Myths and Truths of Protein in Vegan Diet

Today, we’ll talk about and clear up the confusion of getting protein in vegan diet.

You probably already know that proteins are building blocks of our bodies and that they are important. But what is a protein anyways and how is it important? – we’ll talk about that.

We’ll also learn what’s the difference between animal and plant-based protein and why everyone is obsessing over the protein “issue” in vegan diet.

Next, we’ll discuss if a plant protein is as good as animal protein? What’s considered a high quality and low quality protein? And is it necessary to combine certain plant foods in a meal to get complete proteins?

Finally, we’ll see where do vegans get protein from?

 

Why Worry About Protein in Vegan Diet?


The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios, which means “of prime importance.”

In the 19th century, the word protein became tightly connected with the word meat. Unfortunately, this connection has stayed with us for over a hundred years.

 

When someone talk about protein, people think of meat. And protein is “of prime importance”, so the logic goes meat is “of prime importance” for a human body…and the more the better.

This is not the case; vegan needs of protein are slightly higher than omnivores.

Omnivores need roughly 50 g of protein a day..unlike the common belief of 125 g/day.

Protein recommendation for a male vegan is 63 g/day, and 52 g/day for a female vegan.

 

Protein is the core element of animal-based foods. For a food to be recognised as an animal-based food, it must have protein. A non-protein steak would be a puddle of fat, water and a tiny amount of minerals.

But plants have proteins too, the slow but steady proteins that we sort of forgot about.

 

What is Protein and How Is It Important?


Proteins are often said to act as building blocks for the lean tissues in our bodies.
But they play in many other important functions in body. For example: regulation, supportive immune function and a variety of other roles in our physiology, all of which make life possible. It is a vital component of our body.

role of protein

 

Proteins themselves are built as long chains of hundreds or thousands of amino acids. There are 15 to 20 different kinds, depending on how they are counted.
Proteins wear out on a regular basis as we go through our daily errands and must be replaced. This replacement is done by eating foods that contain protein.

When digested, these proteins give us a whole new supply of amino acid building blocks to use in making new protein replacements for those that wore out.

 

It goes somewhat like this: “Imagine someone gives you a multicolored string of beads to replace an old string of beads that we lost. However, the colored beads on the string given to us are not in the same order as the string we lost.

So, we break the string and collect its beads. Then, we reconstruct our new string so that the colored beads are in the same order as our lost string.

But if we are short of blue beads, for example, making our new string is going to be slowed down or stopped until we get more blue beads.
This is the same concept as in making new tissue proteins to match our old worn out proteins.” (Source: The China Study, Colin Campbell, PhD.)

amino acids and protein
Each color presents an amino acid. The entire string with a combination of colors presents protein.

 

This brings us to another term we hear a lot about: protein quality.

 

What’s the Difference Between Animal and Plant-Based Protein?


About 8 amino acids (“colored beads”) that are needed for making our tissue proteins must be provided by the food we eat. They are called “essential” because our bodies cannot make them.

If, like our string of beads, our food protein lacks enough of even one of these 8 “essential” amino acids, then the building of the new proteins will be slowed down or stopped.

This is where the idea of protein quality comes in.

The highest quality proteins are the ones that provide the right kinds and amounts of amino acids needed to efficiently synthesize our new tissue proteins.

This is what that term “high quality” and “low quality” really means: The ability of food proteins to provide the right kinds and amounts of amino acids to make our new proteins.

Or in other worlds, how fast will our colored beads form a multicolored string.

 

Do you know what food would be the highest quality protein for a human?

The answer is human flesh.

 

It’s a perfect fit and has just the right amount of the needed amino acids.

But people don’t eat other people. So the next “best” protein is by eating other animals.

The proteins of other animals are very similar to our proteins because they mostly have the right amounts of each of the needed amino acids.
These proteins can be used very efficiently and therefore are called “high quality.”

 

Are Plants as Good Sources of Protein as Animal Sources?


While the “lower quality” plant proteins may be lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids, as a group they do contain all of them.
Plant foods like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables do contain all 8 of the essential amino acids. But are slightly lower in quality because they are not as well digested – their amino-acid patterns are a slightly poorer match to our bodies’ needs.

 

You can also say that human body is more similar to an animal than a plant. This is why plant-based proteins cannot be digested that well.

 

This might look like plant-based proteins are nutritionally inferior compared with animal-based proteins.
But in fact the health benefits of substituting plant-based proteins for animal-based proteins, far outweighs the risk of falling short on essential amino acids.

 

The concept of quality really means the efficiency with which

food proteins are used to promote growth.

This would be well and good if the greatest efficiency equaled the greatest health,

but it doesn’t,

and that’s why the terms efficiency and quality are misleading.

 

There is a mountain of compelling research showing that “low-quality” plant protein, which allows for slow but steady synthesis of new proteins, is the healthiest type of protein.
Slow but steady wins the race. The quality of protein found in a specific food is determined by seeing how fast animals would grow while consuming it. (Source: The China Study, Colin Campbell, PhD.)

 

Protein in Vegan Diet


There is no reason to be concerned about protein, since even on vegan diets there is little risk of deficiency.
Plants have protein too.

 

plant-based protein
Vegan sources include: lentils, chickpeas, tofu, peas, peanut butter, soy milk, almonds, spinach, rice, whole wheat bread, potatoes, broccoli, kale…

 

Because they are called “low-quality”, people tend to believe that they must carefully combine proteins from different plant sources during each meal so that they can mutually compensate for each other’s amino acid deficits.
Studies show this is not the case.

 

During the uber complex metabolic process, the human body can get all the essential amino acids from the natural variety of plant proteins that we eat every day.

Do you need to plan every meal in order to get enough protein in vegan diet? Nope.

Do you need to eat wholefoods and a wide range of them? Absolutely.

 

Plant foods such as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all high in protein.

Lentils, chickpeas, peas, peanut butter, soy milk, almonds, spinach, rice, whole wheat bread, potatoes, broccoli, kale… all these foods have protein. Tofu is specially rich in high-quality protein. Vegetables provide smaller amounts of protein.

As long as you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day and you eat enough whole plant foods to meet your calorie needs, you will achieve adequate protein intake. (Source: The Vegan Sourcebook)

Almost all foods except for alcohol, sugar, and fats provide some protein.

 

 

I hope you found the information that is useful to you. If you have any questions, want to share your experience or just chat on this topic, write a comment below. I’d love to hear your point of view!

Till next time,

Katya

18 thoughts on “Myths and Truths of Protein in Vegan Diet”

  1. I have just recently started looking at the possibilities of indulging in a vegan diet, because of my love for mother nature. However, I’m worried that I may not be able to get enough nutrients from a vegan diet. Thankfully, your post has enlightened me, and I know I have nothing to worry about.

    Reply
    • Hi Louise, I like you used the word “indulge”. I get asked quiet often: “So what do you eat then?” and the answer is, there are 80,000 edible plants in the world..so really, it’s between your imagination, creativity and belly the deliciousness you choose from:) Eating balanced, wholefood vegan diet is the best thing you can do for your body and loved mother nature 🙂

      Go for it, you’ll love it 🙂

      Best,

      Katya

      Reply
  2. Being vegan is one of the best thing I have achieved in life. I love animals a lot to eat them and today, I am a proud vegan. There are many vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet and finding protein in a vegan diet is not difficult, you just need to get the right diet

    Reply
    • Hi Linus, high five for being a proud vegan! True, you can very much get every nutrient you need being vegan. And I remember how I felt when I made a switch from omnivore to herbivore – I felt like my body can finally breath.

      Best,

      Katya

      Reply
  3. You got me right there, when you mentioned that plant based proteins are low quality proteins. Because I hate been taught that the best protein source, are plants. 

    Thankfully, I kept on reading until you cleared up the confusion. Plant based proteins are low quality protein sources, but according to research, they are the best. Because they breakdown proteins slowly and steadily and slow and steady wins the race, so they won against the animal based proteins. 

    Reply
    • Hi Peace, I was confused by that one as well – as much as our body can use animal protein faster, they are harder to digest, which means they stay longer and is in general harder on your body to process it in poo. While plan proteins are an underdog they tend to be healthier for your gut and bottom line your health.

      I mentioned gut a lot, didn’t I? And we’re talking about protein..

      Well, that’s because gut is our biggest yet the most underrated organ. Everything goes through gut. Animal or plant protein, it goes through gut and the gut then does it’s amazing job of getting out the protein and the mineral and vitamins and the rest of the bunch. But unhealthy, unhappy gut cannot do that. And research show (many research) that gut bacteria in vegan people is much happier and works better that the one in meat-eaters.

      So, yep, plant protein is slow but better 😉

      Best,

      Katya

      Reply
  4. Hello there, I’m happy to read this lovely post about protein in vegan diet. I would say it’s an eye opener. Your post made it known to me foods and veggies high in proteinsI also love the way you highlighted your points. I have been following your blog posts for a long time because your posts are always educative and informative. I must tell you this is not an exception.best regards

    Reply
    • Adamuts, thank you so much for such an encouraging words! I always try and dig deeper for information you cannot always easily find on the internet, so it makes my day to hear the research help you guys.

      Thanks,

      Katya

      Reply
  5. Hello Katya, your article on protein in vegan diet is quite an informative one. You have vividly described the best protein needed in human beings which happen to be animal protein.

    Reading your article has opened my eyes to certain things, like knowing the amount of protein intake for male vegan and that of female vegan which happens to be 63g/day and 52g/day respectively.

    I got to know as well that grains, legumes, and seeds are also high in protein. Thanks for your informative article.

    Reply
    • Hi Gracen, I’m glad you found it useful! Yes, animal sourced protein can be best used by our bodies – but because we’re talking vegan, that won’t do. So looking at plant sources of protein, all different produce, tofu, yeast flakes etc. are good sources of protein.

      Also, I was brought up believing a recommended daily intake for protein is 125 g/day. It turned out, that decades ago there was this extensive research done on how much protein a human body needs, and the value was roughly over 50 g/day. So why 125 g/day? The original cca. 50 g/day was set higher because of influence and power of meat industry..which has little to do with our health. Mind you, the new, official recommendation is now, finally the original number.

      Best,

      Katya

      Reply
  6. hello Katya, i love your post because it is very informative and educating, i dont know before the full meaning of protein that its means prime important, thank you for this article on your website that plants also have proteins before i  taught proteins are eggs, fish and meat, i have bookmark your website for more updates about food because i can see that you know about nutrition very well the way your writeup is, you are a genius in Nutrition.

    Reply
    • Hi boluwagg, thank you for leaving your comment and bookmarking my page!

      I’m definitely not a genius, I only scratch the itch until it’s gone. It feels nice though, to hear it 🙂

      Thanks,

      Katya

      Reply
  7. You answered all my doubts Katya,

    I exercise a lot and I always worry about protein deficiency, I totally forgot about tofu! I consume that every day along with chickpea and baked beans for my breakfast toast and now that you’ve mentioned it, I have nothing to worry about. What’s your daily vegan protein diet like? 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Riaz, it looks like you have it under control – if you want to know more about vegan athlete diet there’s a really good site about it, you can find it here.

      Although I’m pretty active in my day to day life, I’m really bad when it comes to self discipline and putting time aside for exercise. so I reckon my needs are a bit different than yours. My breakfast is usually oats with handful of raw almonds and coconut yogurt. For lunch it’s just whatever I can throw together – from pasta to rice bowl, tortillas or a veggie + tofu stir fry. Lately I’m a big fan of falafel and beets. Yumm! 

       God, I got hungry thinking about all the food..

      Keep in touch,

      Katya

      Reply
  8. This is obviously a very interesting article. However, you mentioned in this article “The quality of protein found in a specific food is determined by seeing how fast animals would grow while consuming it”. Would this imply that since the source of most animal’s protein are gotten from plants that they eat which in turn catalysis them to grow fast, that humans feeding on same plants could as well give high quality protein to their body?

    Reply
    • Hi Chidiking88, great question. The answer it no. Let me explain it: let’s take cow for our example. Cow is a mammal, just like human but cow is also a ruminant while human isn’t. Ruminant comes from latin word, which means “to chew over again”.  

      You know how cow lays on the paddock and just always chews on something? This chewing is rumination – they have a special stomach before their digestion where they store their feed for later, further re-chewing. 

      They also ferment it, which is a whole new story. But in short, cow and every other ruminant (roughly 200 different species) have a different digestive system and different bacteria making it possible to live and grow from greens only. 

      I also think, they’re awesome to ferment their own food – human needed centuries to learn it 🙂

      I hope this answers your question,

      Katya

      Reply
  9. This is an awesome post on the myth and truth of protein. I must commend your effort in putting this article together to share with us. This is really loaded with useful information on the myth about protein. Both plant and animal proteins are both essential to man. This article is really informative and an eye opener to the origin and  different classes of protein. These are what I wasn’t aware of. I have learnt something important today. Thanks for sharing this article. 

    Reply
  10. I am planning to go vegan and this article had given me a lot of information on how to get protein in a vegan diet. Great blog, nice post, good read and informative.

    Reply

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