A common concern for those following a plant-based diet is finding adequate and healthy vegan protein sources. Just because you choose to avoid animal products, does not mean that you’ll automatically be healthy. It takes extra effort to ensure you’re getting enough protein, vitamins, and minerals from the foods you eat, and that you’re not defaulting to packaged, processed vegan protein sources.
Too many times we’ve seen vegans substitute high-quality animal protein sources for refined carbohydrates or sweets, forgetting about protein altogether. It takes education, planning, and a strong focus on healthy vegan protein sources to make a vegan diet complete. We’re here to help turn you into a vegan warrior of knowledge and health.
How do vegans get protein
Protein is essential for body function and plays a role in making tissue and enzymes, increasing muscle strength, promoting satiety, and assisting with weight management. Protein doesn’t only come from animal-based products, in fact, the type that comes from plants has many disease-reducing benefits. One of the main differences between plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins comes down to the building blocks of what a protein is made of — amino acids.
Remember being a kid and playing with Legos? Amino acids are like Legos, working together to build protein molecules and protein tissue. We can build our own body proteins when we have the right amino acids building blocks working together.
When it comes to vegan proteins, quality and source are important because plant-based proteins don’t contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies need to function. This means plant-based eaters need to mix and match their vegan protein sources to complete the amino acid puzzle.
For the omnivores:
The next question that often comes up with plant-based 8fitters is, Do I need to eat all nine essential amino acids in one meal to reap the benefits? No, this old school of thought called protein combining isn’t valid; you only eat one high-quality vegan protein at a time because your body pools the amino acids and uses them as needed. As long as you eat a mix of different protein sources throughout the day (e.g., nut butter at breakfast, tofu at lunch and lentils at dinner), you’ll get all the amino acids you need without over thinking it.
4 High-protein vegan foods
Certain plant-based foods contain significantly more protein, helping you expand your “Lego collection” and keep a sturdy structure. Some of the natural, plant-based foods below even contain all nine of the essential amino acids.
Plant-based best practice:
1. Edamame, soy, and tofu
Soybeans, also called edamame beans, come in green pods and are a staple in Japanese restaurants. Eating edamame fresh-cooked and removed from the shell is the best form of soy you can get since they haven’t been processed. They contain all of the essential amino acids along with calcium and iron.
Tofu is made from the soybeans. It comes from the bean curd of the soy milk when the curds are formed into blocks. It can be soft, firm, or extra firm and sometimes contains added seasonings. Aim for fermented soy products like tofu, tempeh, and unsweetened soy milk, and avoid processed products such as vegetarian “meats.” Since soy tends to be genetically modified, its best to buy the non-GMO types.
2. Legumes and beans
Legumes, including lentils, beans, peas, and peanuts contain good amounts of protein and fiber. The type of fiber found in lentils helps promote a healthy gut and can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Lentils are rich in folate, manganese, and iron (which vegans tend to be deficient in). To prevent anti-nutrients, which make it so you can’t absorb certain minerals, its best to soak, sprout, ferment, and cook plant foods.
Beans (kidney, black, pinto, chickpeas) all contain high amounts of protein and are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, and antioxidants which help to fight free radicals. These legumes can also help manage cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar, and help manage weight due to its blood sugar regulating abilities.
3. Grains (whole grains)
Whole grain breads (wheat, barley, spelt) contain excellent sources of protein. Make sure to read the label and look for versions that have 100% whole grain ingredients. When the bread is sprouted, it is likely to contain less phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient that binds to the minerals and strips them from your body. Sprouting has also shown to increase amino acid and protein content slightly.
4. Seeds and nuts
Pumpkin seeds are a gold star of seeds because they contain protein alongside a healthy dose of zinc, a mineral that helps improve immunity. Pumpkin seeds are full of antioxidants which can help prevent certain types of cancers and disease.
Quinoa, which is often thought of as a grain, is actually a seed. It contains almost twice as much fiber and protein as most other grains. It’s also considered to be a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Try it in a salad or even as a breakfast cereal.
Nuts and nut butter are also excellent sources of protein that can help increase satiety, meaning keeping you happy and full. They are rich in healthy fats (omega-3s) that protect your heart and boost brain power. When purchasing nuts butter, aim for unsweetened versions. Although these are healthy sources of protein, due to the higher fat content — and addictive deliciousness — enjoy nuts in moderation (about 1-2 tablespoons at a time).
Vegan protein FAQ: 5 common users questions
Still have questions? We’ll answer five questions 8fitters ask us on the regular since, odds are, you have them too.
Is whey vegan?
Since whey is one of the two proteins found in cows milk, it isn’t vegan. Whey protein is separated from the casein in milk or formed as a by-product during cheese-making.
What’s the difference between a plant-based and vegan diet?
Following a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re vegan. Plant-based eating emphasizes eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and staying away from or minimizing the intake of animal-based products. Embracing veganism can go beyond just what we eat and apply to the skincare, beauty, and household products we use.
How do I know if something is really vegan?
Check the label, simple as that. Many food products are beginning to come with a notice that they’re “suitable for vegans” or “certified vegan.” Another way to know for sure is by scanning the packaging to look for allergen information; if the product contains dairy, eggs, or shellfish, it will say so. Finally dive a bit deeper into the ingredient list. Whey powder, casein, and modified milk ingredients all come from dairy.
Is it better to transition to vegan gradually or all at once?
The rate at which you transition to vegan is totally up to you and your personal preference. What’s most important is preparing yourself for a different style of eating and arming yourself with a vegan meal plan and grocery list.
Do proceed with caution if you have been following a vegan diet for some time and decide to switch back to animal products. Your digestive enzymes, such as hydrochloric acid, may have to get back up to speed.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
Take the name and definition of supplements quite literally; they should be considered “a supplement” to healthy eating. It’s always best to get nourishment from real food, however, in some situations it may be helpful to include supplements to prevent nutrient deficiencies. So, the answer is: it depends. Learn more about what nutrients to focus on when following a vegan diet plan.
For a well-rounded plant-based or vegan meal plan, sign up for 8fit today.