Can You Get Enough Protein If You Follow A Vegan Diet?

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The strongest and largest of our animals on this planet are 100% herbivores: horses, oxen, elephants. They get enough protein from plants – and so can we. Everything we eat has a protein element to it and, as long as your plant-based diet is varied, it will contain all the protein you need, including the full spectrum of amino acids. Almost every food source contains an element of protein – including all vegetables. Peas, kale, broccoli, mushrooms and asparagus are particularly good protein sources as, of course, are beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.

Amino acids

The protein question really boils down to the amino acid question. All proteins, animal or plant, are made up from amino acids. But the number and order differs from food source to food source and those found in food also vary from those that make up our own body parts.

When you eat protein, your digestive system breaks it down into amino acids, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. The acids then build the proteins that make up your muscles, organs and tissues. Not all amino acids are ‘essential’ but there are nine amino acids that the body cannot manufacture which are essential and have to be consumed for optimum health.

The essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which makes them complete proteins, but it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. Combining plant foods results in complete protein and gives exactly the same result nutritionally.

How to balance your amino acids

To give some examples of successful combining, grains are lacking in lysine, beans are high in lysine therefore combining these two foods gives a perfect amino acid balance.

Grains and legumes are therefore known as complementary proteins. ‘Rice and beans’ is fairly commonly known as a complete meal. But lesser known is that nuts and seeds together with legumes are also complementary proteins. For example, hummus is a complete protein – chickpea (legume) + tahini (sesame seed).

Other successful full spectrum amino food pairing tips include:

  • One pot dishes including grains and legumes together
  • Salads including beans together with nuts and seeds
  • Nut butter sandwiches on wholegrain bread
  • Tofu or tempeh and vegetables with nuts (with or without brown rice, buckwheat, whole-wheat noodles or quinoa)
  • Vegan yoghurt with nuts or seeds

It turns out it’s even easier than you thought to get the right protein balance – you don’t even need to eat your full spectrum of amino acids at the same meal. Your liver can store essential amino acids, so as long as you eat a varied, plant-based diet that regularly includes all the amino acids, you’ll be getting everything you need. Some plant sources are actually already complete proteins – soy, quinoa, buckwheat, chia, hemp and amaranth – but rather than focus on just those, it’s far better to simply eat a combination of vegetables and plant proteins. Bear in mind that meat eaters and lacto vegetarians eat vegetables, legumes and grains too, so it is kind of irrelevant that their proteins are complete!

How much protein do you need?

We don’t need as much protein as you might think. Men should get 56 grams and women need 46 grams of protein daily. Most people eat almost double this, which may be detrimental to health and well-being. Too much protein, especially meat-based protein, has been linked with an increased risk of a wide range of conditions – from mild ones such as bad breath, digestive problems and dehydration to serious diseases such as heart disease, cancer and kidney disease.

Your average pork chop contains approximately 20g of protein. This is exactly the same amount of protein as 1/2 cup tofu, or 1 cup cooked beans. Add your tofu or beans to vegetables, a sprinkling of seeds or nuts and you’ll be up to more than 30g – over half your RDA. In fact, it is actually easy for vegans to eat more than their RDA of protein without even trying. In the course of trying to ‘get enough protein’ many vegans are actually getting more than they need.

Health wise, there is an increasing amount of research pointing to the fact that plant-based diets with high protein and low carb are the healthiest diets of all. Following a diet high in plant based protein, and plant based fat but low in carbohydrates has shown a 30% lower risk of heart disease, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. In fact, one of the most established things in nutrition science is the very well documented wide-ranging health benefits of following a low carb diet. So within your food combining, favour beans, nuts and seeds over grains where possible. And when you do eat grains, smaller portions is best.

Getting enough iron

As well as protein, some people worry about lack of iron when following a plant-based diet. Vegans are no more likely to suffer from iron-deficiency than meat-eaters. Iron from plant-based sources is actually healthier than from meat sources. Pulses, soy products, green vegetables, whole grains, dried fruits and dark chocolate are all high in iron and a plant-based diet using a wide range of foods will supply plenty of iron.

I am a firm believer in fresh, tasty plant-based foods, with a decent proportion served raw, and a sprinkling of nuts or seeds at every meal is the way forward. If you like tofu and tempeh then great, if not then beans and lentils are great too. If you don’t like either then you’ll probably get enough from vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.

Eating too much protein is a factor in weight gain since surplus turns to fat and we are generally far too protein-focused. Protein deficiency is rarely seen in affluent populations, and generally only seen in populations where ALL food is scarce. Simply put, where food is abundant, all people, regardless of their dietary choices, will be getting more than enough protein, and all the aminos they need.

About the author

Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurant Stem + Glory in Cambridge; a hip and trendy but accessible plant-based restaurant, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredient 100% made on site. Stem + Glory offers all day casual fine dining, fast breakfast, brunch and lunch, juices, smoothies and great coffee. All available to eat in or take away. Stem + Glory also offers mouth-watering and hugely popular tasting menu evenings and special event menus. The restaurants have an extensive vegan bar, offering the best craft beers and fine wines, alongside cocktails, mocktails and smart drinks.

Image credit: Stem + Glory

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