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Vegan Protein Sources: The Ultimate Guide
Protein is one of the six essential nutrients your body needs to survive. Not only that, but it’s a macronutrient (like carbohydrates and fat), meaning your body needs it in fairly large amounts. Just like you wouldn’t want to go without the vitamins and minerals that support your digestive system, you don’t want to leave protein out of your muscular system.
Proteins are made up of twenty kinds of tiny building blocks called amino acids. These tiny particles do everything from building muscles to strengthening your immune system and helping you sleep. While your body naturally produces eleven of these particles, you need to supply your body with the other nine, which are known as the essential amino acids.
Once you provide your body with amino acids, it knows exactly how to use these building blocks. Your body naturally combines the amino acids correctly to form each type of protein you need. These proteins then work in your cells to strengthen each one and make sure each body process goes smoothly overall. Without proteins, every system in your body would struggle to function properly, starting at the cellular level.
How Much Protein Should We Eat?
It’s clear that eating enough protein is absolutely essential. But how much do we really need? The FDA recommends getting 10-15% of your daily calories from protein. Because one gram of protein has four calories, that means 50 grams of protein for a 2,000 calorie diet would be exactly 10%. This recommendation holds true for athletes as well. While they do need more protein, they also need more calories in general. Maintaining the ratio of 10-15% of total calories provides athletes with the right amount of protein to fuel their workouts and stay healthy. While the exact amount will vary based on the caloric needs of each person, staying within that percentage range is a great place to start. To be sure about what’s best for your body, you can consult with your doctor, who may take into consideration any other unique conditions or needs.
Where do we Get Protein?
Anyone living a plant-based lifestyle will tell you the number one question they get asked about their diet is, “how do you get enough protein?” This question pops up again and again because of a lack of understanding about where protein actually comes from. While meat may be the most traditional source of protein, it’s definitely not the only or best source. In fact, high quantities of protein are also found in seafood, dairy products, beans and peas, seeds and nuts, and processed soy products. This means that flexitarians, vegetarians, and vegans can all eat a healthy diet that provides the essential amino acids. They just need to be more mindful of their protein sources.
Plant vs. Animal Protein
The biggest difference between any two protein sources is which amino acids they contain. Because your body needs all twenty types of amino acids, and you must provide the nine essential ones, it is important to ensure you get a variety.
Like humans, animals also need amino acids to create the necessary proteins in their bodies. This means that animal proteins are a more complete source of the essential amino acids. Eggs, milk, fish, chicken, pork, etc. all provide the nine essential amino acids in similar amounts to what your body needs to function properly.
Animal proteins are also good sources of other essential nutrients that aren’t found in large amounts in plants, such as vitamin B-12 and Vitamin D. However, these good nutrients aren’t the only other nutrients offered. If solely relying on animal proteins, it becomes easy to eat too much fat. While fat is also a macronutrient, many forms of animal protein are too fat dense. Overeating fat can cause many common health problems and diseases. So overall, animal protein can provide what you need, but can also provide extra of things you don’t need.
While you can get every essential amino acid from plant protein sources, there isn’t one plant source that provides enough of all of them to prevent you from needing to eat multiple sources of protein. This means that varying your vegan protein sources is key.
Vegan Sources of Protein
The good news about plant protein? If you vary your protein sources to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids, you can reap the full benefits of a plant-based diet. Studies show that a plant-based diet can lower your risk of Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, weight gain, and a multitude of other health problems.
Here is a list of 12 important plant proteins you can include in your diet:
Soy products: Soybeans are the most complete form of plant protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. They are also extremely versatile and easy to get into your diet.
Quinoa: Although it isn’t technically a complete protein because it’s lacking enough Lysine, it does have every essential amino acid. On top of that, quinoa is a gluten-free whole grain that provides a ton of other important nutrients including fiber and many vitamins and minerals.
Seitan: Seitan is made from wheat flour, and is extremely healthy. It’s high in protein and low in carbs and fat, making it an ideal protein source. However, like quinoa, it’s low in lysine, meaning you’d need to make sure you added lysine-rich foods to your diet, such as beans.
Chickpeas, Beans, and Lentils: Unlike the plant proteins above, these ones don’t contain all of the essential amino acids. They are, however, high in Lysine, something the wheat-based protein sources lack. Chickpeas, beans, and lentils are also extremely versatile and come in many varieties. They are easy sources of protein to incorporate into your diet.
Rice: Rice, especially brown rice, is actually a great source of protein with over 5 grams of protein in a cup. However, rice is at its best when combined with beans. A staple meal in many countries, the amino acids each food provides complements the other. Even though neither is a complete protein on its own, making a meal with both is a great way to get all of the amino acids your body needs.
Nuts: Another versatile protein source, nuts provide the essential nutrients of protein and fat. Because they can be ground and made into butter, eating peanuts and almonds can be a delicious way to incorporate protein into your diet.
Chia and Hemp Seeds: Low in calories, and high in protein, these seeds are a great way to help ensure your body is getting all of the amino acids it needs. Chia seeds also provide Omega-3 Fatty acids on top of being a complete protein. Plus, these tiny seeds are easy to throw into many meals.
Nutritional Yeast: This is a great option when trying to provide both protein and flavor to a meal. Nutritional yeast has a cheesy flavor, making it a great option for vegan diets. You can add it in a dish, or simple sprinkle some on top of popcorn, vegetables, or pasta.
Spelt: Spelt is an ancient grain made from wheat. With over 10 grams of protein per cup when cooked, it’s a great source of plant protein. It also provides fiber and other other important vitamins and minerals.
Sprouted Bread: Breads made from sprouted grains, contain slightly more protein than regular wheat bread. However, sprouting grains increases the Lysine content, making the protein high quality and great for your body. Many people often associate sprouted bread with the common brand Ezekiel Bread, but there are other sprouted breads on the market.
Protein-Rich Vegetables: While these should never be your main source of protein, some vegetables provide more protein than others, and make a great addition to your diet. Lima beans, green peas, spinach, sweet corn, artichokes, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and broccoli are higher in protein than other vegetables.
Potatoes: Potatoes are a great healthy food to add to your plant-based diet. They provide 8 grams of protein in each serving, along with other important nutrients. And if looking to lose or maintain weight, potatoes are also a good option because they are very filling.
High Protein Meals
Now that you know what foods to add to your diet, you’re probably wondering where to add them to your diet. We’ve rounded up a few delicious meals that pack the punch when it comes to protein.
Red Beans and Rice: This cajun dish is a great source of protein while also being extremely delicious. This simple dish starts with the holy Cajun trinity of sauteed green peppers, onions, and celery. And while sausage is traditionally used, cooking red beans in some vegetable stock and seasoning it well with cajun seasoning can be just as delicious
Spinach Salad: A spinach salad topped with other protein-rich foods is another great option. Try adding a few of the following to your salad: tofu, edamame, nuts, and/or chickpeas.
Protein smoothie with nut butter toast: For a protein-packed breakfast, add chia or hemp seeds along with spinach to your breakfast smoothie. Pair that with a toasted slice of Ezekial bread topped with nut butter.
What About Protein Supplements?
Protein supplements are an easy and popular way to add protein to your diet. The most convenient supplement is protein powder. Many protein powders are whey-based, but there are many vegan options made from peas, soybeans, potatoes, hemp, or rice. However, no matter the product base, you need to be careful using protein supplements as a substitute for more natural sources.
Many supplemental powders contain extra sugar and calories. Not only that, but it can be tough to know for sure what is in your protein powder, since the FDA leaves it up to the manufacturer to ensure product safety and benefits.
While protein is essential in keeping your cells happy and your muscles running, focusing only on protein will leave your diet lacking other major nutrients, especially if you are choosing to exclude food groups like meat or dairy. Just like you want work/life balance from your boss, your body wants nutritional balance in your food.
Vegans and vegetarians can get all the nutrients they need from their diet as long as they are aware of what they may be lacking and where they can make up for it. Learn from Sun Chlorella what vitamins vegans might miss and how to support a happy, healthy nutrition regime in your life! Plus check out Chlorella, for a vegan boost in Vitamin D, Active B12, and Iron.