One of the first concerns you might have about adopting a vegan diet is “Where will I get my protein?” While we often think of animal products like chicken, beef, eggs, and seafood as our steady supply of protein, the truth is that plants have plenty of protein. Beyond beans and lentils, even strawberries have protein. Here are answers to some of your most common plant-based protein questions
1) What does a vegan eat for protein? Do I need to worry about complementary proteins?
No. The myth of complementary proteins began in 1971 with Frances Moore Lappe’s publication of Diet for a Small Planet, where her theory of “protein complementing” proposed that some foods are lacking in essential amino acids, requiring them to be “complemented” by other foods that have these amino acids. Lappe was a sociologist trying to comprehend world hunger. She was not a doctor or a nutritionist, and she has since retracted and apologized for her statements.
Today, we know that you will get an adequate supply of amino acids as long as you consume adequate calories and a variety of foods. Rather than worry about beans + rice, just eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils will give you a balance of the amino acids that are essential protein building-blocks. A whole-foods plant-based diet (free of refined flours, sugars, and oils) provides plenty of protein, even for the most active lifestyles.
2) Is tofu a complete source of protein? Are black beans a complete protein? Are lentils a complete protein?
Complete sources of plant-based protein include quinoa, hemp, chia, buckwheat, and spirulina. Grains and beans are not complete proteins. However, just eating a variety of foods on a plant-based diet will balance out your amino acid needs.
3) Why Should I Eat Plant Protein Instead of Meat? Isn’t Meat a Healthier Source of Protein?
Meat advocates will often make arguments touting the bio-availability of animal-based protein. This means that your body is able to more quickly digest and use the protein found in animal products like red meat, chicken, and fish. However, the body is also able to digest the protein in plant-based foods quite sufficiently.
· Animal-based protein sources have cholesterol. There is no cholesterol in plants.
· Animal-based protein sources are usually higher in saturated fat and sodium, with no fiber and little other nutrition. Plant-based sources of protein like beans and lentils are low in fat and sodium, loaded with fiber, and full of other key nutrients like Iron, magnesium, riboflavin, and zinc.
· Animal protein tends to have more sulfur-containing amino acids. This creates a very acidic environment in your body. To balance out the pH level, your body will draw on calcium, which is a base. It draws that calcium from your bones. In fact, there are studies that show a high correlation between more animal protein and more bone fractures.
· Plant-based protein is cheaper than animal protein. 1 (15-ounce) can of beans is usually about $1. 16 ounces of grass-fed beef usually runs about $8.
· Plant-based protein has less environmental impact than animal-based protein. Livestock production is one of the largest source of greenhouse gasses, more than factories or SUV’s. Cutting meat one day a week would be the equivalent of taking 274 million cars off the road.
4) Is yogurt a healthy source of protein for vegetarians? What about cheese?
Many Greek yogurt companies and the dairy industry have excelled at persuading you to think of dairy as a healthy source of protein. However, these foods have the same saturated fat and sulfur-containing amino acids as beef. Plus, the dairy industry relies heavily on hormones and antibiotics, which taint the milk as well as our environment. Cheese, in particular, is often high in fat, cholesterol, and salt, so it is not to be considered a healthy source of protein.
In addition, milk contains lactose, a sugar that causes many lactose sensitivities and intolerances. Often, lactose sensitivity can be subtle, and undetectable our whole lives. One suffering from lactose sensitivity might experience low energy level, trouble sleeping, bloating, or allergies. If you struggle with any of these a month-long lactose-free diet is worth a shot.
5) What are the best sources for vegetarian and vegan protein?
Tempeh, tofu, beans, lentils, buckwheat, and quinoa all pack the highest amounts of healthy plant-based protein. If you are concerned about protein, just be sure to include more of these types of foods in your diet. However, even foods like strawberries and raisins have their own contributions.
6) Are nuts a good source of protein?
While nuts do contain protein, they are mostly fat. To avoid over-eating, it’s best to think of nuts as fat rather than as protein. They are great in moderation, but eating jars of almond butter every day is more likely to make you gain weight than to bulk your muscles.
7) Do I need vegan protein powder? What about protein bars?
By eating a whole foods diet, you retain all of the nutrients (including protein) so you shouldn’t need to supplement with protein powders. Concerns arise when your vegan diet is heavy with refined foods. Vegetarian foods like oil, sugar, and white flour have been processed and stripped of their protein. If your vegan meals are full of bagels, French fries, and dairy-free cookies, then you might not be getting enough protein. Rather than supplement with protein powder, though, it’s usually healthier (and cheaper) to simply start incorporating more whole, unrefined plants. The closer you can be to eliminating oil, sugar, and flour, the more nourishment you will achieve.
This being said, there are moments when vegan protein powder has saved me. When I travel, I like to pack a few days’ supply to help keep my energy up. Especially with some of the highly-active trips I’ve taken – hiking the Incan Trail for 4 days, 10 days of hiking in Patagonia, and even long days getting rambling through the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee – I’ve found that a little protein powder has helped sustain my energy when the rest of my diet is dried fruit and nuts.
Protein bars, whether vegan or containing animal protein, tend to be highly-refined and very calorie-dense. It can be easy for you to overeat on these “snacks”, which can sometimes rake in as many calories as a full meal. My experience has shown that the body prefers whole foods that can help monitor your satiety and your blood sugar. However, your experience might require the convenience and ease of a portable snack. Just try to find a brand with a short ingredient list, and minimal refined sugars, syrups, and oil.
Delicious Recipes for Healthy, Plant-Based Vegan Protein:
Other Healthy Protein Topics
Further Reading and Resources:
The Myth of Complementary Protein, BY JEFF NOVICK, MS, RD. From Forks Over Knives, June 3, 2013: http://www.forksoverknives.com/the-myth-of-complementary-protein/
A high ratio of dietary animal to vegetable protein increases the rate of bone loss and the risk of fracture in postmenopausal women. Study of Osteoporotic Fractures Research Group. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Jan;73(1):118-22, by Sellmeyer DE1, Stone KL, Sebastian A, Cummings SR: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11124760
Cross-cultural association between dietary animal protein and hip fracture: a hypothesis. Calcif Tissue Int. 1992 Jan;50(1):14-8, by Abelow BJ1, Holford TR, Insogna KL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1739864
Would you cut meat one day a week to prevent climate change? At Plants-Rule, By Katie Simmons, December 9, 2015: http://www.plants-rule.com/blog/2015/12/9/would-you-cut-meat-one-day-a-week-to-prevent-climate-change?rq=environment
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel, with her most recent travel involving 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile.