp cumin powder
- 1 tbsp baharat spice mix* (alternatively, feel free to use any poultry or beef seasoning, these are usually just spices and are completely meat free but make sure to check)
- 1/2 a tsp chili powder (optional)
- 1 tsp lemon or lime juice
- 1 tsp canola or olive oil
- 3/4 tsp baking soda
- sea salt and pepper to taste
Served with carrot fries and a side salad of mixed baby greens, they were a huge hit.
Above, slathered with cashew cheese and of course, a little ketchup.
My friend even suggested I could give Annie’s a run for her money, which is very high praise coming from a vegan.
It’s important to note that pretty much all foods have some protein in them, including grains, fruits and vegetables. So when it comes to getting an adequate amount of protein on a vegan diet, the best plan of attack is to balance out meals with a protein source, carbohydrates and whole grains (this can be as simple as beans, veggies and brown rice for example). It’s very easy to fall into a trap of just eating starchy carbohydrates and veggies as a new vegan or vegetarian, so a mental checklist is always handy in times of doubt.