Do vegans really have trouble meeting their protein requirements?
Here’s the truth about veganism and protein.
There is a common misconception that vegan diets lack in protein. Conventional opinion is that animal-based products are the main source of available protein. The idea that a diet without meat will create a weak and malnourished body is, frankly, untrue.
Plenty of plant-based foods contain amino acids, the building blocks for protein. The most common plant proteins are found in seeds (beans, grains and nuts); flowering bodies (broccoli, cauliflower); and many leafy greens (spinach, bok choy, kale and more). Protein production in the body is based on the amino acid profiles these foods contain.
It may be true that a vegan diet will benefit from protein supplements. We will explore the human body’s requirements for protein in more detail, as well as how we can achieve healthy levels of protein.
Is protein deficiency a common issue for vegans?
“Vegans eating varied diets containing vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein as long as their diet contains enough energy (calories) to maintain weight.” Mangels, PhD, RD
While it is possible for vegan diets to lack some essential amino acids (EAAs), it is uncommon. Variety is the most important factor to maintaining protein levels in the diet. If you only eat potato chips (technically a vegan diet), you will probably become protein deficient.
While protein deficiencies aren't unique to vegans, meat and eggs have all the EAAs, also known as ‘complete’ proteins. Most plant foods need to be eaten in combinations to achieve the same result.
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids altogether, including 9 EEAs, which the body requires to grow and to repair damage.
We commonly think of protein going straight to the muscles, but protein is actually found within every cell. Protein is utlised in the construction of tissue and bones, hormones and enzyme creation, as well as in the production of blood.
“Proteins are major nutritional components, providing both non-essential and essential amino acids. The latter, by definition cannot be synthetized by the body in humans, who therefore depend on nutrition for their provision.” Tessari, Lante, Mosca 2016
Without all 20 amino acids available, proteins will not form. Amino acids are the links in the chain which form a greater strand of protein.
What’s the difference between plant and animal proteins?
The difference between animal and plant based proteins is the concentration of the EAAs. Most plant-based foods contain some of the EAAs, while animal-based foods contain them all.
In order to get enough protein, somebody following a vegan diet would therefore need to consume combinations of complementary ingredients. Variety is key.
Our bodies cannot store protein. We must consume it in our diets on a daily basis to provide the ingredients for growth and body function.
A list of the essential amino acids can be found here.
What could you eat on a vegan diet to meet your protein requirements?
Many plant foods contain generous levels of protein:
- Beans & peas (legumes)
- Brown rice
- Nuts (particularly almonds)
- Many seeds
- Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, silverbeet, bok choy, and kale
- Broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower (crowd favourites? Yes? No?)
For a full list including weights, click here.
As previously mentioned, variety is the key to unlocking the power of plant protein. First we can identify the magical bunch which are complete proteins:
Soy beans & most soy products (tofu, tempeh, milk)
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
Next are the combinations which can be eaten to provide the full array of the EAAs:
Most grains and legumes, e,g:
- Brown rice & beans
- Whole wheat & peas
- Barley & lentils
Nuts + legumes, e.g:
Is there any advantage to eating plant-based proteins over animal proteins?
“Because foods contain a lot more than protein, it’s important to pay attention to what else is coming with it.” Harvard School of Public Health
The biggest advantage to consuming plant-based proteins is that these foods are generally dense in other nutrients as well. Avoiding animal proteins in some cases also means avoiding saturated fats and other potentially damage causing factors.
The environmental impact of where our protein comes from is something worth considering also. A diet low in animal products has a significantly lower environmental footprint than one high in meat and dairy.
Allergies and athletes: individual protein requirements
Digestion of some foods is easier for some than for others. Soy, nuts, wheat, and dairy are common foods associated with allergies and food intolerance, and are independent of vegan or non-vegan factors.
For those with food allergies or intolerances, it may be more difficult to get the right amount of protein, because they may be unable to combine the right foods. Making use of a plant-based protein powder which is easily digestable is a great way of maintaining a healthy diet.
Active lifestyles including moderate to strenuous exercise will benefit from increased protein consumption. Supplements are a great way of fulfilling extra demand from the body, speeding up recovery, and increasing muscle mass.
Final Word: Protein requirements change with lifestyle
We all have different requirements when it comes to protein. We are not all made the same, and neither are the foods we eat. Some bodies require a higher protein intake than others. We all have different goals, which determine our requirements.
A sedentary lifestyle, without too much strenuous exercise, should have little problem meeting the daily requirements of protein in the diet. Older age or being affected by injury prompts more need for protein in the body. With increases in activity - gym classes, physical jobs, or training to become a world champ - increasing dietary protein will be necessary.
There is a general equation for determining how much protein we need each day. You can use this calculator to see a rough guide of what your intake should be.
Plant-based protein supplements can greatly improve intake of necessary protein. Research suggests that athletes undergoing resistance training see greater body mass and protein synthesis when using protein supplements. Supplements can be a convenient and surefire way of providing our bodies with the necessary nutrition to repair muscle fibres after exercise.
Protein deficiencies are a serious health concern. Signs of fatigue, weakness during exercise, and inability to concentrate are possible signs of a lack of protein. However, these symptoms can also indicate other issues, and you should seek professional medical advice if you notice them.