If you are new to veganism you may have questions about protein, which can be a problem because vegans tend to get asked about their protein intake on a regular basis and so a lot of people get sick of answering such questions. We realise the issue can be confusing so lets get find some answers!
1) What is protein and why do I need it?
Proteins are a wide range of molecules made up of building blocks called amino acids. When we eat proteins, they are broken down into individual amino acids and rebuilt to form the exact protein we need in the right place.
Most people know that muscles require lots of protein, but all organs of the body require protein for general maintenance, and for making new cells, as the body constantly removes old cells and replaces them with new ones.
Proteins have a wide range of functions such as providing the "scaffolding" of cells, anchoring cells together, forming receptors on the surface of cells which allows them to respond to chemicals such as hormones and controlling the activity of genes in DNA.
2) How much protein do I need?
Guidelines issued by governments will tend to advise a daily intake of around 55g for an adult. Another common guideline is around 0.8g of protein intake for every kg of body weight.
Of course, such guidelines are based on an "average adult" and so may not necessarily be perfect for your needs, but are a good place to start.
The guidelines are typically based on a "sedentary" adult, meaning someone with, for example, an office job who takes part in occasional exercise.
However, the requirements of people with highly active jobs and performance athletes is likely to be higher, common suggestions for intake for such people ranges between about 1.2-1.7g of protein per kg of body weight.
3) Is the vegan diet protein-deficient?
The only thing that is the same between vegan meals is the absence of animal products included in them, beyond that, the content of the meal is entirely up to the individual.
But there is no reason why cutting meat out of a diet should result in protein-deficiency. Common staples of vegan and non-vegan diets alike include grains such as rice and wheat, legumes such as green peas and beans, nuts and seeds, all of which are high in protein.
If meat eaters envision a vegan meal as their standard meat, veg & potatoes but with the meat taken out, then you can understand why they might think such a diet would be deficient in protein. But of course a vegan diet isn't just taking the meat off the plate, it's bringing in a whole range of other food sources and ingredients to make full, nutritious meals, and as with any diet a key to making it healthy is to eat a range of foods and benefit from the different nutrients that various foods offer.
Amongst the vegan community are ultra-endurance athletes, tennis players, NFL players, NBA players and a whole host of top level athletes. Athletes push their bodies to extremes of fitness and many who opt for a vegan diet, whether for health or ethics, continue to thrive and improve physically. This goes to show there is nothing to say that a vegan diet should be deficient in anything.
4) But isn't the protein you get from meat better than the protein you get from elsewhere?
As all proteins are broken down then built up again within the body, the type of protein you eat does not matter too much, it's not like eating meat, which is animal muscle, will help you build muscle faster because you are eating muscle, that's not how it works (for further evidence, check out the size of some of the vegan bodybuilders out there).
However there are some amino acids ("essential amino acids") which are not produced by the body and are not all present in any single vegan food. Therefore replacing meat in the diet should by done by introducing (or increasing) intake of a range of vegan foods to make sure all essential amino acids are covered.
For example, two essential amino acids are lysine and methionine. Rice is high in methionine, whilst beans are high in lysine, so a meal or side-dish based on rice and beans (common the world over and especially popular among vegans as a cheap, nutritious, tasty and easy to make meal) instantly fulfils your needs.
5) I heard that eating too much/too little protein causes [insert disease here]
Protein deficiency is a real thing, however it occurs mainly in those suffering a disease, the elderly, or residents of impoverished countries. Among the industrialised world, protein deficiency due to dietary deficiency (as opposed to more common protein deficiencies caused by genetics) is incredibly low, and differences between omnivores and vegans in this respect is difficult to find data on, whether that is because we are talking about very small numbers or because noone has been able to thoroughly research this yet, is unknown.
Problems may also occur from ingesting too much protein. The body can not store excess protein, so protein is metabolised and excreted by the kidneys. This is fine unless you have an illness or medication which reduces your kidney function.
Many sites will list symptoms of protein deficiency as including tiredness, inability to sleep, moodiness and food cravings, all very general symptoms which could be the result of a vast number of reasons, but such sites usually want to try and sell you a lifestyle or diet so will suggest if you follow their instructions your health will improve. We suggest that if you have a real health problem that you should contact your doctor rather than following the vague promises of near-anonymous people online.
6) What should I do if I'm protein deficient?
If you are feeling ill and suspect you may be deficient in protein it is best to consult your doctor, and they will probably do a blood albumin test. Albumin is a protein in the blood used as a common indicator of whole body protein levels.
If you are feeling ok but worried that your diet might no be adequate, then you might need to take a close look at your diet. All food you buy should have nutritional information available, so you should be able to work out, over say the course of a week, how much protein you get in your diet. If it is lower than guideline levels or comes from a limited number of sources then you may wish to increase the amount and diversity of protein-rich foods you eat.
7) Can you give me some good examples of vegan sources of protein?
You bet! Here is a list of some of our favourite protein sources and reasons why we like them.
Replacing meat with beans is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to begin with a protein rich vegan diet. There are so many different varieties of beans on the market too meaning you can enjoy them in so many ways.
From white to black beans, heirloom to pinto beans, they all contain a hell of a lot of protein. For instance, you can get up to 26 grams of protein with just two cups of kidney beans. my fave thing about beans is that they're very flexible and pair well with a lot of other foods. Who doesn't love beans on toast, a big spicy pot of chilli or a bean burger?
You can also buy beans in pretty much all stores - which kind of debunks the idea that vegan food is difficult to come by. As well as regular supermarkets, you can hunt down fancy unusual or organic beans at markets, specialist stores and health food stores. A great money saving tip is to buy them dried in big bags and just let them soak in water overnight before cooking them. A can of baked beans smothered with vegan cheese and HP sauce is my ultimate quick, cheap, comfort food.
Chickpeas, also commonly referred to as garbanzo beans, are legumes that can be cooked and eaten in a loads of ways. You can puree them, make them into hummus, and pair the finished product with whole-wheat pita bread. We love adding them to curries and stews instead of using meat. They're also a great addition to a salad or fried up into a crispy treat. One half cup of chickpeas contains around 7.3 grams of protein, and as an added bonus, they are also low in calories while being high in fiber.
Like most foods that belong to the family of legumes, green peas are also good sources of plant-based protein. A cup of these peas contains about 7.9 grams of protein, which is about the same as a cup of milk. If you find it hard to eat these in their traditional state, you can combine them with other ingredients, such as those for pesto sauce. I love having them as a side with a big sunday roast dinner and covering them in mint and vegan butter (very naughty).
All types of nuts, aside from being some of the top vegetarian & vegans sources of protein, are also good sources of healthy fats. This is the main reason why they are always included in a plant based diet. One thing you need to keep in mind, though, is that whilst these are totally delicious, nuts contain quite the number of calories, particularly pistachios, almonds, and cashews. it is important for you to go for either the dry roasted or the raw ones. Peanut butters and almond butters are also good protein sources, however be careful because there are loads of brands that incorporate too much sugar or hydrogenated oils.
Don't worry too much about how you pronounce this one (it's 'keen-wa') Quinoa is a type of seed that many people regard as a kind of grain. This very unique food contains protein amounting to more than 8 grams/cup. Aside from being an excellent source of grain-based protein, it also has all the nine essential amino acids that your body needs to grow and repair itself. Its versatility is also quite amazing; you can add it to veggie chilis and soups, eat it with fruit and brown sugar for breakfast, or incorporate it into salads. We love adding it to our porridge in the morning and sprinkling cinnamon on top!
Some of the highest vegetarian & vegan sources of protein are those that come from soybeans. Tofu and Tempeh are two of the best examples. Tofu contains 40 grams per cup, while Tempeh has 30 per cup. In addition to being impressively nutritious, these two have qualities that allow it to take on not only the taste, but also the texture of any kind of food that one wants it to. There are tofus so soft that you can easily mash them with a fork (I like to use these to make cheesecake), and there are also firmer versions that can take on the qualities of meat. Our favourite is the fried firm tofu (you find this at Global foods in Bergen and A Foods in Oslo as well as some other specialist stores).
Are there more vegan sources of protein?
As we mentioned earlier, there is protein in most stuff. Here are some other nice sources of protein:
Lentils, seitan, bulgur, tahini, bean sprouts, pasta, sunflower seeds, avocados, chia, tempeh, vegan ice cream, hemp seeds, brown rice, veggie dogs, black eyed peas, green beans, spinach, broccoli, flax, veggie burgers, whole wheat bread, cereal, kale, edamame, califlower, pistachios, brussel sprouts, collard greens, coconuts, swiss chard.
...the list goes on and on.