If you worry that a vegan diet may lack the needed nutrients, especially protein, to help a person healthily function, worry not. Vegan food is not limited to bland non-animal or non-dairy products; there are vegan food choices that are complex, delicious, and healthy—those that come with high amounts of protein that can replace animal and dairy products.
To prove this point, this blog will help vegans, vegetarians, and other curious individuals understand the importance of protein in our daily life and explore the various vegan protein sources that can diversify a vegan diet.
What Exactly Is Protein And Why Do We Need It?
Protein is a large complex molecule composed of amino acids. It’s an essential macronutrient assisting the growth and repair of the body, particularly the repair and maintenance of tissues—the overall structural support. On top of its main function, protein is also the basic component needed for the body’s immunity, enzymes, and hormones in particular.
How Much Protein Does A Person Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. The RDA represents the basic nutritional requirements, so this number is the minimum amount you need to keep your body healthy. It’s not, however, the exact amount you need to eat daily.
To calculate your individual daily protein needs based on the RDA, use this formula:
Body weight (in pounds) X 0.36 = recommended protein intake (in grams)
*For example, the RDA for a male weighing 160 is about 57 grams, and the RDA for a female weighing 140 lbs is about 50 grams of protein.
Alternatively, you can also use this calculator provided by the National Agriculture Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a more detailed result. It will also take into account your height, health condition, and activity level to give you an estimated daily calorie needs and recommended intakes of other macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals other than protein.
RDA for protein may be increased for people with special needs or health conditions, such as women who are pregnant or nursing and athletes aiming to preserve muscle mass and strength.
So, the question “is more protein better?” really depends on the condition of your body and the physical activities you plan to do. In addition, there’s no scientific evidence that consuming huge amounts of protein exceeding your RDA is necessarily better. It will not always lead to a healthier body.
“There do not appear to be health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease,” said dietician and nutritional advisor Reed Mangels on LIVEKINDLY, a media platform focusing on food, health, and sustainable living.
How Do Vegans Get Enough Protein: Best Vegan Protein Sources
Protein deficiency in vegans is extremely unlikely when daily calorie needs are met by a variety of high-protein vegan foods, mostly plant-based and often with fewer calories than animal products. Here are the best vegan protein sources that help vegans get enough protein:
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are the most common and accessible vegan protein sources. They are very accessible and versatile. You can eat them with meals or as a snack to reach your protein quota and maintain your energy throughout the day. Aside from protein, nuts and seeds are also great sources of healthy fats, fiber, vitamins E and B, iron, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals.
The nutrients in nuts and seeds are the reason why scientists insist that they are better for the heart than animal protein. A study published in the National Library of Medicine observed the patterns of plant and animal protein intake that are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality and confirmed that meat protein can be unhealthy.
“Associations between the ‘Meat’ and ‘Nuts & Seeds’ protein factors and cardiovascular outcomes were strong and could not be ascribed to other associated nutrients considered to be important for cardiovascular health. Healthy diets can be advocated based on protein sources, preferring low contributions of protein from meat and higher intakes of plant protein from nuts and seeds,” the study concluded.
When choosing protein-rich nuts and seeds, however, keep in mind their main sources and benefits on top of protein, as well as the way they were cooked. Blanching and roasting, for example, can eliminate the essential nutrients these nuts and seeds contain. It’s best to consume them raw or unblanched when applicable.
Here are the best types of nuts and seeds with vegan protein:
- Almond – 3 grams per small serving
- Pistachio – 1 gram per small serving
- Cashew – 3 grams per small serving
- Walnuts – 3 grams per small serving
- Chia seeds – 3 grams per one tablespoon
- Hemp seeds – 4-5 grams per one tablespoon
- Quinoa – 4 grams per 100-gram serving
Tofu and Other Soybean-Based Food
Soybean or soy is said to be a complete source of protein and another good alternative for animal protein sources. They are accessible high-protein vegan foods.“Soy is well tolerated, and because it is a complete source of protein shown to lower cholesterol, it is recommended as a dietary substitution for higher-fat animal products,” said an article published in the US National Library of Medicine.
Soybean-made food like tofu, tempeh, and edamame are complete sources of protein. On top of that, they’re also packed with fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Each 100g of these soybean products can offer approximately 8 grams of protein.
Beans like black beans, chickpeas, pinto, and kidney are good sources of vegan protein and other essential nutrients. When cooked healthily, these beans can offer approximately 15 grams of protein per normal serving (1 cup). Protein and other nutrients like fiber, iron, phosphorus, and potassium in beans can help decrease cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy level of blood sugar, and even lower blood pressure.
Oats and Oatmeal
Oats and oatmeal are some of today’s easy-made vegan protein sources perfect for athletes or those on a healthy diet. You can eat them as they are or create delicious and healthy snacks with fruits, dark chocolate, and other ingredients.
Half a cup of dry oats can offer approximately 5 grams of protein. Each serving also comes with other minerals and nutrients, such as zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, and folate. You can get more complex nutrients by adding healthy toppings to your oats and oatmeal.
Yogurt From Plant-Based Sources
Vegan yogurt, particularly variants with less sugar and other nutrients, is an excellent vegan food that can offer protein, probiotics, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Vegan yogurt is mostly made with peas, soy, coconut, and nuts like cashews and almonds. They can offer 8 to 15 grams of protein per cup, depending on the ingredients.
Yet, yogurts made with vegan protein sources, like regular yogurt, vary in quality and may be loaded with added sugars and other preservatives. As such, be wise in choosing commercial yogurt. Always check the nutrition list of each brand and go for choices with zero to minimal sugar.
Fruits and Vegetables
Of course, fruits and vegetables are the best vegan food that can replace animal protein and offer more nutrients. They’re healthy, raw, and can be added to your every meal and snack to diversify your diet.
High-protein vegetables include spinach, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, eggplant, kale, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. These vegetables may contain 4-5 grams of protein per cup of cooked vegetables.
High-protein fruits include avocado, guava, jackfruit, cherries, blackberries, kiwi, apricots, melon, peach, coconuts, pears, figs, apricot, and watermelon. These fruits may contain 2-4 grams of protein per serving.
Wheat and Rice
Grains, such as wheat and rice, are primarily carbohydrates but they are also good fiber and vegan protein sources. All rice is vegan friendly, but the healthiest options are whole-grain brown, red, black, or wild rice. Each one-cup of cooked wild rice offers approximately 6 grams of protein. Brown and white rice, meanwhile, offer 4.5 to 5 grams of protein per cup.
Rice is still an incomplete protein source and unusual to eat as is, so you can pair rice with other protein sources, like cooked beans and vegetables, to make a complete and fulfilling meal with other complex nutrients.
Is Vegan Protein Healthier Than Animal Protein?
Animal protein, being the most accessible source of protein contains all nine essential amino acids needed for a healthier body. Plant-based vegan protein also contains these essential amino acids, but most sources only offer a limited amount of at least one amino acid.
“Animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods) tend to be good sources of complete protein, while plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds) often lack one or more essential amino acids. Those who abstain from eating animal-based foods can eat a variety of protein-containing plant foods each day in order to get all the amino acids needed to make new protein, and also choose to incorporate complete plant proteins like quinoa and chia seeds,” confirmed Harvard T.H. Chan – School of Public Health in its ‘The Nutrition Source’ resources.
Notwithstanding the protein content per type of source and the amount of protein and amino acids one person needs to consume, plant-based or vegan protein offers many advantages compared to animal protein, and here are some of them:
- Plant-Based or Vegan Protein Are Easier To Digest
Vegan protein can more easily move through your digestive system than protein from animal varieties. This is due to the other nutrients offered by plant-based protein. They mostly contain fiber, which supports healthy digestion.
- Vegan Protein Contains Less Fat and Cholesterol
Many animal protein sources, of course, may contain saturated fat and cholesterol. Red meat, for one, is the biggest source of these bad fats and cholesterol. Beef, pork, and lamb are high in saturated fat. Fatty cuts of meat like pork chops, ribs, and roasts are the highest in fat.
Protein sources that are high in cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked with heart disease; that’s why they should always be eaten in moderation if you’re not vegan. This is also why plant-based protein tends to be a lot leaner and healthier. Vegans can regularly consume these plant-based protein sources with fewer health risks.
- Free of Possible Toxins
High protein vegan foods are also mostly free of possible toxins like hormones and antibiotics. Dairy products, meat, and other protein sources from commercially raised animals may contain hormones and antibiotics, depending on the environment these animals were raised in. In plant-based protein, you won’t have to worry about hormones. As for toxins, proper cleaning and sanitation can easily remove them.
How to Maintain Good Health Through Protein
Eating the RDA of protein daily is not the only thing you should do to maintain good health. In fact, it’s not always enough. According to an article published in Harvard Health Publishing, “it’s also important to consider the protein “package” — the fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that invariably come along with protein. Aim for protein sources low in saturated fat and processed carbohydrates and rich in many nutrients.”
In other words, the vegan protein sources themselves are also important on top of the actual amount of protein these sources provide.
“A high protein diet that contains lots of red meat and higher amounts of saturated fat might lead to a higher risk of heart disease and colon cancer, while another high protein diet rich in plant-based proteins may not carry similar risks,” said another Harvard article discussing the risks of consuming too much protein.
Vegan diet is not as challenging as other people think if one is determined to eat healthily and ethically. There are many accessible and affordable vegan protein sources that can simultaneously replace the nutritional benefits and eliminate the health risks and dangers coming from animal protein. The best way to get the right amount of protein a vegan person need is to plan a healthy diet and wisely combine food with protein and other nutrients.