Being vegan is often a compassionate (moral), ecological and philosophical choice - the beliefs at the heart of being vegan are typically that it’s inhumane to breed animals for human consumption and that it’s also bad for the environment.
For many vegans these concerns override any question of whether being vegan is good for your health or not, but is it possible to have a balanced diet with sufficient protein as a vegan?
In a nutshell
We all know that eating more plants is good for you, but cutting out large food groups like meat and dairy from the diet can leave a big gap in daily nutrient intake, primarily protein. Plants are capable of filling that void however, because they offer such a huge range of nutrients, as long as informed choices are made about what you do and don’t eat.
The key to getting enough protein as a vegan, as well as other nutrients (like calcium and healthy fats) is to know which plant foods to eat and how much of them you need to consume on a daily basis.
Why is protein so important?
Protein is a nutrient that is essential to life and health. Proteins play fundamental and structural roles in every cell of our bodies and are essential to growth, repair and maintenance of good health. They are made up of amino acids that are combined in a huge variety of ways to create chains that have specific qualities.
All of the following are composed of proteins -
Enzymes – an enzyme is a catalyst, a molecule that speeds up or enables essential biochemical reactions. We need enzymes to digest our food for example.
Antibodies – antibodies are produced by the immune system to fight infections and remove foreign substances.
DNA – DNA is purely made from combinations of amino acids - proteins
Muscle – our muscles are able to move because of specific contractile proteins.
Structure – connective tissues are made of protein and provide support to our organs, muscles and bones.
Hormones – hormones are made of proteins and they co-ordinate our bodily functions - insulin and growth hormone for example.
Where do we get protein from?
Protein is a component of all animal and plant cells and so whether you eat plants or meat you are consuming protein. Microorganisms and plants can biosynthesize all of the 21 amino acids but humans can’t - there are 9 amino acids that our bodies are not able to synthesize and they are called essential amino acids; these we need to get from food.
Animal protein always contains all 21 amino acids whereas most plants do not. This has led to the idea that meat protein is superior for nutrition purposes, and it is true that weight for weight meat provides more protein.
However we now know so much more about protein metabolism and we know that we can get all the protein we require from a vegan diet. In order for a vegan diet to contain all 21 amino acids, however, it needs to be composed of a variety of plants, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains.
Proteins are the hardest macromolecules for the body to metabolise. They require a sufficient level of stomach acid and the enzyme pepsin in order to prize apart the proteins and break them into smaller chains of amino acids. This is why protein dense meals keep you satisfied for longer, because they take longer to digest.
Protein continues to be broken down further as it travels through the small intestine and eventually reaches the protein absorption sites where the amino acids are transported out of the digestive tract and into the blood.
The blood contains a pool of amino acids, some of which are from food and some of which are from the body’s own recycling of proteins from dead cells. Every day 250 grams of the protein in your body is dismantled and 250 grams of new proteins are built.
It is vital to your health that you consume a sufficient level of all 21 amino acids every day (but especially the essential ones) in order to service your body’s protein needs.
How much protein do we need each day?
There are so many conflicting views about protein in terms of how much is good for us, and how much is bad for us. Our protein needs will vary depending on age, gender and demands such as exercising and recovering from injury and illness. According to the British Nutrition Foundation our general daily protein needs are as follows:
Men - 56 grams of protein.
Women - 45 grams of protein (71 grams if pregnant or breastfeeding)
Children (7 - 14) - about 40 grams
Kids (4 - 6) - roughly 23 grams
Toddlers - about 17 grams per day
How much protein can we get from plants?
Below is a list of the most protein-rich plant foods showing the amount of protein content per portion in each category. When your daily diet is composed of many different plant foods eaten throughout the day your protein requirements are easily achieved. You are also ensuring that your diet is rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and a myriad of phytonutrients.
Of the pulses - in a portion of 200gms:
Soya beans have the largest amount of protein at 34 grams, however soya can be problematic health wise (see later).
Edamame beans contain 22gms
Lentils contain 20gms of protein
Of the grains - in a portion of 70gms dry (200gms cooked):
Quinoa contain 12.2gms of protein
Amaranth = 10.5gms
Oats = 9.8gms
Of the vegetables - in a portion of 250gms raw:
Beansprouts contain 17.5gms of protein
Kale = 10.75gms
Brussel sprouts = 9.5gms
Broccoli = 8.25gms
Of the seeds - in a portion of 20gms:
Hemp contains 7.4 gms of protein
Sunflower seeds = 5.4 gms
Pumpkin seeds = 4.9gms.
Of the nuts - in a portion of 30gms
Almonds contain 5.75 gms of protein
Peanuts = 7.8 gms
Pistachios = 5.8 gms
Here is a link to a great chart with all the protein amounts
TAKEAWAY - If you have porridge for breakfast (containing about 10gms of protein), followed by a big salad for lunch with seeds and sprouted beans (about 25gms protein), a snack of hummous and crudites (15gms protein) and a dinner of lentil bake (20gms protein) then you’ve hit a whopping 70gms of protein! Well over the recommended daily protein amount.
What about Vegan “meat”?
The vegan market has grown so much that supermarket chains now offer a large range of vegan foods; you can get vegan “pulled pork”, vegan bacon and even vegan chicken nuggets.
They offer all the convenience of the original meat based dishes and they make going vegan a much easier task. However, do they offer a nutritional advantage or are they potentially damaging to health?
Soya beans offer a whopping 34gms of protein per 200gm portion, the highest level of protein in any plant based food and they contain all of the required amino acids including the essential ones - it has been heralded as an amazing health food. However there are problems with soya:
GM crops - Soy crops from America have often been genetically modified and they can be highly contaminated with pesticides, especially glyphosate. There are many conflicting opinions on glyphosate and whether it is a danger to our health.
FURTHER READING: A renowned MIT scientist Dr Stephanie Seneff who is a great resource for research, offers information on glyphosate.
Textured Vegetable Protein – this is made from soy and used to create vegan sausages, vegan burgers, vegan nuggets and others. The processing of soy to create TVP uses hexane to separate the fat from the protein, which is a solvent and a by-product of the gasoline industry.
Once the fat is removed, the remaining soy flour is mixed with water to form a dough which is cut into the desired shapes – granules, chunks or flakes – and then oven dried. The resulting TVP may be contaminated with hexane which is a registered air pollutant and neurotoxin and when consumed in high amounts or consistently over a long period of time may cause neurological problems.
Casein – nearly every soy cheese product available contains casein, which is a milk protein. This makes soy cheese a non-vegan product and casein is linked to many health issues.
Quorn is a meat substitute, a mycoprotein, made from a fermented fungus called Fusarium Venenatum (‘Venenatum’ is Latin for venom!). This fungus, which has never before been used as a human food, was launched in 1985 by one Britain’s the largest chemical companies. It also has potential health impacts:
Allergies - The Centre for Science in the Public Interest have researched quorn and found that mycoprotein is more likely to cause adverse reactions than other common allergens like shellfish, milk and peanuts. The CSPI has collected more than 2000 reports of adverse reactions like nausea, cramps, diarrhea, forceful vomiting and anaphylactic reactions.
Seitan is a traditional food from China, Japan and South Asia. It is made from wheat flour, in a process that separates the gluten (the wheat protein) from the starch, making seitan pure gluten. It contains a lot of protein but lacks lysine, an essential amino acid and so is not comparable to meat or soya. There could be several reasons why you should not be eating this much concentrated gluten, despite its high protein values:
Contamination - wheat is intensively farmed and will likely be contaminated by glyphosate unless you make sure it is organic.
Digestive issues – the gluten protein has very strong elastic glutinous properties which can cause our digestion problems when eaten in quantities. It is capable of “gluing” itself to other molecules making them harder to digest, meaning our digestive tract is unable to absorb some vital nutrients.
The undigested gluten protein can then trigger the immune cells in the digestive tract to react. This causes damage to the intestines themselves and over time can erode our ability to absorb nutrients.
Coeliac disease – this is a genetically predisposed condition of the immune system that means consuming gluten will trigger your immune system to attack the villi in the digestive tract causing permanent damage. This can lead to the development of other autoimmune disorders. If you are a coeliac you must avoid gluten at all costs. Here is a link to more info on coeliac disease.
Gluten allergy – this is a histamine reaction to gluten causing symptoms such as coughing, nasal congestion, sneezing, tightness of throat, asthma, tingling, itching, tongue and/or throat swelling, a metallic taste in your mouth, abdominal pain, muscle spasms, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Gluten intolerance – some of us are gluten intolerant which is related primarily to a digestive reaction to gluten. Typical gluten intolerance symptoms include bloating, belly pain, diarrhoea, tiredness and a general feeling of being unwell. Other symptoms often experienced concurrently with digestive issues are joint or muscle pain, anxiety, headache, nausea, confusion and numbness.
Gluten sensitivity – this is also known as non-genetic gluten sensitivity. Typical symptoms are nausea, skin irritation, bloating, gas, brain fog and fatigue.
As we have seen, you don’t need to eat the processed and potentially damaging vegan meat substitutes in order to get your daily protein needs as a vegan - a healthy diet nearly always means eating plenty of plants and avoiding processed foods.
What a healthy vegan diet can lack is the convenience that both meat and vegan meat products can offer; our lives are so busy and often pressured for time that convenience is an important issue. If you are planning on going vegan or you are a vegan wanting to make sure your diet provides you with all the nutrients you need I recommend you take your time to plan your diet.
With a bit of thought & research you can ensure that your vegan diet is a balanced and healthy one!
Do you have any vegan tips to share or any health questions about going vegan? Please let me know in the comments below.