It’s time to dispel those myths about vegans and plant-based protein once and for all.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about protein, including scientifically-proven information, plant-based sources of this important macronutrient, and our suggestions for increasing your intake.
- What is Protein Anyway?
- What are Amino Acids?
- What are Essential Amino Acids?
- Why is Protein so Important?
- What is a Complete Protein?
- What is the Incomplete Protein Myth?
- Which Plant Proteins are Complete?
- The Best Complete Plant-Based Protein Sources:
- What is the Difference Between Plant-Based Protein and Animal Protein?
- Macro Ratio: Where Does Protein Fit In?
- How Do I Increase My Plant-Based Protein Intake?
What is Protein Anyway?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, or macros, which means that our bodies require a large amount of it to survive. Our body requires all three macronutrients for energy (the other two macronutrients are carbohydrate and fat).
Proteins are an essential part of a healthy diet but did you know that not all proteins are the same? They differ because they can be made from an assortment of amino acids.
What are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are organic compounds that link together to form a protein.
Remember those alphabet blocks that we used as kids? Well, imagine that proteins are made of these blocks (amino acids). You can join the letter blocks together to create various words (proteins). However, unlike the alphabet, humans use only 22 amino acids to build their essential proteins.
Depending on their sequence, amino acids can create many different types of protein with various functions and structures. The majority of proteins don’t require all of the building blocks - just like how words don’t use every letter of the alphabet.
What are Essential Amino Acids?
Our bodies can readily produce many of the amino acids, but there are 9 that we have to acquire from our diets, known as “essential amino acids”. We should all aim to consciously consume these regularly, to provide our bodies with the building blocks they need.
*Disclaimer: Please don’t eat alphabet blocks...that can’t be very comfortable!*
Why is Protein so Important?
Protein is perhaps the most talked-about macro. It’s often associated with athletes and bodybuilders, but it’s actually incredibly important for everyone!
The word “protein” is derived from “proteus”, which is Greek for “most important”
Protein is everywhere; it’s present in all of your body’s cells. From building and repairing muscle to regulating your brain function, controlling your hormones, strengthening your immune system, and providing you with energy, protein is essential for the correct functioning of your body.
What is a Complete Protein?
A complete (or whole) protein is one that contains all 9 of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts.
What is the Incomplete Protein Myth?
In order to be classed as a complete (or whole) protein source, foods must contain all 9 essential amino acids in sufficient quantities.
It is well-known that animal-derived sources contain complete proteins, but plant-based foods are often touted as incomplete. That’s why you may have seen many people advise vegans to eat complementary proteins to ensure the consumption of all essential amino acids.
For example, snacking on rice and beans together will provide you with a complete protein. This is called the theory of protein complementing.
However, the theory has been disproved and it is not necessary to eat all of the essential amino acids at the same time! Researchers have shown that all plant foods that are usually consumed as sources of protein contain ALL of the essential amino acids and that vegans are pretty much guaranteed to acquire enough protein from plant sources as long as we consume sufficient healthy calories. The key thing here is to eat a balanced and varied diet!
Unfortunately, the myth of incomplete plant-based protein has been difficult to shake, even in the vegan health and fitness world. Hopefully, popular influencers and documentaries, such as Game Changers, can help to raise awareness and spread the word.
Which Plant Proteins are Complete?
Any single whole natural plant food, or combination of, will provide all of the recommended essential amino acids if eaten as the main source of calories for a day.
In other words, unless you mainly eat processed snacks and junk food, it’s pretty unlikely that your vegan diet will be protein deficient. In fact, studies have shown that protein deficiency is rare and that our bodies are extremely capable of creating complete proteins through the utilization of the in-built amino acid recycling mechanism.
The Best Complete Plant-Based Protein Sources
Nevertheless, if you’re a vegan who likes to indulge in unhealthy snacks and pizza occasionally, OR if you want to increase your protein intake in order to gain muscle, then you may find it interesting to know that there are some super plant-based protein sources. By this, we mean foods that have a much higher content of essential amino acids than most plant-based snacks and can be classed as a complete protein in just one serving.
We have listed a few of our favorites below, alongside some basic nutritional information, health benefits, and snack ideas:
134 calories per 1 cup - 25g carbohydrate/8.6g protein/0.4g fat
Who doesn’t love these little green monsters? Actually, I used to store peas in my cheeks to flush them down the toilet after dinner. My mum said my face used to resemble a hamster...but, I love them now! Not least because of their impressive nutrient profile.
Peas contain almost every vitamin and mineral that our bodies require, including copious amounts of fiber and protein. 1 cup of green peas contains 8.6g of protein! Plus, they’re low in calories - what more could you want?
Due to their nutrient content, peas are beneficial for our health in many ways. The fiber helps with digestion and maintains healthy gut bacteria, the protein helps to strengthen the immune system and repair muscle, and the antioxidants prevent damage to your cells and neutralize free radicals.
Ok, so a cup of peas doesn’t sound like a very appealing snack, regardless of their plant-based protein content. But you can pretty much chuck them in everything, from your soy bolognese to your creamy mushroom pasta, seitan pie, and eggplant lasagna. Moreover, you can buy pea protein isolate (a powder made from yellow peas) to add to your post-workout shake, plant-based pancakes, or breakfast smoothie.
140 calories per bag - 17g carbohydrate/11g protein/3.5g fat
Whilst we’re on the subject of pea protein isolate, one of our favorite super plant-based protein sources is our very own collection of Macro Snacks (yes, we may be biased). We use a powerful blend of pea protein isolate, brown rice flour, and chickpea flour to pack our healthy chips full of plant-based protein, not to mention complex carbs, fiber, iron, vitamins, and other essential nutrients.
Follow this link for a breakdown of our ingredients
Our healthy snacks typically contain 11g of protein per bag of chips! They’re nutritionally balanced, vegan, gluten-free, and have the perfect ratio of healthy fats, complex carbs, and plant-based protein. Plus, they’re already in the form of a delicious and crunchy snack!
Check out our full range of plant-based protein Macro Snacks
222 calories per 1 cup - 39.4g carbohydrate/8.1g protein/3.6g fat
Quinoa has a protein content that ranges between 13.81-21.9% depending on the variety! The balance of essential amino acids makes it superior to other plant-based sources of protein, such as wheat, barley, and soybeans. One of quinoa’s most abundant essential acids, lysine, is important in the production of antibodies, promotes cell repair, helps with the absorption of calcium, and reduces the likelihood of cancer metastasis.
Often mistaken as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed and has been a staple of the Peruvian and Bolivian diets for thousands of years. It’s incredibly versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes. Why not try out these healthy plant-based quinoa recipes?
Soy Products (Tofu, Edamame, and Tempeh)
Tofu = 176 calories per 1 cup - 4.2g carbohydrate/20.6g protein/5.3g fat
Edamame beans = 189 calories per 1 cup - 15.8g carbohydrate/16.9g protein/8.1g fat
Tempeh = 320 calories per 1 cup - 15.6g carbohydrate/30.8g protein/17.9g fat
Soy products are rich in plant-based protein, although the amounts can vary depending on the type of product and how it is prepared.
As well as protein, tofu, edamame, and tempeh contain lots of micronutrients, including iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Plus, the fats that they contain are of the healthy kind!
325 calories per 1 cup - 26.8g carbohydrate/64.4g protein/8.6g fat
Spirulina is a biomass of cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae - yes, it tastes as delightful as it sounds! Nevertheless, it is, without doubt, one of the best plant-based sources of protein with 4 grams of protein per just 7 grams!
In addition to protein, spirulina contains a number of other beneficial micronutrients, including dietary minerals and vitamins.
While the flavor of spirulina is less than pleasant, it can often be masked within smoothies, energy bars, soups, and even snuck into pasta dough to boost your protein intake.
What is the Difference Between Plant-Based Protein and Animal Protein?
If you follow a plant-based diet, then it’s likely that you’ve heard something along the lines of: “But where do you get your protein from?”
So, what exactly is the difference between plant-based protein and animal protein anyway? Once it all gets broken down and stored, not much. All of the amino acids are kept pooled within your blood until your body requires them.
Then what is all the fuss about? Well, there are a few differences between them when they are still in the form of food. The first being that the majority of vegan food sources are classed as “incomplete” but, as we explained earlier, our bodies are capable of creating complete proteins as long as we eat plenty of healthy and wholesome food.
And the great thing is that healthy vegan protein meals and snacks often come packed with other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and good fats! This is known as the plant-based protein package.
Macro Ratio: Where Does Protein Fit In?
If you’ve read our Ultimate Guide to Macros in 2020, then you will know that you need a ratio along the lines of 45% carbs, 30% protein, and 25% fat. You will also be able to calculate the number of a snack’s calories that can be attributed to each macro.
It’s all about balance! Once you have worked out your BMR and macro ratio, you can start focusing on hitting those protein targets. It may sound complicated but, once you get the hang of it, it’s easier than you think. Plus, it allows you to be more flexible by not restricting certain snacks and food types.
You can continue indulging in your favorite snacks because you can just adjust your macro intake before or for the rest of the day! For example, if you eat a cake for breakfast (it happens) that is high in fat and carbohydrates, then you can focus on eating food that is high in protein and low in the other macros for the rest of the day.
How Do I Increase My Plant-Based Protein Intake?
Are you struggling to get enough vegan protein without going over on your carbohydrate and fat allowances? The trick is to increase your protein intake, while not adding too many calories from the other macros. There are plenty of great plant-based protein snacks to help you hit your target (watch this space for healthy high-protein snack ideas - coming soon).
With that being said, don’t be fooled by the world of health and fitness marketing, who aim to promote various dieting fads. For example, the excessive promotion of protein snacks, which promise to increase muscle gain. The important thing is to maintain the balance.
Sound difficult? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back:
- Macro Meal Plan for Those On-The-Go
- Macro Meal Plan for Home Chefs
The best part is that we have created delicious snacks that you can indulge in, whilst staying on track for your macro ratio! Not only are they full of flavor, but they also satisfy both calorie and macronutrient goals. Whilst our macro snacks are high in protein, they also optimally balanced for nutrition.
** Watch this space for more plant-based protein updates! **