Updated: Jun 28, 2019
Well, the secret is out! There are no sources of protein on a vegan diet. I am writing this to you from beyond the grave! Just kidding – Jonny thought I shouldn’t make that joke as it comes across as sarcastic, but I couldn’t think of a better opening so I hope you don’t mind!
Seriously though, as vegans we get asked this question a LOT. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me when people ask this as they are usually genuinely curious. I know before I went vegan I asked this question and, frankly, when I decided to go vegan I assumed my health might take a bit of a hit (I did it for ethical reasons). Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I felt great and noticed some definite benefits very quickly - it helped with my energy levels and all of the aches and pains associated with working 80-hour weeks (I’m a lawyer – but please don’t judge me on that! If you’ll pardon the pun…), and that’s before I really concentrated on my fitness.
I want to ask you a question before I answer the above – what do you think protein is and how do you think you get your protein?
Proteins in particular build, repair and strengthen tissues within our bodies. In short, they are essential for the proper functioning of our cell and our bodies. Proteins are macronutrients made up of amino acids. There are around 20 amino acids that the body can arrange in many different ways to perform different functions. 11 of these amino acids can be naturally synthesised by our bodies, but 9 of them (the “essential” amino acids) we can only get through our diet. Some plant foods contain all 9 essential amino acids (such as quinoa, soy, chia and buckwheat), whereas others have some, but not all. As long as you are eating a variety of whole, plant based foods, this is not something you need to be overly concerned about.
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that amino acids originate from plants. Let me repeat that, amino acids originate from plants. Not from animal products. The amino acids, and therefore protein, that omnivores get from eating animal products is essentially recycled through the animal or animal product that they are eating. They are only getting the protein because the animals have eaten plants.
Humans need about .8 grams of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight each day (i.e. calculate your protein intake for someone of your height with a healthy body weight). Now, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and some people’s requirements will be different (pregnant women, bodybuilders, children etc), but in general this is what humans need. I weigh about 67kg, which means that optimally I need about 53 grams of protein per day. I easily get that through a combination of whole grains, legumes, beans, pulses and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
It is extremely difficult to be deficient in protein if you are eating adequate calories. Think about it – there are entire wards of hospitals dedicated to heart disease, strokes, cancer, etc. (diseases that we know are, in many cases, linked to animal products in the diet), but when was the last time you heard of someone who was eating adequate calories being protein deficient? It is not necessary to eat animal products to get protein. And protein from plants comes without the nasty side effects of saturated fats and hormones that protein from animal products comes from. Instead, protein from plants often comes with the added bonuses of fibre, antioxidants and multiple beneficial micro-nutrients.
If you would like to boost your protein intake, there are a number of excellent sources of vegan protein to choose from, including:
· Hemp seeds (31g protein per 100g);
· Seitan (25g protein per 100g);
· Tempeh (19g protein per 100g);
· Chickpeas (19g protein per 100g);
· Walnuts (15g protein per 100g);
· Soy chunks (13.8g protein per 100g);
· Black beans (9.2g protein per 100g);
· Tofu (8g protein per 100g); and
· Peas (5g protein per 100g).
If you are worried about athletic performance, you really don’t need to. Now, I’m no athlete, but I have found since becoming vegan, and particularly since adopting a largely whole food plant based diet, that I don’t take as long to recover from my workouts, I have more energy, and I have been able to build muscle much more effectively. There a many, many professional athletes who thrive on a plant based diet, including vegan bodybuilders (such as Robert Cheeke and Nimai Delgado) and ultra-endurance athletes (such as Rich Roll and Fiona Oakes). If they get enough protein on a plant based diet then you certainly will!
If you still need convincing – think about the largest and the strongest land animals on the planet. Elephants, bison, rhinoceroses etc. They are all herbivores. I bet you won’t be rushing to ask them where they get their protein!