The amount of times vegans are quizzed with the question , “oh, but can vegans get enough protein”?! The answer to this question is a big “YES”! Protein gets so much attention, but for good reason. Pretty much everything in our body is made up of protein – all of our cells which make up our tissues and organs, enzymes, structural components and so much more, of which many are required to fulfil the most basic to the most complex of processes. Then, when old cells break down, we need more to replenish our body’s supply which is where dietary protein comes in.
Why do we need protein?
Proteins are known as the building blocks of life. Made up of a combination of amino acids, proteins exist in the body and are responsible for specific roles which include:
- Immune function – our body protects itself using our immune system. In order for our immunity to work effectively in fighting against infections and illnesses, we need to produce antibodies and these are made up of proteins.
- Structural components – from red blood cells and tissues to organs and muscles, proteins make up a large amount of these structures. So any growth, repair and replenishment of cells and tissues is largely down to the presence and use of protein. You may have also heard of keratin and collagen – these are the proteins that our hair, skin and nails predominantly consist of and we can’t really live without those!
- Transport of oxygen – the protein, haemoglobin, carries oxygenated blood around our entire body. Without this protein, the transport of not only oxygen, but also nutrients and so many other components would be impossible.
- Hormone production – not only are proteins needed to elicit the production of hormones but many hormones are in fact made up of proteins. Hormones control virtually everything that goes on in our bodies, from blood glucose balance (using the hormone insulin) to adrenaline for that fight or flight reaction.
How do vegans get complete proteins?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. These may be essential or non-essential. Essential amino acids are the ones we need from our diets because our bodies lack the ability to make these. Essential amino acids are present in many plant foods, even in items such as bread or rice which many of us wouldn’t expect. By eating a variety of these protein-containing foods, we can get all of the amino acids required by our bodies to sustain all functions requiring protein. Since not all plant foods are complete proteins (meaning they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids) some foods need to be combined with others to get the full profile of dietary amino acids. This is much easier to achieve than you may think – in fact you probably do it already but just never realised.
Complete vegan proteins
Though there may be many plant-based, protein-rich foods that do not contain all of the essential amino acids, there are still some that do. Here is a list of complete vegan proteins:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Edamame beans
Complete vegan protein combinations
Not every meal needs to be formed of complete proteins – in fact, these can be split throughout the day so no pressure! However, if you prefer to do so because it keeps you on track then that is also fine. You can follow the patterns below by eating something from one food group and combining it with another.
- Rice and beans (black bean curry with rice)
- Pulses and grains (hummus and pitta)
- Nuts and grains (peanut butter on toast)
- Spirulina and nuts/grains/seeds (spirulina smoothie with oats)
Vegan Protein Sources
In a typical serving size for the foods listed below, the protein content is as follows:
- Tempeh 1 cup (166g) = 31g
- Tofu 1 cup (248g) = 20g
- Seitan or vital wheat gluten cooked 85g = 20g
- Chickpeas cooked 1 cup (164g) = 14.5g (roughly the same in most beans)
- Quinoa cooked 1 cup (185g) = 8g
- Peas 1 cup (130g) = 4g
- Soy milk 1 cup (250ml) = 8g
- Peanut butter 2 tbsp (32g) = 8g
- Oats raw 1 cup (80g) = 10g
- Chia seeds 2 tbsp (28g) = 4g
- Buckwheat cooked 1 cup (168g) = 5.5g
Top 10 easy vegan protein foods
- Black bean burrito
- Fishless fingers
- Vegan shepherd’s pie
- Tofu curry
- Quinoa burgers
- Banh mi
- Tofu scramble
- Vegan fry up
- Vegan pizza
- Drunken noodles
Can I get all my protein from shakes?
This may sound like a great idea in theory, because you can actually meet your body’s daily requirements of protein in shake form. However, this is where the balance is gone. If you’re filling up on scoops of protein powder here and there, there’s a whole heap of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that we’re fully missing out on. Even if you were taking nutritional supplements to cover your other requirements, research has demonstrated that most nutrients are better absorbed from actual food rather than isolated supplement form. No clear-cut answer on why that’s the case, but I guess there’s still a lot we don’t know about our food.
What are essential amino acids?
Essential amino acids are amino acids which are needed in the diet. Our bodies cannot make them so we have to get them from what we eat. There are 9 essential amino acids:
What are non-essential amino acids?
Non-essential amino acids are amino acids that our bodies can make, therefore they are not essential in our diets. Some of this amino acids are also called conditional amino acids, which means that our body may or may not make them depending on our state of health as well as our protein intake. There are 11 amino acids that our bodies produce:
Protein requirements vary according to age, sex and life stage. However, below is a general guide that might be useful when wanting to keep track of your own protein intake. It is always best to speak to your dietitian or doctor about what is optimal for you as this not only varies according to the factors mentioned above, but if you have sustained an injury or suffer from any illness, your protein requirements are likely to be higher.
- Average adult 0.8mg/kg BW
- Athletic adult 1-1.5mg/kg BW (optimise muscle growth and recovery)
- Pregnant woman 1-1.5mg/kg BW (to support a growing baby)
Vegan Protein Recipes
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