‘If you’re vegan where do you get your protein?”
More often then than not it’s the first thing people want to know when they find out I don’t eat animal products. In my experience, people seem genuinely concerned when asking where vegans get their protein from, which highlights how misinformed about protein the average person has become these days. So I thought it would be a good idea to clear a few things up.
How much protein do we actually need?
The amount of protein we need to obtain through diet is much less than we think. In the UK, adults are advised to eat about 0.75kg of protein for each kilogram of body weight. Which means if you’re an average male weighing in at 75kg, you should eat 56g of protein a day.
On average, men should eat 55g and women 45g of protein daily.
If you’re regularly taking part in light, moderate or strenuous exercise than you should be eating anywhere between 1.0 – 1.8g of protein per kg of body weight each day day according to the studies cited at the bottom of this post.
Also it’s worth noting that according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, men and women in the UK eat about 45-55% more protein than they need each day.
So take myself as a case study. I currently weigh 67kg and do about 8-10 hours strenuous exercise a week. Lets be generous and say I need 1.3g of protein per per kg per day, that means I need to eat about 87g of protein per day. Considering I’ve placed myself well into the ‘athlete’ category for protein intake, that really isn’t as much as you might expect.
This is a snapshot of an average day of eating for me taken from my Chronometer account. The first image shows what I ate that day and the second shows how much protein those foods provided me.
As you can see, just by eating mainly whole plant-based foods I am well exceeding my protein requirements including all the essential amino acids (more on that later).
Where do vegans get their protein?
I want to say this first of all. After eating vegan for 6 months and tracking my food intake on Chronometer I’ve come to realise that I get protein from most of the food I eat and I don’t really have to think about it. I don’t want to completely trivialise the subject because protein is vital for our bodies, but my point is that its much better practice to be conscious of the whole package of what you are eating over the course of a day, week or month rather than reducing your thinking down to individual food types.
Eat a diet full of whole plant-based foods and you will get enough protein I promise you.
Having said that, here are some specific whole plant-based foods that are rich in protein, amongst many other vital nutrients:
- Pulses such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and soya products like tofu.
- Wholegrains such asrice, quinoa, millet, wheat, bulghur, couscous, oats, barley, buckwheat, pasta, bread.
- Nuts such as cashews, brazils, hazels, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, almonds, peanuts etc
- Seeds: hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, flax, sesame etc
- Also most vegetables you are going to eat contain some protein too so as you can see once you are eating a varied and balanced vegan diet you will be getting protein from many many sources.
But isn’t plant protein incomplete?
You may have read that plant proteins are ‘incomplete’ proteins because they often do not contain ‘adequate amounts’ of the 9 essential amino acids that our body requires through diet. However in reality all plant-proteins contain all the essential amino acids (just in varying amounts) and all essential amino acids originate from plants, not meat.
It is true that certain plant proteins have relatively low amounts of certain amino acids, which is why vegans have been told for years to carefully combine protein sources at each meal to ensure we don’t become protein deficient. For example, advice such as always to mix rice with beans or hummus with bread (do this one anyway!). This is simply not true and has been debunked by several research papers over the last few decades (links below). In reality, as long as you are eating enough calories from whole plant based foods, your body will be able to obtain and process all the essential amino it needs.
The problem with animal protein
Animal protein has been linked to several chronic diseases including cancer and diabetes. When we ingest animal protein our bodies produce increased levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 stimulates cell division and growth in both healthy and cancer cells and has been consistently associated with increased cancer risk.
Animal protein has also been linked to inflammation of the lining of our blood vessels through the production of a substance called TMAO. This can lead to serious cardiovascular health problems.
Are you familiar with Dr T. Colin Campbell’s studies showing that casein (the main protein in milk) can be used to “turn off and on cancer”?
There are several over studies that highlight the detrimental effects that animal protein has on our body which are beyond the scope of this post but I will write about in more detail at a later date. The point I am trying to raise here is that not only is it easy to meet your protein needs as a vegan, but also that plant based protein is now widely considered as the optimal ‘protein package’ for human health.
Expert sources and further reading
Dietary Protein and Human Health – Departments of Animal Science and Medical Physiology and Faculty of Nutrition, Texas A&M University,
Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. – Department of Kinesiology, Exercise Metabolism Research Group, McMaster University
A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans – B Personal Pty Ltd
When Friends Ask: Where Do You Get Your Protein? – Dr John McDougall M.D
Essentials of Healthy Eating: A Guide – Patrick J. Skerrett, MA1 and Walter C. Willett, MD, DrPH2
A Brief History of Protein: Passion, Social Bigotry, Rats, and Enlightenment – Dr John McDougall M.D
Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids? – Applied Physiology Research Laboratory, Kent State University
The Protein Combining Myth – Dr Michael Greger M.D. FACLM
7 Ways Animal Protein is Damaging Your Health – Sofia Pineda Ochoa, MD
Plant Protein Preferable – Dr Michael Greger M.D. FACLM
The protein myth: why high-protein diets are utterly pointless – Professor Tom Sanders
Why is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes? – Dr Michael Greger M.D. FACLM
12 vegan athletes smashing it on a meat-free diet – Metro.co.uk
The vegan athletes who show you don’t need meat to be fit – Independent.co.uk