Vegan protein – What is it and how do I get it?

Vegan protein - What is it and how do I get it

One of the most commonly asked questions at our retreat centre is how can I source vegan protein? There seems to be a stigma that vegans are malnourished individuals, pasty and weak due to a lack of protein. However, there are many world class vegan athletes, such as Brendan Brazier (Ironman triathlete and former ultramarathon champion) and Rich Roll (Ultra-endurance athlete), that are shattering this stereotype. Vegan food is becoming more popular, even fashionable, as a way to fuel our bodies without the side effects of animal derived foods. In this article we take a look at the ins and outs of vegan protein so that you know how to best look after your body and provide yourself with everything you need on a vegan diet.

What is protein?

In the body proteins are constructed as long chains of amino acids, of which there are different kinds. Protein is one of three key macronutrients that our body needs to function (the others being carbohydrates and fats). The body cannot utilise protein directly, therefore our bodies break protein down into amino acids during digestion. Depending on the source there are 20 different kinds of amino acids, nine of which are considered essential.

In western culture protein has become synonymous with meat, as it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies need. When a food contains all of the essential amino acids we need it is called a complete protein. On a vegan diet we can still meet our protein requirements but at the same time with sources that are usually lower in fat and cholesterol.

But does that mean, vegan protein is not as good? Can you still get all the essential amino acids on a vegan diet? The answer, yes!

At one point it was thought that people eating a vegan diet would have to combine specific foods at the same meal to make complete proteins. Although this may still be the way of thinking for some, many believe that as long as your diet is varied throughout the day we can get all nine essential amino acids without meticulous meal planning. You just have to get a little more creative during your day.

Why do I need protein?

Digestion of food starts in the mouth where chewing, and the enzymes in our saliva, start to break it down. As it moves down into the stomach, the protein in that food gets broken down into amino acids by the enzymes and acids found within the stomach. Amino acids are used as building blocks for structural tissues like the skin, muscles and hair and for the production of hormones and enzymes. They also aid in the communication between cells, sending messages around the body. Ultimately, protein is responsible for the maintenance and repair of every cell in the human body.

How much protein do I need?

So how much protein do we actually need? The recommended intake of protein varies from person to person. Amongst others, contributing factors are gender, age and amount of daily activity. The recommended daily intake of protein also varies depending on the source. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK state that average adults aged 19-64 years should aim for 50g protein per day.

Can I have too much or too little protein?

Eating too much protein is a far more common concern within western society than eating too little. So, what happens if we consume more protein than we actually need? Unlike the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats), excess protein is not stored in our body. This process of elimination is down to the kidneys and liver. Therefore, consuming too much protein can cause the liver and kidneys excess work and may cause them to deteriorate.

Most of us use very little protein per day. According to studies cited by John A. McDougall ´…a healthy man uses less than 20 grams of protein a day.´. Of course, there are exceptions to this study. For example, growing children, people recovering from injury and body builders would all be using higher daily amounts of protein.

It is uncommon for people to be deficient in protein, however symptoms of low protein may be; low energy levels and fatigue, trouble building muscle mass, or poor concentration. Protein shortages have been linked to health problems such as infertility, weight gain and depression.

Top sources of vegan protein

With a little thought, it is easy to get your recommended daily intake of vegan protein. Below we list ten sources of vegan protein to get you started:

  • Quinoa (1 cup) provides 8g
  • Buckwheat (1 cup) provides 6g
  • Firm tofu (half cup) provides 10g
  • Chia seeds (two tablespoon) provides 4g
  • Raw spinach (3 cup) provides 3g
  • Peas (1 cup) 9g
  • Non-dairy milk (1 cup) provides 7-9g
  • Lentils (1 cup) provides 18g
  • Beans (1 cup) provides 13-15g
  • Almonds (half cup) provides 10g

It is important to spread out your intake of vegan protein throughout the day. This way you stay fuller for longer and keep hunger pangs at bay. But what would this look like in practice? An example day could be:

Breakfast: Granola with soya milk, topped with chia seeds and banana.
Lunch: A light mixed salad containing spinach, half an avocado and pumpkin seeds.
Dinner: Bean chili on a bed of quinoa. (This provides 21g protein in one meal. Bear in mind that a mince beef chili on a bed of rice would only give you 16.7g!)
Snacks: a handful of mixed nuts, and a carrot with some of our delicious hummus

This example day gives you a total of 52.3g of vegan protein. By making simple swaps like sugary snacks for nuts, or using beans instead of meat in a chili, we can easily meet our protein requirements on a vegan diet.

Many of us don’t realise that there is also protein in a variety of vegetables. On top of the sources listed above, greens are a great source of vegan protein, offering a variety of amino acids. Two cups of cooked kale provide 5g of protein, one cup of French beans provides 13g, and one cup of peas offers 9g of protein.

At our detox and weight loss retreat in Spain, we love to include spinach as a good source of protein. Three cups of raw spinach provide 3g of protein. One of the delicious juices that incorporates spinach is our strong iron spinach juice. Spinach is a great addition to cooked dishes too. One of our favourite recipes that incorporates spinach, as well as chickpeas is our chickpea, spinach and saffron stew which per serving provides over 20g protein.

Hurrah for vegan protein!

Whether you are a marathon runner, or a sofa surfer, advocate of a plant-based diet, or part time vegan, with a little time and planning we can all include enough vegan protein in our diets.

As well as the delicious recipes on our blog for you to follow at home, think of simple swaps during the day. Snacks are a great way to give yourself a protein hit. I love tender stem broccoli dipped in hummus. Protein also helps us feel fuller for longer so protein snacks are a great way to fuel your day. Seeds are great as toppers on salads, soups and cereals. You can also get creative with salads, using dark leafy greens such as spinach as opposed to standard iceberg lettuce.

If you are looking for inspiration for vegan protein, check out this month’s recipe vegan lentil sausages.  Alternatively come and stay with us!  We hold weekly cooking classes at our detox and weight loss retreat providing you lot of inspiration from our knowledgeable staff.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).