Many people in the Western world have been brought up with the idea that you need to consume animal products (especially meat) to meet your daily needs for protein. Without doing so, you're liable to end up frail, weak, and unhealthy. However, in 2017, there is more than enough peer reviewed scientific evidence to know this is not the case.
We've put together this article order to help educate people on the truth of vegan protein sources, as well as protein itself. By understanding plant protein can be just as adequate, if not better, than animal based protein for staying healthy and building muscle, one can make informed choices about the food they consume and it's impact on the well-being of animals, the environment, and their own bodies.
Despite common misconceptions, balanced vegan diets that are adequate in daily calories will successfully fulfill protein requirements. Unless you eat nothing except chips, candy, etc, reaching daily protein requirements on a vegan diet is effortless.
Plant protein is just as adequate for building a strong, healthy body as animal protein – except plants don't come with all the harmful baggage such as saturated fat, cholesterol, and mammalian hormones. All whole foods contains protein, even vegetables. While the protein content of different foods vary, it is important to know that there are a larger variety of plant protein sources than meat. This wide selection means there are always delicious new options to try, and getting enough protein doesn't mean just force-feeding yourself lentils.
If this wasn't the case, there wouldn't be an increasing number of athletes of all disciplines going vegan.
Top athletes are increasingly turning to a vegan diet because plant foods not only contain adequate protein for them to train optimally, but also include various compounds and phytochemicals not found in animal sources. As a result, many of these athletes have actually reported an increase in performance at their given sports. Here’s a short list of vegan athletes that are worth checking out:
Vegan Strongman Patrik Baboumian Setting a World Record
This short list is by no means comprehensive, but is meant to show the range of disciplines one can excel in without needing to harm animals or the environment. If these athletes – whose health and strength are their most precious commodities – can go vegan, you can rest assured that the average person can achieve all their health and fitness goals with eating animals.
Proteins serve a bunch of important functions in the body, and are essential to life.
They are made up of amino acids, which are “building blocks” that can be stacked in different combinations to make different proteins. There are only 20 amino acids, and 11 of these are already produced by the human body. So in order to get all of the amino acids that your body needs to function, you just need to get the last 9 amino acids from external sources - hence why they are often referred to as "essential amino acids".
The Amino Acid Lysine
Despite what you may think, this is simple. Most vegans simply eat a range of plant foods and call it a day. But if you’re new to this, you might need to look more closely at what you’re eating so that you can rest assured that you're going to be getting everything you need.
We all need to get these 9 essential amino acids from our food. Luckily, all plant foods contain them.
The only question is: in what amounts? – one source may be high in lysine, for example, but low in methionine.
Meat is typically considered a source of high-quality protein because it contains all 9 essential amino acids in large amounts. Many plant foods, however, do not. Plant-based sources of protein are typically lower in one amino acid than others, which led to the assumption that they were “incomplete” sources of protein.
In turn, this led to the idea that you needed to carefully combine different protein sources to make sure that you were getting a complete source of each amino acid. In other words, if you ate something that was low in one amino acid, you should also eat something that was high in that amino acid to balance it out (source).
This methodology was time-consuming, boring, and required you to carefully plan your meals.
Fortunately, it isn’t true. The founder of this methodology has since withdrawn her support for it, saying it is much easier to get all the essential amino acids from plants than she had thought . The body is now known to stockpile amino acids, and can offset a deficiency of certain amino acids in a meal with its reserves.
The Truth Behind the Protein Combining Myth from NutritionFacts.org
In other words, this isn’t something to worry about. Don’t worry about the combining foods to make a perfect combination of each amino acid – focus instead on whole sources of protein, eating what tastes good and what makes you feel good.
But how much protein do we actually need?
The world has an obsession with protein – and the focus seems to be on how to get more, rather than how much we actually need.
The belief that we are all living with too little protein stems from studies in the 1930's of certain diseases, despite the fact that these findings have been debunked many times since then. There is also some evidence that bias studies funded by the meat and dairy industry have enabled the myth to continue.
In fact, the World Health Organization recommends less than you might think – 0.41g of protein per lb. of body weight. That’s a blanket recommendation for every adult, too, regardless of your sex, your age, or your size (so long as you’re within the healthy range).
If we look at it from a caloric point of view, roughly 10% of your calories should be coming from protein.
If you have athletic goals, or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re going to want to take in a little more than that. Just focus more closely on the high-protein foods listed in this article and you’ll find that you can easily reach all of your daily protein requirements . If you're eating a well balanced plant based diet that's more than just fruit or candy, you'll find that meeting these protein needs generally isn't something that even needs to be thought about.
We actually put together an entire article on Building Muscle on a Vegan Diet which you can find here.
To make sure you’re eating the right foods, especially in the beginning, it’s important to know what to look for. Here we've listed the most protein-heavy vegan foods that can be used in a variety of recipes and eaten as staple foods. Most of these are inexpensive, they are all easy to cook, and they can all lend themselves to different cuisines and styles of cooking. Check out the recipes linked, too – they’ll give you new ideas on how to jazz up old favorites.
The protein content is for the foods in their dried state taken directly from the USDA database.
The Benefits of Beans and Legumes go Far Beyond Protein
Beans are so incredibly versatile, and it’s easy to make so many dishes out of them. Some common favorites are burgers, chili, and curries – perfect to mix with anything, in any weather. This black bean burger recipe is a super quick, easy, and delicious way to experiment with making bean burgers for the first time.
As for chili, this is a thick, beautiful, vegetable-heavy chili that features two different types of beans and is super easy to make from Tasty.
Can't go wrong with a vegan chili. This one is from The Edgy Veg.
And this timed 5-minute chickpea curry shows that you don’t need a lot of time to create delicious, healthy, and flavorful food from The Happy Pear.
This delicious pea and mint dip is a quick and easy high protein snack by SugarSoil.
The protein content listed is for the grains in their dried state take directly from the USDA database.
This is what Buckwheat Looks Like!
Most grains are incredibly versatile, so it’s easy to use them in all sorts of things. Everyone knows that quinoa is ideal in salads, but check out this recipe it can also be used for delicious sweet breakfast bowls.
Vegan Quinoa Breakfast Bowls from Healthy Voyager TV
Likewise, we all know that oats are a sweet breakfast food, but one of my favorite ways to cook it is in savory form, like this:
Hearty Vegan Savory Oatmeal from Cooking with Plants
All protein content is for roasted, unsalted foods.
Unsalted and Raw / Lightly Toasted Nuts are Packed with Protein & Healthy Fats
Nuts and seeds can be used to make all sorts of delicious vegan cheese and sauces! The fats help with the absorption of vitamins when eating greens and veggies so you don't want to forego eating them. Check out some of these delicious things you can do:
No Salt, Sugar, or Oil Vegan Cheese from The WFPB Cooking Show
Vegan Caesar Salad Dressing from Cooking with Plants
If you're looking for the best tools to make creamy salad dressings (like the one above) and other creative foods from plants be sure to check out our best blender section.
Tofu with Sesame Seeds
Cooking tofu for the first time can be a bit tricky. Check out the video below to learn how to cook it properly:
How to Cook Tofu Right The Vegan Zombie
If you’d tried tofu and weren’t a fan, try to incorporate it into other recipes, such as this tofu mayonnaise:
Tofu Based Mayo from Cooking with Plants
And if you’ve never tried plain soy beans – often called edamame – give them a go in this spicy edamame and yu choy dish:
Spicy Edamame and Greens from Mary's Test Kitchen
Want to see some more awesome mock meat / soy photography? Check out this post from Vegan for all Seasons.
As you can see, there’s plenty of high-protein vegan foods to try, and plenty of ways to try them. Experiment – add things to your ordinary meals to get a burst of protein that will help carry you through the day. There’s plenty more information to be had about protein on a vegan diet, some of which we've listed below.
But why choose plant proteins?
There's obvious ethical and environmental reasons which we've covered in our Step by Step Guide to Going Vegan, but how about from a health perspective?
While we aren't going to cover that in depth in this article, here's just a few of the reasons (sources provided) why getting your protein from plants is far better for your health:
Cooking healthy, delicious, plant-based meals has been Joey's true passion since he went vegan in 2015. He has a masters in Nutrition and Food Science and is committed to making the internet a place of education and knowledge rather than misinformation and clickbait. He currently lives in Delaware with his wife.