I’m not sure why in 2017, non-vegans still think that vegans are at risk of being protein deficient. The amount of protein we need to stay healthy is much lower than they think, and plants do a great job of providing all of it. Legumes such as beans and lentils, grains such as quinoa, and vegetables like spinach are great sources of protein for vegans.
Protein is a very important nutrient in our diet because it essential for our body’s structure and function. Protein accounts for up to 20% of our body weight, and it is a part of our muscles, hair, skin, nails, heart and even our brains.
We need proteins in our diet for:
- Structure and strength: Keratin and collagen are important proteins that give structure and strength to our hair, skin, nails, bones and teeth.
- Enzymes: We need protein to make enzymes, such as trypsin that helps in the digestion of food. Many other enzymes in the body are made of proteins.
- Antibodies: We need proteins to make antibodies, that help us fight off infections.
- Hormones: Hormones transmit messages across the body. Most hormones are made from proteins. Insulin and glucagon, hormones that are involved in blood sugar regulation, are made from proteins.
- Regulate fluid balance: In conjunction with minerals, proteins help to maintain the correct amount of fluids in the blood
If we don’t get enough protein in our diet, our bodies start to break down tissues such as muscles to meet its needs. If this goes on for prolonged periods, it could lead to serious illnesses like marasmus and ultimately death.
Amino Acids: The Building Blocks of Proteins
All proteins, whether from plants, animals or humans are made up of smaller building blocks or units known as amino acids. Twenty types of amino acids exist, and the sequence in which they combine ultimately determines the structure and function of the resulting protein.
Plants are the main manufacturers of amino acids. Animals get their amino acids from them, and humans get amino acids either by eating plants or by eating animals and their by products.
Our need for amino acids is what makes eating proteins necessary. If there was a way to eat individual amino acids on their own, we won’t need to eat whole proteins. After all, our bodies break down proteins into amino acids, then uses the amino acids it needs either on their own or combines them with other amino acids to form new proteins for other functions.
Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids
Our bodies can make some of the amino acids we need, but we have to get the others through diet. The amino acids we can make are non-essential amino acids, while those that we need to get from our diet are essential amino acids.[table id=3 /]
One thing to bear in mind is that just because our bodies are able to make some of these amino acids, it doesn’t mean we can’t become deficient in them. If we are not eating a healthy diet, non-essential amino acids can become essential. A prime example of this is with the non-essential amino acid ‘glycine’.
Our bodies make glycine by combining the amino acid ‘serine’ with vitamin B6. If we are deficient in vitamin B6, our bodies will be unable to make glycine. So glycine goes from being a non-essential amino acid to an essential amino acid – one that we need to get through diet.
This just goes to show how important it is to eat a diet that is rich in a variety of nutrients and not just one thing. More so when eating a vegan diet. You will be doing yourself no favours by eating a vegan diet that is poor in wholesome food, but rich in vegan junk food.
You will be doing yourself no favours by eating a vegan diet that is poor in wholesome food, but rich in vegan junk food.
Quality (Complete) Proteins
As I mentioned earlier, all proteins, regardless of their source contain the 20 amino acids we need to stay healthy. Animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs) contain the 20 amino acids in the right ratios that we need them in, so they are often referred to as ‘quality’ or ‘complete’ proteins.
Plant proteins also contain all of the amino acids we need, but the ratios in which they are present are not always optimal. This is the key reason why we vegans are at risk of being ‘protein deficient’. That said, some plant proteins like soya and quinoa contain the amino acids we need in the right ratio.
Even if you don’t eat soya and quinoa regularly, you can still get all the proteins you need by food combining. Grains and cereals are generally low in the amino acids, lysine and threonine, while legumes are low in methionine. But, you can get sufficient amounts of each of those amino acids by eating grains with legumes.
A good food combination, for example, could be rice and beans, or beans or toast. You don’t necessarily need to eat both food types in the same meal or even on the same day to ensure you get all the amino acids you need.
Basically, you can eat rice in the morning and beans in the evening, or you can eat rice today and beans tomorrow and you’ll be fine. But, this is only correct if you don’t have any existing deficiencies and you are otherwise healthy.[table id=5 /]
How much protein do you need to stay healthy?
UK guidelines suggest that around 10% of your daily energy intake come from protein. If you’re pregnant, nursing or take part in intense strength/endurance exercise you may need to increase your protein intake.
Based on a 2500 Calorie diet, a man should be consuming at least 55g of protein per day. A woman should be consuming at least 45g of protein based on a 2000kcal diet. These protein requirements can be easily met on a vegan diet.
Just by eating a 200g portion of tofu, you can get a whopping 25g of protein. A 240g portion of cooked borlotti beans provides 18g of protein.
Good Vegan Protein Sources
Beans and legumes contain the highest amount of proteins per serving, but grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds provide a decent amount of protein, especially for those who don’t tolerate beans and soy products.
Quinoa is one of the best sources of (pseudo) grain protein. It is a quality protein since it provides all the amino acids we need in the correct ratios. Per 100g, quinoa provides around 14g of protein.
Soy and its products such as tofu and tempeh are also great sources of quality proteins. Per 100g, tofu provides up to 13g of protein, and tempeh provides 19g of protein.
Green leafy vegetables including spinach, greens, chard and kale are also good sources of protein. Spinach provides up to 3g of protein per 100g.
Even though nuts and seeds have a high-fat content, they have a very high protein content. Sunflower seeds, for example, provide 5g of protein per 23g.
In addition to the produce highlighted, pasta, buckwheat, mushrooms, peanuts and chia seeds are also good sources of protein.
If you eat a wide variety of foods in adequate quantities, it will be very difficult to get protein deficient. You will also be able to build muscle very easily.
If you’re into muscle building or strength training, check out Vegan Physique and Vegan Family TV on YouTube. They show how easy it is to gain muscle and stay lean on a vegan diet. Robert Cheeke is a well-known vegan body builder who eats a whole foods plant-based diet. If you’re into body building, his recent book Plant-Based Muscle is a good read.
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Fuller M. Proteins and amino acid requirements.In: Stipanuk M, ed. Biochemical and Physiological Aspects of Human Nutrition. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2000: 287–304.
Mike Lean, Emilie Combet. macronutrients in Foods and Diets. In: Barasi’s Human Nutrition A health Perspective. Florida, FL: CRC Press; 2017: 32 – 38