Brenda de Groot
Health & Food Vegan

Facts on Vegan Protein

If there is one topic that vegans get continuously questioned about, it is protein. The emphatic and revolutionary decision to continue our lives plant-based typically gets rewarded with the most carefully considered question

But where do you get your protein?

You’d rather respond with a counter attack (“do you actually realise where your animal protein came from??”), but that is ruining the atmosphere and topic of another article. Luckily, most vegans are nice and empathic people (honestly!) and happily explain the whole vegan protein story each time again.

To fully answer the question where you as a vegan get your protein, you can talk about three things. And since everyone likes to read complete stories and not sluggishly gathered bits and pieces, this article answers all three questions around vegan protein:Illustration of a musclular monkey with biceps - Vegan Monky. Illustration by Brenda de Groot

  1. How much protein you need
  2. Which products contain plant-based i.e. vegan protein
  3. How you get all the essential amino acids / complete protein

1. How Much Protein Does your Body Require?

Actually, not that much. At least not as much as most people think and eat. Every human needs around 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Vegans need a little more because the protein synthesis is somewhat less effective with plant foods than with animal foods. Which comes down to about 1 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Endurance athletes need somewhat more: 1.2 – 1.4 grams per kg [1], and resistance athletes about 1.4 – 1.8 grams per kg of body weight. I calculated this amount pet category and took the highest amount of recommended protein (so 0.8, 1.4 and 1.8) just to be safe.

Daily requirement of protein that an average person, endurance athlete and resistance athlete needs, in grams. 


Normal 50 kg: 50 grams

Normal 60 kg: 60 grams

Normal 70 kg: 70 grams

Normal 80 kg: 80 grams

Normal 90 kg: 90 grams

Endurance 50 kg: 70 grams

Endurance 60 kg: 84 grams

Endurance 70 kg: 98 grams

Endurance 80 kg: 112 grams

Endurance 90 kg: 126 grams

Resistance 50 kg: 90 grams

Resistance 60 kg: 108 grams

Resistance 70 kg: 126 grams

Resistance 80 kg: 144 grams

Resistance 90 kg: 162 gram


Source: a variety of sources, among which this one and this one.

Also elderly people [2] and people who are recovering from an injury [3] need more protein: about as much as an endurance athlete. 

As a vegan, if you consume the recommended amount of calories per day, you automatically get enough protein [4]. You find protein not only in meat and dairy products: grains, vegetables and even fruit contain protein as well. A protein deficiency only arises when you eat too little calories in a day. Vegan athetes do not need to worry either when it comes to protein: if you exercise, you need more energy from your diet to maintain your muscle mass and keep your energy level in balance. Therefore you eat more, and thus you consume more protein as well. There are also excellent vegan protein powders you can get, that contain a complete amino acid profile, if you desire that supplement.

The More Protein the Better?

Illustratie van een aapje dat een broodje pindakaas met banaan eetThe amount of protein in the table about 10 to 15% of your daily calorie requirement. The remaining 85 – 90% exists of carbohydrates and fat. The percentage of protein sounds quite low, but truth is: the protein your body does not need for building tissue gets broken down and used as a source of energy or stored as fat. Contrary to what we learned from many diet bestsellers, more protein is not better for your body. To people who think that you either get fat or lose muscle mass on a plant-based diet, I happily refer to two famous vegans, Freelee and Derek Tresize (I really had to do an effort to get a decent, not-so-nude picture of both, but there are better images of them in which they wear far less clothes..).

It is true that protein keeps you longer satisfied than carbohydrates (though fibre in carbs do that too). However, it is strongly recommended to not get more than 30 – 35% of your daily calorie requirement from protein.

2. What are Good Vegan Protein Sources?

Animal products generally contain more protein per 100 grams than plant-based products. But since we just have read that we don’t need that much protein, it is not necessary to bulk on kilograms of chicken breast filet either. In this plant-based protein overview you find an extensive list of almost all plant-based products (vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts, seeds and meat replacements) and their protein content. My pleasure.

Below you find a table with the mean amount of protein per 100 grams of a certain plant-based food source. Of course there are outliers up and down, but those you can find in the list of plant-based protein (downloadable, so you can print it and stick it on your fridge).

Grams of protein per plant-based food source


 

Pulses

Grains (cooked)

Seeds

Nuts

Potatoes

Vegetables

Fruit

Per 100 grams

7 grams

7 grams

25 grams

15 grams

2 grams

2 grams

1 grams

Per 100 kcal

7 grams

4 grams

4 grams

3 grams

2,5 grams

3 – 17 grams

2 grams

Per portion*

14 grams

14 grams

7,5 grams

5 grams

4 grams

5 grams

2 grams


* Portion size: pulses and grains: 200 grams; nuts and seeds: 30 grams; vegetables: 250 grams; potatoes and fruit: 200 grams.

3. How do vegans get complete protein?

After you gave your conversation partner the answers above, most of them find themselves somewhere in between understanding interest and overt scepticism. But in some cases you get a counter reaction like this:

But vegan protein are not complete protein and animal protein are.

Some vegans have no clue where their bone-gnawing, yogurt-scooping discussion partner is talking about; others prepare for the umpteenth verbal Battle Of The Proteins. Both can bask themselves, knowing that all they have to do is handing over their smartphones and let the other read this article.

Essential Amino Acids

If someone talks about ‘complete protein’, he means that a certain product contains enough of all nine essential amino acids that are needed to build a protein molecule. Your body glues together all amino acids itself, so all you have to do is to eat them. Nine (some say eight) of the 21 amino acids are not produced by your own body and therefore you need to get them through your diet. These nine amino acids are called ‘essential amino acids’. If you’d like to know, the nine essential amino acids are fenylalanine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Amino acids are the building blocks of peptides, and peptides in their turn build protein. To build a protein, your body needs all essential amino acids. So when someone tells you that vegan food lacks complete protein, that person means that in a random plant-based product, at least one of the nine essential amino acids is lacking (whether that is true or not you read below). In case you’d like to know, here you can find how many of each amino acid your body needs.

Food Combining

Illustratie bonen en rijst voor complete plantaardige proteïnenAlmost all plant-based products contain all nine essential amino acids. Even fruit. What is true however, is that plant-based food sources differ among each other in the proportion of the individual amino acids. Pulses, for example, contain relatively little methionine and a lot of lysine, while grains, seeds, pits and nuts contain little lysine and a lot of methionine. By making food combinations, such as a dish that includes both grains and pulses, you neatly supplement the missing amino acids [5].

Your body can’t store amino acids for a very long time like it can with fats, protein and carbohydrates. The commonly accepted time frame to combine amino acids is roughly one day. But chances are small the only thing you eat in a day are cans of peas or packets of white rice. The fact that the great majority of vegans daily consumes grains, vegetables, pulses, nuts and/or seeds, makes that the complete amino acid profile automatically gets build. If you eat enough, varied and healthy, you naturally get all your essential amino acids in the right proportion (also read this article, if you want to learn more about this).

More over, there are plant-based products that do contain all essential amino acids and therefore are a source of complete protein. So with these, you actually already debunked the statement that ‘vegan protein is not complete protein’.

  • Complete Vegan Protein sources:
    Soy beans, lupine, chickpeas, kidney beans, black (eyed) beans, quinoa, potatoes, pistachios, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seed, buckwheat, amaranth and spirulina.

Illustration of a bowl of rice and beans for complete vegan proteinAre Animal Protein Better than Vegan Protein?

No. Animal protein is not superior to plant-based protein [5]. In a study comparing resistance athletes on an eight-week diet supplemented with either protein powder from brown rice, or an equal amount of whey protein powder, there were no significant differences found in strength, performance, muscle thickness, lean body mass or body fat between the two groups [6].

Moreover, a dish with a combination of pulses, grains, vegetables, seeds and nuts does not only provides you complete protein, but also vitamins, minerals, fibre and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A pot of artificially sweetened Greek yoghurt or marinated spare ribs cannot compete to this, health wise.

It is true that animal protein get absorbed a tiny bit better than plant-based protein. But at the same time, animal protein often come in a package of toxins and bad cholesterol [5]. Something you don’t want your body to absorb at all.

Conclusion

Vegans do not have to worry that they won’t get enough protein. Whether that be essential amino acids or complete protein. If you eat enough, healthy and varied, you automatically gain more than enough protein from plant-based food [4]. But of course you can play safe and prepare dishes that already have complete protein in them. You can use plant-based products that have the full amino acid profile (see the list some paragraphs above), or make the right food combinations with products that compliment each others amino acid profile. For example, combine pulses with grains, seeds or nuts. Adding vegetables to your dish is always a good idea and ups the amount of protein (and taste, vitamines and antioxidants) in a dish. So vegan and protein? Easy peasy.

I made some recipes that are high in vegan protein. 🙂 You may want to check them out:

Photo credits: Puck Kroon

This post is also available in NL

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