Vegan protein sources can be confusing – how much do we need? What goes with what? Marie Pan talked to the experts and compiled a useful at-a-glance list
Veganism has seen its popularity surge over the past few years, and it is estimated that 3.5 million British people now identify as being vegan. There are many reasons for converting to a plant-based diet.
For some people, veganism is better for the environment, which comes as no surprise, as a new report has found that the meat and dairy industries are on track to become the world’s biggest contributors to climate change. For others, eliminating their consumption of animals and animal products seems more beneficial to their health.
Athletes such as Venus Williams and Lewis Hamilton both follow a plant-based diet, so there’s no reason why a vegan diet should be lacking in protein
However, a common question (besides ‘But…cheese?!’) vegans may face is, ‘Where do you get your protein?’.
Indeed, a newly-converted vegan is no doubt going to spend time – at least at the outset of their journey – researching how much protein they need and what the best vegan protein sources are.
Renowed athletes such as Venus Williams and Lewis Hamilton both follow a plant-based diet, so there’s no reason why a vegan diet should be lacking in protein. But why is protein such a big deal anyway, you ask?
What’s all the fuss about protein anyway?
‘Protein is essential for the growth and development of every cell in the body – helping to maintain healthy hair, nails, bones and skin,’ says Rob Hobson, nutritionist and co-author of The Detox Kitchen Bible. ‘It promotes brain development and the production of hormones such as insulin which helps to regulate blood sugar.’
Nutritionist May Simpkin explains why protein is such a fundamental part of a healthy diet. ‘Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood’. Basically, without enough protein, your body’s very substance, its shape and form wouldn’t be healthy.
‘You use protein to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals,’ continues Simpkin. ‘If we don’t eat protein every day, our bodies will not be able to make these components as efficiently and therefore function well. As a result, your health will be compromised.’
Simpkin also notes that clinical studies consistently showed that high-protein diets increase the satisfaction you feel after eating and can therefore help manage hunger and encourage weight loss.
How much protein should you eat everyday?
‘The minimum amount of protein recommended in the diet is set at 45g per day for the average sedentary woman and 55g for the average sedentary man,’ explains Hobson.
If you’d like to calculate your personal needs more specifically, you need around 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight. For those who like to count their calories, you should aim to get between 10 and 15 percent of your daily calories from protein.
Of course, if you work out regularly or are generally quite an active person, you may need more protein. During exercise, your body burns protein and amino acids so the minimum recommended amount of protein may not be enough to effectively promote muscle growth and repair.
How does protein affect workout performance?
‘Eating good protein, alongside complex carbohydrates before a workout will help to slow down the release of sugars,’ says Simpkin. ‘In this way, your body will sustain energy levels throughout the workout.’
A simple protein shake can help fuel your workout – check out Healthista’s Vegan Protein Powder, which comes in three delicious flavours and comes in at 14 grams of protein and less than 100 calories a serve.
Another good pre-workout high protein snack is peanut butter on a slice of wholegrain bread, topped with banana slices, suggests Simpkin.
Eating good protein, alongside complex carbohydrates before a workout will help slow down the release of sugars
Now that you know the important role which protein plays in the diet, you’re probably wondering ‘But what foods should I get my protein from, as a vegan?’.
Here’s a list below of the best protein sources, with indications on how many grams of protein is in each specified serving.
‘Soya products are among the richest sources of protein in a plant-based diet,’ says Simpkin. Soy protein also contains nutrients, vitamins and fibre – just make sure you don’t eat too many processed soya products as they can be high in salt or sugar (in order words, read the label).
Soya milk is a great alternative to dairy milk and helps boost your calcium and iron. In every 250ml of soy milk, there’s 8g of protein. It’s also lower in calories, compared to whole milk – 100ml of soy milk contains 54 calories. Other dairy-free milks include almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk and rice milk (there’s 1g protein in 250ml almond milk, 0.75g protein in 250ml oat milk, 0.25g protein in 250ml of both coconut and rice milks).
Tofu is a soya product made by curdling hot soymilk with coagulant that’s a staple food in countries such as China and Japan. It contains 12g of protein in an 80g serving. As well as being a high-quality protein source, it contains all the essential amino acids and is rich in B vitamins and low in sodium.
On its own, tofu has quite a mild – some would say downright bland – flavour. That’s because tofu is packed with water, so you need to press out the water in order to let it absorb spices and seasonings to create delicious flavours. Marinating tofu will help give it lots of great flavour.
The longer you leave tofu to marinate, the better. The ideal marinating period ranges from a few hours to overnight. However, if you only have thirty minutes, that’s better than nothing. Try this Asian-style marinade (for 350g tofu):
- 4 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp agave syrup
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced or grated
- a little bit of grated ginger
Soya yoghurt is the perfect sweet snack and contains 6g of protein in every 150g. Due to its good mineral content, soya yoghurt helps strengthen bones. Other health benefits include lowering blood pressure to protect heart health and promoting antioxidant activity to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. You can find soya yoghurts in many flavours but if you opt for plain soya yoghurt, you can add your own jam or berry compote.
Edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans – and absolutely delicious. Edamame is a complete source of dietary protein and is high in healthy polyunsaturated fats. 100g of edamame beans contain 12g of protein and are traditionally prepared with a pinch of salt. They can also be added to salads, soups or rice or noodle dishes. Try buying them frozen from Tesco, boil season and eat.
Grains are a great source of protein and act as a good base for any meal.
Ever wondered why quinoa has taken the health food world by storm? Not only is it high in protein (10.9g of protein in 180g cooked quinoa), it is gluten-free and contains all the essential amino acids.
Quinoa also has high levels of fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium and calcium. There is a much greater amount of fibre in quinoa than most grains, which can work to reduce blood cholesterol and regulate bowel movements.
Whole-grain pasta is a good source of protein (7.5g of protein in 180g cooked pasta) and complex carbs. Compared to simple carbs, complex carbs are digested at a slow pace, giving you lasting energy levels. Whole-grain pasta contains good amounts of minerals such as phosphorus, manganese and magnesium. Phosphorus helps with energy production and eases muscle soreness after workouts. Manganese aids the production of sex hormones, while magnesium regulates blood sugar levels and helps strengthen bones.
Cous cous is a staple dish originating from North Africa and contains 6g of protein in 70g. One of its key nutrients is selenium, an antioxidant that boosts immunity and decreases inflammation. It’s fast to cook (add it to boiling water and let it steam for only five minutes) and can be loaded up with roasted vegetables to form a filling meal. Cous cous can also aid in weight loss as it is relatively low in calories – a cup of cooked cous cous contains 174 calories.
For those who love their porridge in the morning, you’ll be glad to know that there is a good amount of protein in your oats (5g of protein in 50g oats). Oats are also rich in fibre, which helps with digestion and lowering cholesterol levels. On top of that, whole oats are loaded with antioxidants including avenanthramides, which may help lower blood pressure levels. If you want to load your porridge up with even more protein, try adding toppings such as nut butters and seeds.
Brown rice is another grain that is a good source of protein (4.7g protein in 180g cooked rice). However, it is also helpful for those who suffer from insomnia, as it is a natural source of melatonin, a sleep hormone. Brown rice is rich in fibre and antioxidants, which help prevent colon cancer, breast cancer and leukemia.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a handy go-to snack, which can help you curb those afternoon cravings. Despite being high in fat and calories, they make up an important part of a healthy diet.
Loaded with protein, fibre and healthy fats, all nuts have different nutritional and health benefits. Almonds are packed with calcium for example, which helps strengthen bones, so they’re a good alternative to dairy.
Pistachios contain a high level of vitamin B6 which helps the body produce hormones, such as serotonin which regulates mood and norepinephrine which helps your body deal with stress.
Research shows that both cashew nuts and peanuts help with heart health and can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Despite being high in calorie content, nuts are loaded with protein, fibre and healthy fats.
Seeds are not only packed with protein, they’re also great sources of fibre too. Flaxseeds (also known as linseeds) have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, as well as helping to reduce blood sugar levels. Don’t know what to do with flaxseeds? Sprinkle some on top of your cereal bowl or blend them in your smoothie. It helps if you soak them overnight to help release the natural nutrients in them. Try Healthista’s ‘Glow Food’ nutrient powder (£18.95 from Healthista shop).
Like flaxseeds, chia seeds may also help reduce blood sugar and risk of heart disease and they too are best soaked in little water before eating.
A study has shown that the consumption of chia seeds can lead to an increase of ALA in the blood. ALA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that can help reduce inflammation. Try our chia pudding recipe with passionfruit and almond butter.
Pumpkin seeds contain a combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, antioxidants and fibre – which is great for both the heart and liver.
If you think you may have a magnesium deficiency, try eating sunflower seeds as they are packed with this mineral – a quarter cup serving of sunflower seeds provides more than 25 per cent of the recommended daily value of magnesium. Magnesium helps with muscle function, heart health and can be a mood booster.
Other Protein Sources
Low in calories and high in protein, lentils are the perfect legume to add to salads in the summer. They are rich in soluble fibre, which lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease.
As well as being a great source of protein, chickpeas are good for weight loss. The high protein and fibre content means that chickpeas can help make you feel full and curb food cravings.
Seitan has become a popular meat substitute and contains a high amount of protein. It is made from wheat gluten and is completely free of soy. Not the prettiest thing to look at (its look has been likened to snakeskin!) seitan is quite dense and absorbs flavours well, mimicking the taste and texture of meat.
Healthista’s Lean Vegan Diet Protein powder contains 13.8g protein per 25g serving. Not only is it rich in protein, it has been found to help curb your appetite and therefore encourage weight loss. It’s also low in calories (90 calories per serving) and comes in three flavours (vanilla, chocolate and berry), making it a perfect pre- or post-workout shake.
Spirulina is an algae powder and a superfood that’s taking the health world by a storm. If you’ve wondered how Instagrammers give their smoothie bowls that pretty blue hue, it’s because of spirulina. Dried spirulina contains between 60 and 70 percent protein and is great for boosting immunity, warding off allergies and reducing fatigue. Try Kiki Organic Spirulina (£24.95 from Healthista Shop).