The Complete Plant-Based Protein Handbook (Plus Protein Snack & Meal Guide)

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.

The Basics of Protein

plant-based protein guide

Sources of Plant-Based Protein

plant-based protein sources guide

High-Protein Meals, Snacks, and Protein Powder

plant-based protein snack ideas guide

Protein Macro: Creating Balance

plant-based protein guide finding balance - protein macros

The Basics of Protein

Contents:

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.

amino acids complete protein guide 2020

*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 are the Benefits of Protein?

Ok, so it’s an important part of our diets. But what are the main benefits for the body?

1. Repair and Maintenance

Did you know that your skin, hair, eyes, muscles, and organs are all made from protein? It’s essential for the repair and maintenance of all body tissue. For example, when we do strength training, protein is responsible for repairing (and building) our muscles.

Check out our article on Going Macro to Gain.

Our bodies are continuously in a state of growth, breakdown, and repair - protein is used to sustain this process. That’s why it is known as the body’s building block.

2. Regulation of Body Functions

Transportation and storage

Protein helps transport important molecules around the body. For example, hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen. What’s more, they also help with storage.

Immune system

Your body’s first line of defense, the skin, is made from protein. In addition, this important macro also creates antibodies, which fight anything that finds its way past our initial defense!

Enzymes

There are constant chemical reactions occurring inside your body, including the generation of energy, DNA copying, and food digestion. These reactions are sped up through the use of enzymes, which are another type of protein. Without enzymes, the chemical reactions would be too slow to sustain human life.

Hormones

Hormones are one method our organs and tissues use to communicate with each other and regulate bodily functions, such as the interaction between the pancreas and the liver. For example, the pancreas releases insulin (protein) after every meal, which binds with insulin receptors on cell surfaces and helps our bodies to regulate sugar levels in the bloodstream.

3. Energy

Primarily, protein is used for other functions but, if you consume more protein than your body needs, it is used as a source of energy. If your body already has a sufficient supply of this from other sources, such as carbohydrates and fat, then the protein is stored as fat.

Therefore, it’s also important not to consume too much protein!

How Much Protein do I Need?

Not as much as you might think! However, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) increases the more exercise you do.

While scientists agree that protein intake should be tailored towards individuals, averages have been determined to best-fit different types of exercise. We’ve listed the estimated RDAs as per activity levels below for more information:

Non-Athletic Adult (Lay Population)

According to the Harvard Medical School, the RDA for a person who is not particularly active is just 0.8 g of protein/kg of body weight.

Strength and Power Athletes

For those of us into sprinting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, throwing, and/or other strength and power exercises, the RDA is 1.6-1.7g/kg of body weight.

Endurance Sport Athletes

If you’re into distance running, rowing, track cycling, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, and/or other endurance sports, then your RDA is more likely to be 1.2-1.4g/kg of body weight.

Can I Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?

Of course! Check out these inspirational vegan female bodybuilders to witness just how well our body’s can perform on a plant-based diet!

If you still don’t believe us then watch this interview with Dr Michael Greger, the famous doctor from nutritionfacts.org:

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 of protein complementing 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.

Nevertheless, if you would like to know more about plant-based foods that contain all 9 of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts to be considered “complete”, then check out our list later on in this guide.

What is the Difference Between Plant-Based Protein and Animal Protein?

Once it all gets broken down and stored, not much.

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. Plus, there is the point that animal-based protein puts us at a higher risk of experiencing pandemics...

 

 

Sources of Plant-Based Protein

Contents:

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:

Peas

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.

Macro Snacks

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

Quinoa

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.

quinoa plant-based protein source protein guide 2020 

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!

Soy products are also hugely versatile and you can use them as a vegan meat alternative, sandwich components, soysage roll fillers, and as an ingredient in soups and stews (to name just a few).

Spirulina

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.

Mycoprotein

85 calories per 100g - 3g carbohydrate/11g protein/2.9g fat

In the early 1960s, scientists found that an aerobic micro fungus could convert carbohydrate into protein...pretty cool, right?

This process is now used on a much larger scale to produce one of the best plant-based protein sources in the world - Mycoprotein! Not only is it incredibly high in protein (and fiber!), but it is also surprisingly low in fat and carbs.

It’s also extremely bioavailable (easy to digest) and insulinotropic. In other words, it’s proven to be a fantastic stimulant of muscle protein synthesis. So next time you want a nutritious high-protein meat alternative, reach for those Quorn Vegan Fillets! 

Chia Seeds

486 calories per 100g - 42.1g carbohydrate/16.5g protein/30.7g fat

Ok, so chia seeds have considerably higher levels of carbohydrate and fat than some of the other plant-based sources BUT you wouldn’t actually eat that many in one sitting AND they’re an incredible source of other nutrients.

In fact, calorie for calorie, they’re actually one of the world’s best sources of essential nutrients. This includes:

  • Minerals (manganese, phosphorus, copper, selenium, iron, magnesium, calcium, etc.)
  • Antioxidants
  • Fiber (most of the carbohydrates in chia seeds are fiber)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids!

Chia seeds are great sprinkled into salads, blended in a smoothie, or made into delicious chia puddings!

Other Nutritious Sources of Vegan Protein

Seitan

104 calories per 1 ounce of vital wheat gluten - 4g carbohydrate/21g protein/0.5g fat

Another fantastic source of vegan protein, but perhaps not for those of us with sensitive tummies, seitan is made entirely out of gluten (the main protein found in wheat).

Seitan is made in a similar way to bread, by kneading it into a dough. It’s then seasoned, flavored, and cooked to make scarily realistic meat alternatives.

View this post on Instagram

VEGAN SPICY CHICKEN SANDWICHES ... now with printable directions. Check out the new #cookbook pages on the #recipe link in bio!⁠ .⁠ .⁠ .⁠ This is the classic epic #vegan dish that we all love. A knockoff of the Wendys spicy #chicken classic except #crueltyfree #vegan and 100 #delicious No cluckers lost their lives making this bad boy, and I've been told it tastes better than the real thing! Smothered in #dairyfree mayo, tomato slices, and lettuce ... this #seitan patty is mixed with hot sauce, battered in a flour + spice mixture, and then pan fried YUM YUM YUM. #plantbased magic between two buns!⁠ .⁠ .⁠ .⁠ #organic #vegetarian #vegansofig #natural #cleaneating #veganfoodshare #whatveganseat #veganfood #eatclean #foodporn #healthyfood #instafood #foodie #veganlife #healthyeating #burger #comfortfood #foodgasm #eeeeeats #feedfeed

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Seitan isn’t classed as complete because, like many plant-based protein foods, seitan contains low levels of lysine (one of the essential amino acids).

The List Goes On… 

There are so many nutritious sources of plant-based protein, we couldn’t possibly go into detail about each and every one of them. Nevertheless, we recommend incorporating the following into your vegan diet:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • Dark-colored leafy greens and vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

High-Protein Meals, Snacks, and Protein Powder

Contents:

10 Healthy High-Protein Vegan Snack Ideas

1. Lemon Protein Balls

2. Garlic Roasted Chickpeas

3. No-Bake Protein Bars

4. Teriyaki Seitan Jerky

5. Crunch Protein Bars

6. Spicy Edamame

7. Vegan Tofu Bites

8. Lemon Chia Protein Cake Bites

9. Frosted Cinnamon Roll Protein Smoothie

10. Vegan Egg Muffins

7 Examples of High-Protein Vegan Meals

1. Creamy White Bean Chili

2. Oil-Free Tofu Vegan Bowl

 

3. Quinoa and Tempeh With Tomato Sauce

4. Classic Chickpea Veggie Burgers

 

5. Red Lentil Bolognese

 

6. Black Bean & Tofu Scramble Enchiladas

 

7. One-Pan Pesto Quorn With Vegetables

Our Favorite Plant-Based Protein Powder

Performance Protein, Form Nutrition - 30g protein/serving

This is, without doubt, our favorite vegan protein powder!


With an impressive amount of protein per serving, Form’s Performance Protein is the tastiest formula we have ever tried! And you won’t find any plastic spoons inside their packets of protein powder. Instead, they calculate servings using the common tablespoon measurement!

Plus, their packaging is entirely home-compostable!

They also do a delicious Superblend, which helps you reach plenty of other daily nutrient requirements...you HAVE to try the Toffee flavor!

Protein Macro: Creating Balance

Contents:

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.

45% carbohydrate | 30% protein | 25% fat

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? At first, it might be quite difficult knowing how to increase your protein intake, while not adding too many calories from the other macros. However, there are plenty of great plant-based protein snacks and meals to help you hit your target.

Try some of the high-protein snacks and meals we have suggested earlier in this guide.

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:

How Do I Balance Protein With the Other Macros?

We’ve got a number of helpful resources for those of you counting your macros:

  • Vegan Macro Calculator & Ultimate Macro Guide
  • Macro-Friendly Snack Suggestions - categorized by macronutrient focus (e.g. high in protein but low in carbs).
  • Macro Meal Plans for optimal balance:
  • Macro Meal Plan for Those On-The-Go
  • Macro Meal Plan for Home Chefs
  • How to Count Macros for Weight Loss
  •  


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